Tips for a Productive Student Conference

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Authored by

  • Janice Edgerson Hudley
    Colonel
    U.S. Army ,

You may be able to help students avoid plagiarism by having regular conferences with them throughout the year. But many teachers are unsure how to set up a productive student conference. When UNC Chapel Hill writing professor Erika Lindemann visited my school, she provided several very useful ideas for successful student conferences. Here are those ideas, annotated with some strategies you may want to keep in mind.

  • Use a neutral location: find a place that is comfortable for your students. The classroom or your office may work, but often students are more comfortable at the local coffeehouse or at a picnic table or park bench on or near school grounds. (Always remember to remain in a public space that’s open to others’ view, for your and your students’ safety.)

  • Of course, most of us don’t have the option of going to the coffeehouse or the park. Inspect your office or classroom setup. Is it conducive to productive conferencing? What can you do to make the space more comfortable for your students?

  • Let students talk first: let students know in advance of conferences that this is their time with you and that they should come equipped with questions.

  • As much as you can, let students set the conference agenda.

  • Having students talk first forces them to assume responsibility for their own writing: personal control is essential to improvement.

  • Be a good listener and listen for what your student isn’t saying.

  • Ask questions that will help you understand what the student believes about writing.

  • Pay attention to body language—the student’s and your own.

  • Before you tell students what you thought of their writing, find out what they thought and why. I’m often surprised to learn that students think that their writing is worse (or better) than it actually is, and hearing them explain the reasons for their assessments helps me determine how best to help them continue to improve.

  • Commend something.

  • Select an issue that would most improve the draft or the next paper.

  • Work from the top down: address big issues early in the semester.

  • Give students at least one concrete suggestion for improving the text.

  • If you must demonstrate a writing technique or concept, use a separate piece of paper, not the student’s draft or final text.

  • The conference is a teaching opportunity; don’t waste it by spending time trying to justify the grades you’ve given students for their work.

  • Read portions of the paper aloud: I’ve done this quite successfully with students. Sometimes I read to them; sometimes I ask them to read to me. Either way, they generally hear very clearly what went wrong or what went well.

  • Have students summarize what they learned in the conference: before saying goodbye, it’s helpful to have students write out a brief summary of their learning from the conference and a brief plan for using what they learned in their future writing.

  • Have students tell you their reasons for error—determine the logic behind the errors. Students here at the United States Military Academy come from all over the U.S. and from many other countries. If we take the time to get to know each of our students, we can understand the logic behind the errors they make and develop methods to short-circuit that logic.

  • Let students talk last: remember that this is the student’s writing conference, not yours. Students need to be responsible for their development; we reinforce that notion by acknowledging and supporting them as developing writers.

  • Help the student to set a goal for the next paper.

  • Keep your own permanent record of student conferences and encourage your students to do likewise.

Works Cited

Lindemann, Erika. "Conferencing Strategies." Department of English, United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., Jan. 17, 1997.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.