Student Conferences: Individualized Feedback

Written by Austin Palaad
August 7, 2019 • 3 minute read

An important indicator of a teacher’s success in the classroom is their capacity to connect with their students — it increases students’ trust in their instruction, fosters autonomy, and helps prevent discipline issues. A teacher that puts in the time to understand their students on a personal level can have a more in-depth understanding of their problems and learning challenges. This is what makes student conferences, one-on-one student to faculty communication, an integral assessment tool for teachers of any discipline or level.

Student conferences are an excellent opportunity for a teacher to discuss course expectations with a student in a private manner and assess how well they are managing these expectations.

There are a lot of reasons that you may be averse to student conferencing. Maybe you don’t have the appropriate space to meet with students. Maybe your class is too big to run conferences efficiently, or your course is focused on exams as opposed to essays and projects. However, regardless of circumstances, the benefits of a dynamic and personal relationship with your students can not be underestimated.

Michael Millner writes about his experiences replacing written feedback on essays with student conferences in The Chronicle of Higher Education. While he does not advocate for completely avoiding written feedback, he does note that he “came to have a better sense of [his] students’ lives and how all of that might connect with the work [they] do in the classroom.” Both written feedback and student conferences are inherently valuable as feedback tools, but the true merit of conferencing lies within the personal connections that are developed and how these connections foster effective learning.

Student conferencing will look different for every classroom. It could be more effective for your conferences to happen during office hours outside of class, or even during class while the rest of your students work and talk among themselves. Set clear expectations beforehand to ensure that your students know what to expect for the meeting and prepare themselves accordingly. Don’t forget that this is not just an opportunity to assess their progress in the curriculum, but also how their personal lives are factoring into this progress.

Here are some helpful strategies for conducting successful student conferences, courtesy of Alexandra Gold from InsideHigherEd:

  • Listen First: With written feedback, teachers inevitably must make assumptions about what students are trying to achieve. Listening is valuable because it allows the students’ papers to remain theirs. Allow your students to explain their own objectives or decide where they would like to receive feedback for the conference.
  • Utilize “Forced Choice”: When a student is confused by a question you pose, it can be extremely helpful to employ a “forced choice”: a mode of questioning where you present the student two options (“do you mean X or Y?”). This allows them to either hone in one side of the binary or to recognize that their actual meaning (Z) is getting lost entirely.
  • Give the Student Time to Think: If you find that silence lingering during a conference, it can be helpful to allow your student time to collect their thoughts. 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.
  • Sit Next to the Student: 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.
  • Embrace the Group Conference: Instead of meeting one-on-one, you may choose to 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 their work addresses a community of readers.

Writing and Intensive Feedback

Dr. Jonathan Hunt, a professor of Rhetoric and Language and co-director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, uses student conferences with specific agendas to effectively deliver feedback to his students.

Are you or someone you know finding success with student conferencing in your course? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Email to share your story.

The University of San Francisco provides access to Zoom, a video conferencing application that can be downloaded to computers and mobile devices. Learn more about Zoom at the ITT resource page.

Whether you don’t know where to start or have a particular educational technology in mind, we are here to help! To learn how to apply educational technologies to your course, request an Instructional Design consultation.

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