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Student-Teacher Conferences

by Brian Kennedy, PhD

Preface

I’ve been teaching full-time for eleven years, the first seven in Ohio and the past four at Pasadena City College. During that time, I’ve spent untold hours talking with students about their essays and their progress in my classes, and about their career goals and occasionally, other things of concern to them. I am not a professional counselor, however, and don’t pretend to myself or to my students (or to you) that I am. Instead, I present myself as someone with the student’s best interest at heart. Someone who hopes that taking time with his students will in small measure repay his own professors and teachers, who all along the way never seemed too busy to spend time talking about his work and his life, and sometimes, their own.

During the past decade, except on the odd occasion, I haven’t been in a classroom taught by someone else, and when I get tired of my usual methodologies and try to think back to what I experienced in two decades as a student to mine some fresh ideas, I often can’t come up with many specific recollections. But what I haven’t forgotten about my education is time that teachers spent with me individually. Perhaps the best of these was my high school English teacher, Mr. Robert Clysedale. Let me tell you a story about him that may set the scene for the discussion of conferencing that follows.

High school teachers, twenty years ago as now, have hectic schedules. They often teach six classes a day in addition to directing the plays, or coaching, or running the photography club. My twelfth-grade teacher was no exception. He taught me great books like Hamlet and Brighton Rock, and watched over me and my cronies as we produced the yearbook. I remember him being in meetings with the yearbook reps, but I don’t remember any of the details, and I recall that in class he gave us impossible quotation tests, where we would have to identify the speakers of what seemed to me at the time obscure lines from Shakespeare. I learned a lot from him, I’m sure. But his impact on me came in another venue.

Every time we wrote an essay, Mr. Clysedale made the same offer to us. "Write a draft early, and bring it in for me to look at during lunch hour." We didn’t have to make an appointment. We just took the paper to his office and walked in the door with it held out in front of us, a silent signal that we were seeking his input.

Mr. Clysedale would be sitting there in his little cubicle, student writing scattered all over the place and mimeographed copies of class handouts sticking out of the drawers of the filing cabinet beside him. He’d always have a ring of heavily tarred gray smoke coiling up from the roll-your-own cigarette held between the second and third fingers of his left hand (ah, the good old days). He’d motion you to sit down, and he’d squint through the haze that exited his nostrils at the text you plopped down in front of him.

It wouldn’t be too long before he’d have to search for a pen among the clutter, and he’d start making comments aloud while he indicated on the draft where he thought you could make improvements. Oftentimes, he wouldn’t tell you what to do with a given section, he’d just ask you what you had intended when you wrote it. Then he’d tell you what he thought when he read it. It would be up to you to make a decision about what to do with it from there.

These meetings couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes or so, but it was an intense burst of time. There wasn’t any breath wasted on chit-chat. That’s not to say he was unpleasant. He was an intensely caring person, and I always got the feeling that if I wanted to, I could ask him about anything that concerned me. But my goal and his were always aligned during our meetings. I wanted to know how to write better, and I knew that he could help me with that. He would give me specific suggestions, and then talk to whoever might be waiting after me.

I’d leave with the marked draft and then go home to revise it. I don’t remember him ever looking at another draft before the final one. Instead, he’d look at one, then let me take charge from there. I guess that also meant that I needed to have the most polished draft possible the first time I saw him. I knew his expectations were high.

I know that’s a simple narrative, but I believe that what I know about conferencing is expressed in it. I’ll try to unpack some of the particulars in what follows.

Introduction

Remember when you were going to elementary school, and there were two times a year when you just sat home wondering what would happen when your parent(s) came home: fall and spring parent-teacher conferences.  Maybe you recall being sent to the principal’s office in school, or invited to go see the guidance department because of something that was reported to have happened in class earlier in the day. In either case, you felt dread waiting for the agenda of the meeting to unfold before you. What would the teacher (seen as an unapproachable monolith) say, and how would you manage to wend your way back into his/her good graces afterwards?

That’s the way that students sometimes see a one-on-one conference with their college professors: as a threatening experience. In some senses, their feeling of intimidation is founded in truth. The teacher is, after all, perceived to be the more powerful figure in the relationship, no matter how much we try to appeal to our students as people-to-people.

And yet fast-forward twenty years (give or take) from grade school to graduate school. It’s unlikely that you made it through without taking advantage of the chance to learn from direct interaction with your faculty. I recall that where I went to school, we called the graduate faculty by their first names, and their doors were always open to us so that we could talk shop.  The thesis or dissertation process, especially, is heavily dependent upon direct interaction with the professor directing the project. If your experience was anything like mine, you spent a good deal of time with your director in the office, having lunch, and on the phone getting reactions and figuring out together where the project should go next.

Of course, that interaction was in the context of a special situation where that faculty member, no matter how busy, probably didn’t have more than a handful of people to work with individually at any one time. But the idea to think about here is this: how can we, given our multiple responsibilities and limited time, impart a sense to our students that we care about their learning at a personal level?

In practical terms, how can we work out that concern in the form of direct contact through one-to-one conferences inside and/or outside the classroom setting, and still maintain both the necessary distance to remain the authority figure that many students look to, and to retain the sanity of not spending every waking hour at our jobs? In what follows, I hope to give you some ideas that you can use to create conference situations that are profitable for your students and manageable for you.

What is a Conference?

In broad terms, it’s any contact you have with a student in a one-to-one or small-group setting. Thus, any time a student catches you as you go into class and asks a question related to something you said in a prior class period, you’re conferencing. Sometimes these encounters can be powerful teaching moments, especially if you turn them into chances to expand the scope of your typical influence with the student. For example, if you’ve given a demonstration in a chemistry lecture and one of the students who seemed most intrigued compliments you, you might take the chance to tell her how much you appreciated her enthusiasm during that experiment, and then ask whether she plans to further her studies in the discipline after the course is over.

By more strict definition, a conference is usually a planned meeting with a student or a group of students, focused on a particular topic related to the curriculum of the course.

Why Hold Conferences?

There are lots of reasons, of course. Sometimes, it’s necessary to hold disciplinary conferences. Maybe you have a disruptor in your class, and you’re more comfortable dealing with the situation in a private setting than in the lecture hall. In that case, you’ll need to be careful to make it clear that you expect the student to come to the office, or whatever meeting place you have available to you, before he returns to the classroom.

Most of the time, however, the purpose of the conference is positive. Paulo Freire, in his recent book Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, talks about creating a democratic learning situation, as opposed to an authoritarian one. He says: "[T]here are moments in which the teacher, as the authority, talks to the learners, says what must be done . . . but those moments . . . are alternated with others in which the educator speaks with the learner" (63). The difference between "to" and "with" is telling. In the context of the conference, speaking with the student is to move her along in her learning process, clear up questions, and maybe to set goals for the future direction of her academic work. In these cases, you’ll find that the time you spend pays rewards that are well beyond the few minutes invested. You’ll be doing that part of your job that will be remembered long after much of the specific course content is no longer at the forefront of the student’s mind.

Benefits in General

Conferences give you a sense of your students’ backgrounds in your discipline and their expectations. Especially if you’re teaching at multiple campuses, you can use the conference to determine the students’ preparation levels. Perhaps you’re teaching a math course which picks up from the prior semester. Curriculum may be slightly different from campus to campus. Holding a couple of conferences early in the semester may help you determine which holes in the students’ preparation you need to address in order to ensure their success in your course. Better to find that out than to have students unprepared to pick up at the point where you would normally begin a course.

Conferences also establish a rapport between you and your students that you don’t necessarily form when you’re in the full classroom setting. Students get to see their professor as a person, and you get to see them in a more relaxed and face-to-face setting. Freire again: "[I]f teachers are consistently authoritarian, then they are always the initiators of talk, while the students are continually subjected to their discourse. They speak to, for, and about the learners" (64). It is better, however, to function in what Freire calls a "democratic" way, such that the professor lives "the difficult but possible and pleasurable experience of speaking to and with learners. They know that dialogue centered not only on the content to be taught but on life itself, if it is true, not only is valued . . . [for] teaching, but also prepares an open and free climate in the ambience of their classroom" (65).

Specific Benefits of Conferences for Community College Students

It’s hard to summarize the benefits of conferences in a few words. Many of the good things you can accomplish by sitting down with students individually are detailed in various sections below. But here, let me point out a couple of things that I think are the most crucial benefits of conferences for community college students.

Our students are all different, but one thing that unites many of them is that they’re at community college because they’re making a second try at getting an education. This is not to detract from their abilities, and it’s not to say that you won’t (maybe often) have classes full of eager and well-prepared eighteen year-olds who just happen to be at your college because their parents think that it’s wiser to spend $12 per credit hour for the first two years of an education than hundreds of dollars. However, if your classes are like mine, you’ll find that you’ll have a mix of returning students, students who have had poor high school preparation, and perhaps foreign students who are trying to qualify for admission to a CSU or UC campus. For all of these, conferencing can hold special meaning.

Returning students particularly may be highly motivated, but also highly unsure of their abilities, having been out of school for some time. They need reassurance, and praise for their dedication. Getting them alone gives them a chance to express their uncertainty, and allows you the opportunity to give them a realistic assessment of their abilities and needs.

Oftentimes, a student like this will overachieve out of fear. The conference is your chance to congratulate her on the intense effort she’s putting in. I’ve had many such students say something like, "I hope I’m not talking [as in participating] too much in the class." In reality, I’m usually thankful that I have such a gem in my classroom, someone who is willing to engage, and who has life experience to draw on in making her comments. I’m always quick to jump in when I hear such a comment with "No, believe me, I appreciate the participation, keep it up," and then to say, adult-to-adult, "I’m careful to keep a balance in the class to make sure that everyone is doing his or her part. Just follow my cues as you’ve been doing and you can say all you want to in class." Such students appreciate the freedom this gives them to keep up the all-out effort.

This is the time, too, to ask the student some questions about his past educational experience, and get him to assess some of his weaknesses, then to suggest the other venues available on campus that might help if remediation is required. Some of these students went to school in the day before reading and math labs, free tutoring, and so forth, and so they may not know what else your campus offers. The conference is your chance to make them aware of what else your school can do to ensure their success.

A second group, at-risk students, may be the product of a lackadaisical high school education. Not to be too harsh, but we’ve all heard stories about high school teaching which doesn’t come up to the highest professional standard. Perhaps your student comes from a home where there has never been much guidance as far as school is concerned, because the parents are too busy, or themselves unfamiliar with the educational system or process. In that case, the relative lack of achievement in earlier educational experiences is probably not the fault of the high school faculty, but this is the chance to turn the student’s educational achievement story around, creating a new sense of motivation and hope.

In these cases, an individual conference can be a good chance to re-establish in the student a notion that he’s not just a number, but that his education matters to his professor. It’s much less likely that a student will fall behind and disappear from the class if he knows that his professor is there to help him reinforce his goals and to keep him on track.

Not to be too much of a booster, I just have to tell you about one student who came back to see me after having transferred to a UC campus. "It’s not like PCC," she said. "Here, we can come to your office for help when we want to, and you remember us. At [my new school], I go to the office hours, and the professors don’t know my name or the class I’m in. I have to introduce myself over again every time." Her recollection of the community college experience was that it was much more personal. In large part, the conferences we’d had together, and to my recollection there were only two or three during the semester she was in my research writing course, had been an important part of her education.

A third category of student who is often helped by a conference is the foreign student. Many of my Asian students have described to me their past education, in which the professor was a distant expert who handed down the knowledge and simply expected the student to process it on her own.  One student told me a story of her class having caused the firing of a teacher. "What did you do?" I wondered. "We were asking a lot of questions one day, and the school principal walked by the room. He assumed that our questions were a signal that the teacher wasn’t teaching enough, and she ended up working somewhere else."

The great amount of deference such students show to the professor can be flattering, and their usually high level of compliance with teacher demands makes it easy to keep the class moving through the material. However, their respect can in one sense backfire if it means that they are afraid to ask questions for fear of being disrespectful. A conference can be a way of familiarizing them with the American style of education, wherein it is expected that students will learn cooperatively, ask questions, and see the teacher as at least in part a facilitator and guide, rather than a far-removed expert.

Conferencing seems to me a helpful exercise to have them become more comfortable and to learn to expect help, rather than to remain fearful of asking for it. A quick conference early in the semester can establish such a rapport and assure that they maximize their learning.

In-Class Conferencing

One way to offer the conference experience and still not expand your time commitments beyond the reasonable is to try mini-conferences during class time. 

You might establish a rotation schedule which identifies students in each unit to conference with, revolving through the whole class as the semester progresses. Knowing that they’ll have a chance to see you at some point in the semester may also give them the reassurance of your interest in their progress in the class, and make it more likely that they’ll stick with the course through the tough times.

Another way to decide who gets to see you is to announce that during group work (lab time, peer editing, homework checking) you'll be available to anyone who writes his or her name on the board. Take the students in order, splitting the time you've allotted among the number of nominees. Be careful though, not to let the more bold students jump up and take the slots first every time.

To hold in-class conferences successfully, you need a carefully structured activity which will keep the others in the class learning. If you’re in a math class, this could be done by having the students work on a problem you put on the board, or check each other on the homework. Have certain students sit with you in the desks at the front of the class, and work with them on questions they have, or problems they couldn’t solve for homework.

Another way to use class time for conferencing but still have a measure of privacy to discuss a student's work is to take a couple of desks from the classroom and go into the hallway. You'd see this going on any day you visited PCC, with English instructors looking at writing drafts with individual students while the rest of the class works in groups in the room. In a writing classroom, this can be most easily facilitated when the class is peer editing. It’s a nice alternative to sitting in the front of the classroom talking with students.

In-class conferences work best if you announce them ahead of time and ask students to prepare their questions. That way, you'll be able to use the limited amount of time to best advantage. If you'll do the math, you'll realize that you can only spend about ten minutes with each of three students, or maybe twenty with a group of three, and still keep the flow of activity going in the classroom. Having students come prepared makes the time more valuable, and gives the students a sense of control over this opportunity.

One caveat: you’re leaving yourself open to what I describe elsewhere as an "ambush appointment" when you conference in class. Set clear ground rules for the conference beforehand to avoid this, such as requiring that the students not ask about their test or paper grades in front of others.

The Actual Conference: Part One (Establishing Goals)

Start with a Sense of Purpose

If the student initiates the conference, be sure to ask up front what her goal is. Then, do a quick assessment of the request, and tell her what you think you can do to help.

Over the years, you’ll get a variety of requests from "I want to know how to get an A" to "I want to know how to get a job in your field of expertise." Try to help the student narrow the goal to what you can accomplish in a short time. Rather than the former request, for example, you might say, "How about we set up a plan for the work you’ll do on your next essay?"

In short, it’s important that you and the student share a goal for the conference, and that you keep the goal limited. But remember that the first goal may not always (or even often) be something that you can accomplish. Be flexible. Revise the expectations as you go along. This is a good summary of the point: "Select a few problems to target each conference. Too much information or too many suggestions can be overwhelming" ("Conferencing with Students" 2).

It would be nice to have all the time necessary to help everyone with every assignment. That’s not possible. Even with one student, ten or fifteen minutes is not a lot of time. If you keep the goals limited, you can accomplish one or two specific tasks with the student. You might look over a short draft of a paper, or check a bibliography. You might be able to work through one calculus problem, or discuss the main points in a portion of a chapter in a biology textbook. Better to keep the pace quick but the goal limited than to try to do too much and have the feeling that the conference bogs down or is just getting productive when it’s time to speak with the next student.

Side Note: Preparation for the Conference

You’ll get a lot more done in a short time if the student comes prepared. Thus, if you’re offering to conference about an essay assignment, tell the students that you’re willing to talk to them if they have clearly read the assignment and prepared specific questions about it. In a math class, offer to help with problems that students don’t understand, but only if they have an attempt at a solution to the problem written down. It’s too easy to create dependence, and take the job of learning out of the student’s hand, if you don’t require her to come to the conference prepared.

Sometimes, the student will show up with the assignment in his hand and the general query: "I don’t get it." You’ll need to decide the legitimacy of this plea on the spot, but a quick diagnosis of the effort he’s put in before coming to see you is in order. Ask, "What have you done on this project since the last class period?" If the answer is vague, "I read this over a couple of times," then you’re within your rights to instruct him to return to the regular class activities (if this is an in-class conference), then go to the library, prepare a list of possible ideas for writing topics, and come back later, or another day, to resume the conference.

If the assignment was for a case study or interview in a business education class, and the student comes in to say, "I don’t know anybody to talk to," then put her back to work with a specific performance demand. "Go read a couple of newspapers’ business sections, and find out what people are saying about stock price trends." Assuming you’ve given an assignment which has good possibilities of being completed successfully in the first place, it’s fine to send the student on her way with such a task. The message you’re sending is that you won’t do her work for her, but you’ll help her move along once she’s made a legitimate start on it.

The Actual Conference: Part Two (Execution)

Work Through the Material and Revise the Goals

Let’s assume that you’ve got a student with a decent early attempt to complete the assignment. You’ve invited her to articulate her goals for the conference, and told her how you believe you can help during the next ten or fifteen minutes. The next step is just to go for it—start the conference by looking at the work the student has presented to you, or by letting her ask the first of her questions.  As you go along, give specific input in answer to the student’s questions. Repeat your main point more than once if you need to ("Conferencing with Students" 1). 

When it becomes apparent that you won’t be able to accomplish the goals you’ve agreed upon, and the pace bogs down, don’t be afraid to articulate a new goal.

For example, if the student has a paper that is basically complete, but has too many problems with focus to be salvageable without major rewrites, then just say "Juan, I thought we could get through the whole essay together, but now I see that you’re having trouble with your focus. Why don’t we try to get your thesis statement revised right now, and then you can come back with a new introduction tomorrow and let me have another look." Then, spend the rest of the conference on that new task. Make sure Juan leaves with a workable thesis.

Maybe you’re teaching computer science, and it’s clear that the student’s program is flawed in a number of places. Perhaps that’s because she hasn’t taken your advice to test the code all along, and instead just pushed on to the finish. You might remark, "Vivien, I had hoped we could talk about the problems that keep the program from running, but you’ve moved ahead several steps without doing enough verification early in the process. Do you understand why it’s necessary to debug as you go along?" Use this as a chance to set in her mind this cardinal rule for writing programs.

As the conference ends, suggest, "Why don’t you go back to work, debug the first twenty lines, and then move on from there? If you’re still stuck, we can talk again about why the program won’t work." (Thanks to a friend in computer science for the example).

Keep on Track

You’ll have a lot of fun in most of your conferences, and you’ll learn a lot about your students. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself talking about your own interests and even insecurities about your career field. These can be powerful moments in the student’s learning, and they are probably moments the students won’t forget. Just keep one thing in mind: there’s only so much you can say in fifteen minutes. Don’t let yourself stray too far from the goal of sending the student out with specific advice about the work at hand. It’s fun to talk about movies, cars, and sports, but make sure you take care of the pressing business first.

Share the Control

The temptation in a conference is to be the expert you’re accustomed to being when you teach, and the fact is, you should be the one to control the direction and pace of the conference, as I’ve been describing above. However, try to avoid the temptation to be the same person you are as a lecturer. You’re in a different setting now. Don’t ride your hobby horses. Don’t lecture from a sitting posture. Converse. Let the control you need to exert to keep a classroom on task ebb a little bit.

One good way to do this is to work in a "prompt and response" fashion. Rather than just telling the student what he needs to do to improve an essay, for instance, give a hint about where the document might go, and let the student finish the idea. The goal of the conference is not for you to dictate the student’s paper to him. One person said it this way: "[C]onferring is as much about being a good listener as it is about knowing what to say" (Anonymous 1).

To go back to an earlier example, let’s say you’re looking at an essay that is flawed in the thesis. Suggest the problem, but not in a critical way. Instead, ask for a new version, suggesting its characteristics. "Do you think you could write a thesis with an argumentative sound?" Let the student make a try at it. Wait while he does so.

The biggest mistake teachers make, I believe, is answering their own questions. Do that a couple of times, and the students get to know that you’ll always do it. They’ll stop even trying to think for themselves. (Have you tried this in your class? Two minutes of stone silence can seem like forever, but you’ll make your point if you wait--you are not there to carry on a dialogue with yourself.)

Once the student has made a tentative try at a new version of the thesis, ask him to write it down. Then work with it a little more to refine it, and go on. If it’s clear that the student can’t complete this task, then it’s time to end the conference with this as his goal. Offer some advice on the best way to write a thesis. Remind the student of where this has been covered in class, or where he can read more about it in the textbook. Then suggest that he make another stab at it and show it to you again later. 

If he manages to get a decent thesis written, then talk about how to move from there to the draft stage. Perhaps use the rest of the conference to get a few points outlined.  Above, all remember, this is not a lecture. It’s a conversation. Don’t monopolize it. Share the air space, and enjoy the chance to talk to someone new.

Appeal to Different Learning Styles

Not everyone learns the same way. Thus, your conferences should be comprised of different strategies. Try having the student read aloud if working from the written text does not seem to be working. Try having students underline or highlight key sections of written text if simple verbal instructions don’t seem to be helping them achieve clarity ("Conferencing with Students" 2).

Make Sure the Results Get Recorded

Here’s an experiment for you to try: watch the news one night, and then after fifteen minutes, try to write down everything you’ve heard. How much do you think you’ll successfully record? Exactly—a bare bones summary of the main points.

The same problem can plague a conference if you don’t suggest that the student take notes on what’s being discussed. After you’ve worked through a point, gently suggest that the student record what you’ve discussed. This may seem awkward at first, because it will create pauses in the conversation. However, it’s the best way to ensure that what you discuss together will be remembered hours later after the student has driven to work, spent hours doing whatever pays the bills, picked up a pizza, and put his kids to bed, then opened the book to see if he can sort out the ideas for the biology test you’re giving later in the week.

I’ve learned this lesson the most thoroughly through working in our campus Writing Center. As a way to keep the tutors there from taking over control of the conference, we suggest that the tutor never pick up a pen. The student is responsible to do that. I often have to pause five minutes into a conference to say, "Do you have a pen to write some of this down with?" Then, when the student dutifully takes the pen from the backpack and hands it to me, I say gently, "No, so you can keep track of what we’re accomplishing together." The light usually goes on, and the student leaves with an annotated draft, and, I hope, the idea that the next time, he’ll be able to make such observations himself, and come in with a better draft for me to look at.

Verify the Student’s Understanding

Most of us learn early on in our scholarly careers to be pleasers. After all, teachers are the gatekeepers to the thing that we’re most focused on: having an education that will be fulfilling, or lead us to the career we want. Thus it’s not often that students will be eager to disagree with a teacher. That’s good in terms of keeping a classroom running smoothly. It’s sometimes not so good when it comes to having a successful conference. Let’s assume that the student has sought a conference because she has a specific problem with the material in your class. The fact is, she hasn’t understood it through your normal method of explanation. If all you do is sit her down and explain things the same way again, you’re not all that likely to make the ideas any clearer. So it’s up to you to try to explain in different, simpler, or more illustrative language.

However, a key to making sure that the student is getting the ideas, and therefore benefiting from the conference, is to have her repeat and verify the ideas you’re working through. Don’t just talk, talk, talk. Ask her to repeat what you’re saying. Listen to her, and watch her face. Is she struggling but coming closer to getting it? Is she betraying her lack of confidence through her expressions? You can be pretty sure that she doesn’t understand yet when she merely repeats your words back to you. The idea is to have her be able to put things in her own words, or to apply the concept to a new set of circumstances altogether. In short, "ask for feedback concerning the way your messages are being received" ("Conferences with Students" 1).

What you hope to accomplish in a conference is to take the student from where she is, to a point further along in the learning process. It won’t all happen at once, but you’ll be more successful if you stop and let the student summarize what you’re discussing together from time to time.

The Actual Conference: Part Three (Closing)

Signal the End of the Conference

At the end of the conference, make the student’s next task very clear. Often, combining such a statement with a glance at the next student waiting will be a subtle signal to the student that the conference is over. Even if there’s not someone else waiting, such a summary is helpful to put a period on the time you’ve spent with the student.

Be explicit about what the student should try to do next. Something as simple as the following phrase will work fine, "Now that you know how that proof works, try to do the next two exercises in the textbook before the next class meeting, Michele."

What Else Might You Need to Keep in Mind?

Tone

I’m going to assume that the conferences you’re calling are for instructional purposes mostly, rather than disciplinary ones. As such, you should keep the tone light, and not be afraid to give specific, I-based feedback on the student’s work. Others who have written about conferencing are almost unanimous in their suggestion to keep the conference conversational. Carl Anderson says in a recent article that since he has been teaching writing by the workshop method, "I have thought of writing conferences as conversations," and talks about the importance of that word: "It suggests the kind of personal, intimate talk I have with friends and colleagues--[this is] the tone I want my conferences with students to have" (2). He then cites writing pedagogy expert Donald Murray, who says, "[Conferences] are not mini-lectures but the working talk of fellow writers sharing their experiences with the writing process" (qtd.in Anderson 2).

One of my favorite teachers used to come to our philosophy class, which was usually conducted in a Socratic (question and response) style, every once in a while and say, "Sometimes, a professor has to profess," then proceed to give us a stand-up lecture that never failed to be wonderful in its execution. A conference, however, doesn’t work like that. Instead, you’ll be establishing the kind of connection with your student that you often don’t get in the classroom setting—that of individual-to-individual.

Conferences are great levelers. They let you sit down (and the fact that you’re both sitting sends a key message) and just talk things through. I recall that same philosophy professor spending time with me in conference, talking about a project. Our conversation ranged to what I was planning to do with myself after graduation from college. At the time, I was unhappy with my plans to go to seminary. He encouraged me to seek other options, and through his encouragement, I realized that I had potential to do more than what I had scripted for myself to that point. This only happened because he let the conference move past the business at hand, and talked to me as a friend.

Required or Optional

Part of your decision on whether to require each student to see you at regular intervals in the semester will depend upon your workload. If you’re teaching a history course with 100 students enrolled, it’s probably not feasible to require every student to see you, even though you may believe it to be beneficial. Even if you keep the conference time short (see "Length"), you can expect to process only about six to ten students per hour (even if you conference in groups), and thus you’re lengthening your workweek by ten to fifteen hours if you demand that every student see you (and making it impossible to hold all the conferences in class). And that’s the time it would take you to service only one class. So while it’s great to offer yourself to the students in this way, keep in mind that you’ll be going significantly beyond your normal contact time in doing so.

Sometimes it’s better to make yourself available, and then let the students who are most comfortable seek out the conference time. At least while you’re working part-time, in many cases at more than one campus, you can assure yourself that you’re fulfilling your role successfully if you create access for those who seek you out ("Conferencing in EN 121" 1).

Keep in mind that if every one in the class is going to have a conference this unit/week you should try to have a uniform goal, and you can ask each student to prepare for the conference situation. Try to manage the time so that every student, loud or shy, gets the same amount of time and has a similar experience. Take the following analogy with a grain of salt: people go to McDonald’s because they know that they’ll receive a consistent product every time. The quality of their hamburger doesn’t depend on their ability to articulate their demands for it. Required conferences are sort of like that—you want to make sure that you service everyone with impartiality.

Initiating the Conference

Remember that as people who have made it through the educational quagmire, most of us have significant experience in talking with our professors. We have built up an expectation that they will take the time to speak with us in an individual conference setting. We aren’t shy about asking for such an encounter. However, many students may not have a similar expectation. Thus it may seem like it’s too obvious to state, but you’ll get far more students asking you to talk outside of class if you make the offer.

I’ve tried this as an experiment in my own writing classes, and found that if I don’t say anything about helping students one-on-one, relatively few will ask for conferences, even though they know that I have set office hours. (If you’re teaching at a campus where you don’t have an office to begin with, and where you are not paid to hold hours, chances are few will seek you out on their own.) However, if I repeat the hours and the offer to come see me if they have questions, I get a lot more students coming by.

You need to decide how explicit to be with the offer depending upon your time availability, of course, but as a rule you’ll find that making students aware that you’ll talk with them one-on-one, even if they have to make an appointment ahead because you don’t have a specific office and hour, will increase the traffic you’ll see.

On the flip side, it’s generally not true that you’ll have so many coming for help that you’ll feel like you ought to install a cot and shower in your workspace so that you can save the time you "waste" going home after work and still see everyone. (Feel free to use that joke if you want. I find that it works to diffuse the slight moment of tension that follows when I get an unreasonable request like, "Oh, you mean you don’t come here on the weekends?" Response: "Well, I’m thinking of just moving in here, but the college doesn’t want me to install a cot and shower in the office, so I guess we better just stick to the normal office hours." I suppose this is partly my fault for having papers due on Monday, but students usually smile at their own over-the-top request at that moment and go home happy to work on their essay alone.)

I don’t have scientific data to support me here, but experience says that at the most a quarter to a third of the students in a class will avail themselves of the offer for a voluntary conference. Of course, if you’re teaching a lecture class with fifty students, that can still be an overwhelming addition to your work week, so experiment a little to see how you can make sure students have the feeling of access without creating a situation where you feel like you’re unable to see them and still get the bills paid, the groceries bought, and your kids’ lunches packed.

Finally, be aware that suggesting to a student that "we should talk about that" can be construed as a need for a disciplinary conference. So if you’re the one generating the conference, something like, "I think if we spend a few minutes I can help you with your questions on this chapter (assignment, etc.)" is probably more comfortable. Especially with an at-risk student, you don’t want to come across with a tone that will create more fear than already exists.

Setting

As was discussed above, you may be able to do a significant amount of conferencing during class time. Outside of class hours, you may be able to use an office or empty classroom for your conferences. Just be sure to leave the door open at all times, to create a sense of safety for the student, and to protect yourself from the potential for misunderstanding about your motives for getting the student alone (GTA Handbook 1).

Of course, conferences may occur anywhere, and there’s nothing wrong with an on-the-fly meeting as head to your next class. In that case, be quick to find out the student’s concerns. Make an assessment about whether you can give adequate help without taking the time to sit down in a more formal setting. If you can’t, then suggest a mutually agreeable time, making it clear that you aren’t dismissing the student’s concerns, but that your schedule doesn’t permit you to spend time on them now.

If the student is simply wanting to vent anger about a grade, this will also give her a chance to cool down and reassess before you meet again. In fact, as a practice, I tell my students that I will not discuss grades on the day papers or tests are returned. I believe that they often benefit by a careful reading of the comments I offer, and I ask that they come in with specific questions when it appears to me that their motive is to quarrel. "Why did I get a D?" is not a specific question in this context.

One good strategy for sidestepping such an encounter, which will probably end in a "did too/did not" kind of argument, is simply to tell the student to read the comments and prepare a plan for revision that addresses them, then to bring that plan with him to the appointment that you agree upon.  When a student happens to see you in the hall, or at the copy machine, and approaches you with a question, you’re experiencing what I remember hearing called somewhere an "ambush appointment."

Last semester, I had this happen to me.  As I was entering the narrow room where our photocopier is kept, I turned to see a student I’ll call "Julie" in the doorway. Her paper was in her hand, and I realized that she must have followed me upstairs from the class.  "I want to know why I got a B when Jennifer [her friend, who sat next to her in the class] got an A?"

My immediate reaction, of course, was to defend the grade, and by close association, myself. What students don’t realize in this situation, of course, is that there’s nothing to be gained by such a query. You’ve considered the grade carefully before assigning it, and you’ve probably read dozens, hundreds, or thousands of papers before, and have training which makes you a pretty accurate judge of student work. Your first reaction when someone asks you a question like this, then, is to want to say, "Look, I’m the professor, and that’s the grade you’re getting. I’ve been doing this longer than you have."

Being human, of course, there are times where you’re not absolutely confident in the grade you’ve assigned, especially perhaps early on in your career. Then, the temptation is to admit that and offer to reconsider. People may differ with me on this, but my advice is to suppress this feeling. Trust your earlier judgment. If you do end up reconsidering, do so only after you’ve had time to put the request onto more neutral ground, not when you’re backed into a room smelling of Xerox fumes.

Keep in mind, too, that you’re not free, for legal reasons, to discuss one student’s progress with another. In this case, this was my immediate out. "I’m sorry, Julie, but I can’t comment on Jennifer’s grade. That’s a private matter between student and professor," I said with a quick sigh of relief.

"But I want to know why I got the grade I did," she persisted.

"Did you read the comments?" I asked, thinking of the entire Sunday I’d spent reading these essays and annotating them. I knew the answer already, of course, since she’d only had the paper in her hands for five minutes.

"Well yes, I mean, some of them."

"Why don’t you take the paper home, look it over, and then see me before the next class?" I suggested.

In a case like this, you want to put the student back on positive ground as soon as you can. For her sake, it will make it possible for her learning to continue, unmarred by her anger at her perceived lack of progress. For the sake of the class, it means that you won’t have someone coming in the next period with a resentful attitude.

I didn’t win in this encounter. Nobody did, but nobody could. In her anger, Julie had set up a situation where there was no proper response. But I do feel that I did the best I could under these circumstances to deflect her anger and refocus her efforts in a more positive direction.

The next day, Julie came to the office, calmed down and ready to discuss her paper. As we talked, it became apparent that her anger at the B was much broader than just frustration with my course. In fact, she was a good writer, and used to success in English classes, which she defined as getting A grades on her essays. Further, she was in the middle of a math class that was a couple of levels below transfer level, and she was fearful that she would have to repeat it. This anxiety, coupled with what she considered a substandard grade in the class she was used to being the master of, was what fueled her outburst.

The conference enabled me to understand her frustrations better, and to assure her that one grade did not mean the end of her hoped-for degree in literature. I assured her that her errors on the essay were correctable on the next paper, and offered to speak with her about that assignment before the final draft was due. She left feeling better about the totality of her situation, and went on to achieve highly in the class. She even asked me to look at some writing that she was turning in as an audition to join a short fiction group.

Structure

Like a good essay, the conference has three parts: beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, you want to establish the goals for the meeting. In the middle, you want to discuss the specific task, assignment, reading, or problem the student needs help with. As the conference closes, you want to establish a specific task which the student needs to focus on next.

Call an Early End to a Conference (Revisited)

Sometimes, especially when you’re holding required conferences, it will become clear to you that the student hasn’t really prepared for the time with you. Perhaps his draft is not finished. If it’s a math course, maybe he hasn’t done the problems from the chapter that you’re hoping to clarify with further examples. In that case, it’s OK for you to suggest that he reschedule his conference later in the week, and come back ready. You’ll be able to help in a more focused way, and you’ll be sending a message: My time is valuable, and this is not a bull session. I want to help you, but you need to meet me halfway. You’ll usually have to do this only one time, and the students will catch onto your dedication to being specific in your assistance.

Side Note: Conferences as Troubleshooting

It may be that you sense a theme in the students’ questions when holding individual conferences. Once the third one asks you a similar question to her classmates, it’s probably time to rethink how well you explained in the classroom the concept she’s asking about. Rather than re-teaching the material thirty times in individual conferences, just tell the student that you’re realizing that many of them need more help on the topic, and that you’ll be devoting part of the next class period to clarifying. Then, in the class, tell the students that you appreciate hearing from many of them that they need more help with the concept, and give a quick review, or point them back to the section of the textbook that can clarify the ideas. In fact, this confirms your decision to hold individual conferences, because it reveals to you the difference between your notion of how well you got an idea across and the reality of your success. Don’t apologize for having failed the students. Instead, congratulate them and yourself for catching the misunderstanding before you went on to concepts that can only be successfully understood with an appropriate foundation.


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