Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
April 4, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 22

Empower Students Through Individual Conferences

Instructional Strategies
I would have said I knew my students, but I rarely sat down for purposeful individual conversations about academics. It was my job to feed my baby birds as I'd been fed, and I talked to them when I could grab a minute in passing.
In our increasingly flat world, the passive learning model is deservedly dead, but what is the first step to putting students in charge of their own learning? Based on my own experience, I advise scheduling frequent purposeful student-instructor conferences. After more than 20 years of teaching, I began conferencing with students, and the culture of the classroom went from "me" and "them" to "us, the learning community."
A 1976–78 UK study, cited in Curriculum Provision in the Small Primary School, found that teachers spend under 5 seconds with children in 40 percent of one-to-one exchanges. In 2012, John Hattie reported that teachers do the talking 70–80 percent of the time or more. Because it's rare for a teacher to conference unless discipline is the topic, my students feel a little awkward the first time we meet, but soon they are scheduling extra conferences as needed because they've experienced the positive outcomes. Conferences are also the best formative assessment for both my teaching and their learning.
My class time is divided between direct instruction and workshop. Conferences occur during workshop. The student sits behind a folding screen while I sit just beyond the edge so I can monitor classroom activity, and we speak quietly. A folding TV tray stand is our table. I preplan the conferences with a roster on the board and on my clipboard, ready to take notes. I announce who's "up" and who's "on deck" and repeat the call as each conference finishes.
After a session, I erase names so that so we can see who's left for the next day. Quiet background music and the hum of activity maintains conversation confidentiality. Once you gain familiarity with conducting conferences, the time you spend with each student will be 5–10 minutes. The only all-class-period conference cycles are at major grading periods. The rest of the time, I will choose those to whom I need to speak, or students will request a time to conference. Occasionally, I tuck a conference into my planning time, especially if I know the student needs extra time.
Some of the benefits of individual conferences:
1. Students learn how to expect more of themselves. In his 1978 book Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Vygotsky observed that "children grow into the intellectual life around them," but some don't yet have confidence in their abilities or a growth mindset. Discussing where they are and how to get where they need to be produces "emotionally and relationally healthy learning communities—intellectual environments that produce not mere technical competence, but caring, secure, actively literate human beings," writes SUNY Albany professor Peter Johnston in Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning.
2. The teacher and student constantly renegotiate the teaching-learning process and connect each step to larger learning goals always just beyond their current comfort level. Inspired by Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development", Cambridge professor Neil Mercer christened that balance the Interthinking (or Intermental) Development Zone (IDZ). Maintaining the IDZ through regular dialogue keeps everyone pressing onward to the goals and creating new ones.
3. Students receive constant, timely feedback and clarification that makes the student the lead learner. Current feedback tends to be "impoverished and fractured," writes David Nicol. Most of the time, the teacher is a trained expert handing down corrections. We assume students can improve based on what we tell them they need to do, which is in turn based on the assumption that students will completely understand what we tell them as we meant it. If teachers can't close the feedback loop with the student taking an active part in achieving the goal, all the hours we spend providing feedback are pointless.
4. Conferences level the playing field for all learners. The longer students have been without personal choice and responsibility, the harder it may be for them to take ownership when it's offered. It can also be difficult to stop blaming others or external circumstances for past failures. Conferencing allows each student an equal opportunity to enter learning confidently and ask for any necessary help, as well as gaining the teacher's realistic assessment of their abilities. In my time conferencing with students, I find most, even in advanced classes, underestimate their current level of performance and even more fail to believe just how well they can do in the future.
5. Students learn how to manage academic loads. Many students have no idea how to plan ahead or use a calendar, and no adult has taught them how to do it. I discuss how to break assignments into manageable steps and find the best method for tracking due dates.
6. The student and teacher build a deeper relationship. Before a grading period conference, I formulate questions based on what's been happening in class, which allow the student to reflect and for me to see the student's perception before we meet. Those questions and responses can be used as discussion starters once we sit down. I find we connect more genuinely if I take handwritten notes and put most of my effort into listening to the student. Many times, students let me know of situations or misperceptions of which I had no awareness, and I also have an opportunity to encourage them and share my perspective.
Conferencing individually with our students doesn't take away from instructional time; in reality, it is some of the best instructional time we'll spend with our students.
References

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children's learning. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 Donna L. Shrum teaches world history and geography at Central High School in Woodstock, Va. She is a teacher consultant with the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project (SVWP) and codirector of the SVWP College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP).

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Instructional Strategies
Readers React / Feedback for Impact
Educational Leadership Staff
1 month ago

undefined
Performance Tasks or Projects? Complementary Approaches for Student Engagement
Jay McTighe & John Larmer
2 months ago

undefined
Future-Proofing Students
Michele Borba
4 months ago

undefined
Show and Tell: A Video Column / Co-Constructing Success Criteria
Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
4 months ago

undefined
Relevant Read / Flexing Citizenship Skills
Kate Stoltzfus
4 months ago
Related Articles
Readers React / Feedback for Impact
Educational Leadership Staff
1 month ago

Performance Tasks or Projects? Complementary Approaches for Student Engagement
Jay McTighe & John Larmer
2 months ago

Future-Proofing Students
Michele Borba
4 months ago

Show and Tell: A Video Column / Co-Constructing Success Criteria
Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
4 months ago

Relevant Read / Flexing Citizenship Skills
Kate Stoltzfus
4 months ago