WRITE ON — Fall 2016 — Week 6

Responding to student writing: Conferences

Last week, we shared tips for commenting on student writing in writing, but there are other ways to engage with students about their work. Conferencing, for example, creates an opportunity for you and your students to discuss the ideas and the rhetorical choices they have made in their writing. You might require students to come to conferences while they are drafting, offer comments on half of your students’ papers and conferences to the other half (and then switch for the next paper), or reserve some of your office hours specifically for optional paper conferences for students who want help beyond your written comments. Like commenting on student papers, conferencing can seem time consuming, but practitioners have developed a number of best practices that can help students get the most out of conferences without overburdening you, their professors.

  • Use conferences for specific, limited purposes. As with commenting, conferencing need not address every aspect of a student’s writing. A very early conference can, for example, can just be a five-minute session wherein you make transparent your expectations for a prompt and ask your students to “pitch” their paper ideas to you. A first-draft conference can focus on one element of a student’s paper you’d like to see revised: the thesis, the organization, the use of source material, etc. Remember that feedback on any paper—whether in conference or comment form—should aim to help students think and write in our disciplines, and not produce a perfect paper.
  • Put the onus of work on students. A conference doesn’t need to be you talking for a set amount of time to your students. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t! At an early conference, you might ask students to bring summaries of the prompt along with their outlines. After they’ve submitted drafts, you might ask your students to bring notes about their papers’ strengths and weaknesses or specific questions they have after a peer response session. During a conference, you might ask your students to outline their own papers while you read them out loud, and then discuss the outline with them.
  • Let students be resources to one another. Consider facilitating small group conferences. You might group together students working on similar topics to workshop each other’s ideas at a conference, or group together students whose papers need revision in similar areas and address all of them at once. Students can then rely on each other to help fill in where their notes may lack or to check-in once they’ve made some changes to their work. This not only models scholarly collaboration but also encourages writing habits that are more authentically about effective communication.

For more information about conferencing (and more), check out John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (2011, John Wiley & Sons).