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Alexandra (AJ) Gold recently completed her Ph.D. in English at Boston University. She currently teaches as a Preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program. Follow her on Twitter @agold258 or check out her website.

In the academic world we put a lot of stock in conferences as they can be crucial to our paths to professional success. The internet (and GradHacker!) abounds with useful advice on everything from how to prepare for and navigate conferences to how to plan one yourself. Conferences are a source of currency as well as community: they are opportunities to share and receive feedback on work-in-progress, to network with other grad students and professors, and even to take in the local culture.

Conferences are a crucial part of most scholarly research agendas. When it comes to teaching, however, we might not immediately consider the value of conferencing—not with each other, but with our students. One-on-one student conferences share many benefits with scholarly conferences (though sadly without the perks of travel). These face-to-face meetings not only give students a chance to develop their works-in-progress and to make connections with TAs or professors, but they also offer TAs and professors, in turn, a chance to really get to know their students and refine their pedagogical practices. As Michael Millner wrote in a poignant article discussing why he embraced student conferences in lieu of written feedback: “When the written comments disappeared, and a more relational dynamic developed in its place, student and professor alike discovered something new.”

I can hear the objections already: “I don’t have time (or office space) to conference with students!”; “I have too many students to make conferencing possible!”;  “My discipline is exam-based so conferences are extraneous!”; “We simply can’t forsake written feedback!” These are valid concerns. Conducting student conferences may not be suitable for everyone. I’m also not advocating that we abandon written feedback entirely. I feel strongly that student conferences and written feedback should work in tandem to really help students achieve learning outcomes, as I began to discuss last May. Still, I do think that when and if conferences are a possibility—especially for graduate students or TAs who are in the process of developing their pedagogical toolbox and who may not have the burden of huge classes—they can be extremely edifying, worthwhile, and even fun!

My point here, however, is not really to make the case for conferencing with students. Others have done that well. Suffice to say that while conferences are certainly effective as a feedback strategy, the real value of them lies in the personal connections. Millner put it best when he noted it was through student conferences that he truly “came to have a better sense of [his] students’ lives and experiences and how all of that might connect with the work we do in in the classroom.”

My focus, then, is less on why you should conference than how. Below I offer a few of my top tips and tricks for getting the most out of student conferences, gleaned largely from my years as a writing center tutor where these meetings are requisite.


Listen First

Perhaps it seems obvious that a crucial part of running a successful conference is listening, but more often than not I find that I have to check my immediate impulse to dive right in and offer students feedback. There’s value, however, in letting the student speak first, asking them either to explain what they’re trying to accomplish or to summarize what issues they’re having and what they’d like help with.

The ability to listen is what fundamentally sets face-to-face conferences apart from other written methods of feedback. On the page, as I noted last May, we’re forced to make a lot of assumptions about what students are trying to achieve. In the conference, you get to hear firsthand and then adjust your feedback to respond accordingly. This is valuable because it allows the students’ papers to remain theirs. Rather than imposing directions based on our best estimation of what students want to accomplish, the conference becomes a way of collaborating to achieve the student’s original or, more often, a negotiated set of goals.

Utilize “Forced Choice”

Asking questions is the modus operandi of the student conference. In order to understand what students are trying to accomplish, you’ll have to ask a series of both broad (“what did you find compelling about this topic/reading/paper?”) and specific (“what do you mean by this word in this context?”) questions. In tricky situations, where the student is stymied or confused by a question, you might have to ask it in a few different ways to get the desired information.

In these latter scenarios—when there’s a genuine moment of confusion on either side—I’ve found it extremely useful to employ “forced choice”: a mode of questioning where you present the student two options (“do you mean X or Y”). This isn’t a method I made up, but it is one that really stood out to me when I was going through tutor training. It’s an effective strategy not just because it magnifies for the student the ambiguity at hand, but also because it allows them to either hone in one side of the binary or to recognize that their actual meaning (Z) is getting lost entirely. It also, as the name implies, forces student to offer a specific answer rather than a vague “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” that can attend open-ended questions.

Give the Student Time to Think

By now it’s common knowledge that giving students time to think in the classroom—embracing the silence that follows a question—s good practice. The same holds true for student conferences. Though allowing silence to linger might feel even more awkward or painful in these face-to-face interactions, it’s a crucial part of the process. As in the classroom, you’ll have to fight the urge to combat the silence and allow students the chance to collect their thoughts. If, however, the silence lingers for an inordinate amount of time, you might reframe the question or assign the student a task. You might, for instance, ask students to do a minute or two of freewriting, or to rewrite a thesis, or to “reverse outline” a paper—tasks that afford students an opportunity simply to think without the pressure of responding to the question posed right away. It can be really hard to think on the spot, especially with the added pressure of someone staring directly at you; you might even momentarily walk away, having assigned the student a task while you “get a drink” or “use the restroom” quickly. Giving the student some silent time to process their ideas may just make the ensuing conversation less excruciating.

Sit Next to the Student

This may seem counterintuitive, especially if you’re used to being in front of a class or sitting directly across from them, but the way you configure yourself in space in the individual conference can have a big payoff. Sitting next to a student rather than across from them allows you to put a paper/computer/problem set between you and makes it clearer that the conference is, in fact, a space for collaboration, not an inquisition. Perhaps the defining aspect of the student conference is the sheer humanity of the interaction,including intangibles like the configuration of physical space, tone, and body language. Sitting next to the student conveys, quite literally, that you are on their side. It may subtly reinforce the idea that you’re trying to help them succeed rather than simply pointing out where they haven’t.

Embrace the Group Conference

If individual conferences aren’t a feasible option, either because of time constraints or number of students, group conferences are an excellent option. Instead of meeting one-on-one, you’ll meet with a few students at a time (no more than four is probably most effective). You might group students working on similar issues/topics/problems or you might group students according to their relative skills, pairing weaker students with stronger ones. These conferences are a great option because they make the students accountable to each other, not just to the teacher/TA/professor, and can therefore solidify the idea that their work addresses a community of readers.

Much like other methods of peer review, group conferences ideally help students learn how to approach their own work by seeing their classmates and hearing feedback on others’ work. Being able to focus on similar issues across a number of papers in group conference might also alleviate students’ anxiety that they are the only ones having problems and might help them better gauge their own areas for improvement. Plus, the group conference allows you to step back a little and act as a “conductor” or “moderator” rather than the driver of the conversation, allowing students to take the lead - which, in the end, is the most important goal of any successful conference.

Have you had great experiences with student conferences? Tell us about your best practices below!

[Image by Flickr user Sila Tiptantoranin and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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