Effective Conferencing Skills 

I.  Definition of Training Piece

  1. Purpose for the Instructor
    Since the introduction of computers, e-mail, and the Internet to the classroom, student conferencing has taken on new meaning. E-mail has become a wonderful way to relate to students, to respond to them, and if there is real-time computer access, to hold a conversation with them. Conferencing individually with any student in any course only increases the student's connection to instructor, removing the notion that the student and the teacher are disconnected. As a teacher, you want your students to succeed, and returning papers in chemistry, math or English that have marks on them is not helpful to the student. Students indicate they often do not know what the teacher means by certain comments. Talking directly to the student or asking him/her to write something to you directly, in letter form, for example, increases the interaction in the classroom and helps students view you as a facilitator.

    By the end of the module, you will be able to implement two techniques for student conferencing in large or small classes across the curriculum.

  2. Material Covered
    This content module will introduce you to the reasons for conferencing with students, some theory and research supporting the importance of conferencing across the curriculum, and give two suggestions for effective student conferencing.

II.  Foundation

  1. Definition of Concept and Theory
    As instructors, you take time to prepare your syllabus, plan each class period, and work hard to have students learn the material in your courses. Facilitating discussion, posing problems for students to solve, and using other basic skills for facilitating student learning are techniques you use to reach your students. You struggle to find ways to include non-participants in large classes where lecturing is generally the mode of instruction. One way to achieve interaction with students is to conference with them. If you have a large class, you can break students into smaller groups and conference with them in that setting; or perhaps you can set aside two or three class periods to have students join you in your office for a conference. If you take time away from the content of the course, the question to answer is which is most important, teaching the content or teaching the student to find and understand the content himself. Which one will remain with the student for life long learning?

    Conferencing is direct feedback to a student. It is a method of reducing student frustration and allowing students to improve their work before a final assessment for the course. According to Rai Peterson in The Writing Teacher's Companion, there are various types of conferences: Office hours, student-initiated conferences, spontaneous mini conferences (right after class, for example), and formal conferences.

  2. Summary of Relevant Research
    What is important is learning. For students to learn, they must use metacognitive skills to check on their own progress. Conferencing with students helps them assess their own development and improve their learning (Donald, J.G. 1995. New Directions of Teaching and Learning).

    According to McKeachie in Teaching Tips, Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, there is little research on one-on-one teaching. According to McKeachie, students are helped by verbal cues and giving them freedom to work on a task with a small amount of guidance, an experience which can be achieved through conferencing. He suggests that feedback won't help if the learner does not know what to do to avoid the error; conferencing provides the learner an opportunity to learn how to avoid the error. He indicates that coaching is not simply one-way telling; thus conferencing allows the learner to ask questions and allows you to ask the learners their perceptions of what they are doing.

    According to Rai Peterson, marking student work is a monologue, but the conference is a dialogue between the learner and the teacher. Conferencing improves class meetings; students become more interactive in class and see the teacher as an individual committed to his/her success.

    Donald M. Murray in A Writer Teaches Writing says that conference teaching is the most effective way to teach composition. While he has not done research in other disciplines, he states that students, in conferences, learn how to improve their own learning; the conferences allow the instructor to encourage and monitor that learning.

    Finally, there is research being done on conferencing through computers. Mary R. Lea, of Open University in UK, did ethnographic research and she indicates that there is not much known yet about computer conferencing, and that we need to explore further how academic knowledge is constructed through on-line learning communities.

III.  Benefits

  1. Instructor
    According to Donald M. Murray from the University of New Hampshire, most people agree that conferencing is a wonderful learning technique but believe it is impractical in the college setting. He agrees it is a methodological challenge, but that in the end, it is efficient and practical. Teachers who use the conferencing method find it satisfying and successful. While it takes time to set up conferences, you learn to know your students one-to-one, and probably the biggest benefit is the positive attitude the student then brings into the classroom. Instead of writing on tests and papers, you have the opportunity to dialogue with your students allowing your students to ask questions, which you cannot guess are on their minds.

    Another benefit to you is that conferences no longer have to take place in the office. They can take place during class time or on e-mail or using on-line real time.

  2. Student
    Conferencing allows students to ask questions which they may not ask in front of the rest of the students. It also allows one-on-one learning which increases the student's belief in him/herself. Teachers can listen to what is said; students can hear what is said; teaches have a chance to respond to what isn't said, and students have a chance to give feedback to the instructor. Teaching any subject is a matter of learning to move ahead one step at a time; conferencing helps students to see one step at a time.

    Students tend to become more comfortable after conferencing with their instructor. For example, if the student and teacher conference through letter writing, the student shares more and more metacognitive thought with the instructor; if a student is conferencing one-on-one, and the instructor encourages the student to ask questions, and responds to them, students begin to trust their teachers as helpers.

IV.  Implementation

A.  Exploration Exercises for Instructor

You need to develop a list of questions for your first conference, which are open-ended and allow the student to do the questioning once the conference begins. While you pose the first questions, you may ask students to add questions they may have about the subject you teach or ask them to give specific answers about why they are feeling uncomfortable with the course. For example, if you teach Chemistry, your first conference questions might be:
(This conferencing material comes from Dr. Eric Shaw, The Ohio State University A.T.I., Wooster, Ohio)

Gen Chem T131

Name __________________________

  1. What is your main purpose or goal for being at ATI? (List more than one if you feel like it.)
  2. Why are you required to take chemistry?
  3. What do you expect to take away from this course? (What are your goals for this course?)
  4. As a teacher, what can I do to help you realize your goals for this course?
  5. As a student, what can you do to achieve your goals?
  6. Are you willing to do what it takes to realize your goals?

At first, these may not seem like chemistry questions, but they open the avenue for students to express their frustration with the subject matter, or their excitement of the subject matter.

You can put together a beginning conference worksheet before you begin your first conference.

It is important to remember that conferencing takes many directions; but as the instructor, you must be prepared so that the time is used efficiently.

B.  Student Exercises

Whatever course you teach, you can have students keep an error log; the purpose isn't to only point out negative aspects of the students' work, but to highlight topics which can be discussed during the conference. The student can list the questions he/she wishes to discuss when the conference takes place.

Here is an example of an error log for English:

Error Log
Type of Error Assignment Questions to be discussed
Punctuation/Semi-colon Journal writing 3 I do not know when you use a semi-colon or a colon. How can I tell the difference?

C.  Skill Connections

  1. Diversity: Conferencing is an effective way to meet students individually and begin to understand a student's previous experiences. Diversity in conferencing methods (face-to-face and online for example) also helps students who may have difficulty with either spoken or written language because of their backgrounds or learning styles. The Diversity module provides additional classroom activities.
  2. Active Learning: Conferencing can be an active learning experience if the conference is developed so the student is taking responsibility for the content that will be discussed in the conference. For more active learning strategies, visit the Active Learning module.

V.  Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can I take time to conference with students when I have so much material to cover?
A: If you have a large class, conferencing while students are working in teams on some other project can reduce time taken away from class material. But remember conferencing with students is like priming before painting. The groundwork makes a difference in the future product.

Q: How do I assist students to see conferences as a valuable use of their time?
A: One method of conferencing to show students you are willing to listen and talk with them about their work is to circulate among early arriving students to ask if they have any questions, and then to use those questions to start the class. Students believe they are being taken seriously. Then you might set up regular conferences in your office.

Q: When I have large classes, how is it possible to conference?
A: A major problem of teaching large classes is that the students feel anonymous. Their anonymity results in damaging morale, and they take less personal responsibility. Finding time to either conference one-on-one with students, or sending around a sheet which they are required to sign indicating when they will meet with you to go over an exam or a paper or a project takes little class time and allows students in large classes to feel less anonymous.

VI.  Helpful Resources

Research on conferencing on-line.

Suggestions for one-to-one conferences.

Workshop Information
www.facultytraining.com to attend a workshop on this topic or bring one to your campus, visit this site or call Faculty Training at (800) 856-5727.