by Brian Kennedy,
Ive been teaching
full-time for eleven years, the first seven in Ohio and the past four
at Pasadena City College. During that time, Ive 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 dont pretend to myself or to my students (or to you) that
I am. Instead, I present myself as someone with the students
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 havent 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 cant come up with many specific
recollections. But what I havent 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 dont 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, Im 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 didnt 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. Hed 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). Hed motion you to sit down,
and hed squint through the haze that exited his nostrils at
the text you plopped down in front of him.
It wouldnt be too
long before hed have to search for a pen among the clutter,
and hed start making comments aloud while he indicated on
the draft where he thought you could make improvements. Oftentimes,
he wouldnt tell you what to do with a given section, hed
just ask you what you had intended when you wrote it. Then hed
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 couldnt
have lasted more than ten minutes or so, but it was an intense burst
of time. There wasnt any breath wasted on chit-chat. Thats
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.
Id leave with the
marked draft and then go home to revise it. I dont remember
him ever looking at another draft before the final one. Instead,
hed 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 thats a simple
narrative, but I believe that what I know about conferencing is expressed
in it. Ill try to unpack some of the particulars in what follows.
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 principals 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?
Thats 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.
Its 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 didnt 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, its
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, youre 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 youve 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
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, its necessary to hold disciplinary
conferences. Maybe you have a disruptor in your class, and youre
more comfortable dealing with the situation in a private setting
than in the lecture hall. In that case, youll 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, youll find that the time you spend pays rewards
that are well beyond the few minutes invested. Youll 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
Benefits in General
Conferences give you
a sense of your students backgrounds in your discipline and
their expectations. Especially if youre teaching at multiple
campuses, you can use the conference to determine the students
preparation levels. Perhaps youre 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 dont
necessarily form when youre 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"
Specific Benefits of
Conferences for Community College Students
Its 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 theyre
at community college because theyre making a second try at
getting an education. This is not to detract from their abilities,
and its not to say that you wont (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 its
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, youll find that youll 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.
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 shes
putting in. Ive had many such students say something like,
"I hope Im not talking [as in participating] too much
in the class." In reality, Im 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. Im
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, "Im careful to keep a balance
in the class to make sure that everyone is doing his or her part.
Just follow my cues as youve 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
A second group, at-risk
students, may be the product of a lackadaisical high school education.
Not to be too harsh, but weve all heard stories about high
school teaching which doesnt 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 students 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 hes not just a number, but that his education
matters to his professor. Its 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
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. "Its
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 dont know my
name or the class Im 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
wed 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 wasnt teaching enough, and she ended up working
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.
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 theyll 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 theyll 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 youre 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 couldnt 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. Its a nice alternative to
sitting in the front of the classroom talking with students.
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: youre
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
The Actual Conference:
Part One (Establishing Goals)
Start with a Sense
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, youll
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 youll do on your next essay?"
In short, its
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"
It would be nice to
have all the time necessary to help everyone with every assignment.
Thats 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 its time to speak with
the next student.
Side Note: Preparation
for the Conference
Youll get a lot
more done in a short time if the student comes prepared. Thus,
if youre offering to conference about an essay assignment,
tell the students that youre 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
dont understand, but only if they have an attempt at a solution
to the problem written down. Its too easy to create dependence,
and take the job of learning out of the students hand, if
you dont 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 dont get it." Youll need to decide the
legitimacy of this plea on the spot, but a quick diagnosis of
the effort hes 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 youre 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 dont 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 youve given an assignment which has good possibilities
of being completed successfully in the first place, its
fine to send the student on her way with such a task. The message
youre sending is that you wont do her work for her,
but youll help her move along once shes made a legitimate
start on it.
The Actual Conference:
Part Two (Execution)
Work Through the Material
and Revise the Goals
Lets assume that
youve got a student with a decent early attempt to complete
the assignment. Youve 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 itstart 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 students questions. Repeat your main point
more than once if you need to ("Conferencing with Students"
When it becomes apparent
that you wont be able to accomplish the goals youve
agreed upon, and the pace bogs down, dont 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 youre having trouble
with your focus. Why dont 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 youre teaching
computer science, and its clear that the students
program is flawed in a number of places. Perhaps thats because
she hasnt 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 youve moved ahead several steps without
doing enough verification early in the process. Do you understand
why its necessary to debug as you go along?" Use this
as a chance to set in her mind this cardinal rule for writing
As the conference ends,
suggest, "Why dont you go back to work, debug the first
twenty lines, and then move on from there? If youre still
stuck, we can talk again about why the program wont work."
(Thanks to a friend in computer science for the example).
Keep on Track
Youll have a
lot of fun in most of your conferences, and youll learn
a lot about your students. Sometimes, youll find yourself
talking about your own interests and even insecurities about your
career field. These can be powerful moments in the students
learning, and they are probably moments the students wont
forget. Just keep one thing in mind: theres only so much
you can say in fifteen minutes. Dont let yourself stray
too far from the goal of sending the student out with specific
advice about the work at hand. Its fun to talk about movies,
cars, and sports, but make sure you take care of the pressing
Share the Control
The temptation in a
conference is to be the expert youre 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 Ive been describing
above. However, try to avoid the temptation to be the same person
you are as a lecturer. Youre in a different setting now.
Dont ride your hobby horses. Dont 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 students 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
To go back to an earlier
example, lets say youre 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
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 youll
always do it. Theyll stop even trying to think for themselves.
(Have you tried this in your class? Two minutes of stone silence
can seem like forever, but youll 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 its clear that the student cant complete
this task, then its 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. Its a conversation. Dont monopolize
it. Share the air space, and enjoy the chance to talk to someone
Appeal to Different
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 dont seem to be helping them achieve
clarity ("Conferencing with Students" 2).
Make Sure the Results
Heres an experiment
for you to try: watch the news one night, and then after fifteen
minutes, try to write down everything youve heard. How much
do you think youll successfully record? Exactlya bare
bones summary of the main points.
The same problem can
plague a conference if you dont suggest that the student
take notes on whats being discussed. After youve worked
through a point, gently suggest that the student record what youve
discussed. This may seem awkward at first, because it will create
pauses in the conversation. However, its 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 youre giving later in the week.
Ive 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 were accomplishing
together." The light usually goes on, and the student leaves
with an annotated draft, and, I hope, the idea that the next time,
hell be able to make such observations himself, and come
in with a better draft for me to look at.
Verify the Students
Most of us learn early
on in our scholarly careers to be pleasers. After all, teachers
are the gatekeepers to the thing that were most focused
on: having an education that will be fulfilling, or lead us to
the career we want. Thus its not often that students will
be eager to disagree with a teacher. Thats good in terms
of keeping a classroom running smoothly. Its sometimes not
so good when it comes to having a successful conference. Lets
assume that the student has sought a conference because she has
a specific problem with the material in your class. The fact is,
she hasnt understood it through your normal method of explanation.
If all you do is sit her down and explain things the same way
again, youre not all that likely to make the ideas any clearer.
So its 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
youre working through. Dont just talk, talk, talk.
Ask her to repeat what youre 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 doesnt 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 wont all
happen at once, but youll be more successful if you stop
and let the student summarize what youre discussing together
from time to time.
The Actual Conference:
Part Three (Closing)
Signal the End of
At the end of the conference,
make the students 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 theres not someone else waiting, such a summary
is helpful to put a period on the time youve spent with
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?
Im going to assume
that the conferences youre 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 students 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, doesnt
work like that. Instead, youll be establishing the kind
of connection with your student that you often dont get
in the classroom settingthat of individual-to-individual.
Conferences are great
levelers. They let you sit down (and the fact that youre
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
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 youre
teaching a history course with 100 students enrolled, its
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 youre 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 thats the time it would take you to service only one
class. So while its great to offer yourself to the students
in this way, keep in mind that youll be going significantly
beyond your normal contact time in doing so.
better to make yourself available, and then let the students who
are most comfortable seek out the conference time. At least while
youre working part-time, in many cases at more than one
campus, you can assure yourself that youre 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 McDonalds because they know
that theyll receive a consistent product every time. The
quality of their hamburger doesnt depend on their ability
to articulate their demands for it. Required conferences are sort
of like thatyou want to make sure that you service everyone
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 arent shy
about asking for such an encounter. However, many students may
not have a similar expectation. Thus it may seem like its
too obvious to state, but youll get far more students asking
you to talk outside of class if you make the offer.
Ive tried this
as an experiment in my own writing classes, and found that if
I dont 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 youre teaching at a campus where you
dont 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 youll find that making students
aware that youll talk with them one-on-one, even if they
have to make an appointment ahead because you dont have
a specific office and hour, will increase the traffic youll
On the flip side, its
generally not true that youll have so many coming for help
that youll 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 dont come here on the weekends?"
Response: "Well, Im thinking of just moving in here,
but the college doesnt 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
I dont 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 youre
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 youre 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
youre 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 dont
want to come across with a tone that will create more fear than
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 theres nothing wrong with an on-the-fly
meeting as head to your next class. In that case, be quick to
find out the students 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 cant, then suggest
a mutually agreeable time, making it clear that you arent
dismissing the students concerns, but that your schedule
doesnt 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,
youre 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 Ill
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
My immediate reaction,
of course, was to defend the grade, and by close association,
myself. What students dont realize in this situation,
of course, is that theres nothing to be gained by such
a query. Youve considered the grade carefully before assigning
it, and youve 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,
Im the professor, and thats the grade youre
getting. Ive been doing this longer than you have."
Being human, of course,
there are times where youre not absolutely confident in
the grade youve 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 youve had time
to put the request onto more neutral ground, not when youre
backed into a room smelling of Xerox fumes.
Keep in mind, too,
that youre not free, for legal reasons, to discuss one
students progress with another. In this case, this was
my immediate out. "Im sorry, Julie, but I cant
comment on Jennifers grade. Thats a private matter
between student and professor," I said with a quick sigh
"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 Id
spent reading these essays and annotating them. I knew the answer
already, of course, since shed only had the paper in her
hands for five minutes.
"Well yes, I
mean, some of them."
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 wont have someone
coming in the next period with a resentful attitude.
I didnt 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
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
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.
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)
when youre holding required conferences, it will become
clear to you that the student hasnt really prepared for
the time with you. Perhaps his draft is not finished. If its
a math course, maybe he hasnt done the problems from the
chapter that youre hoping to clarify with further examples.
In that case, its OK for you to suggest that he reschedule
his conference later in the week, and come back ready. Youll
be able to help in a more focused way, and youll 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. Youll
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
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, its probably time to rethink how well you
explained in the classroom the concept shes asking about.
Rather than re-teaching the material thirty times in individual
conferences, just tell the student that youre realizing
that many of them need more help on the topic, and that youll
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. Dont 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.