First-Year Preceptorial

Conferencing with Students

A Powerful Way to Help Students Become Better Readers and Writers

Why conferencing works for teaching and learning:   

            In a one-to-one conference, you have the student’s full attention and you can provide attention to individual concerns.  True dialogue can occur, with both student and teacher participating interactively.  Take advantage of the conference by focusing the session on a few key points, points that the student will likely remember. 

A conference also allows instructors to emphasize writing as communication; respond to a student paper as a reader, letting students know/hear what comes across in their writing and what doesn’t, which helps them develop a sensitivity to audience.   Finally, listen!   You as an instructor can learn a lot about how to respond, what needs clarifying, etc. from conference sessions with students.   

When to conference:

  • To guide composing:  when the student is planning or in the process of writing; the focus of the conference is on ideas rather than polished prose
  • To guide revision:  the instructor may be seeing a draft for the first time, may be responding to it only partially; the aim is to shape the student’s revision prior to submission for evaluation/re-evaluation
  • “Post-mortem” (response to a draft that has been evaluated):  instructor may be summarizing, clarifying, prioritizing the response, with the aim of improving future writing

Principles of good conferencing:

  • Focus the session:  Make an impact by discussing a few key ideas
  • Be positive—Confirm what works well.  Building a writer’s confidence leads to further learning.  Compliment the student on topic choice, a particularly well-written paragraph, overall sense of organization, for example.  (Students interpret our “theory of writing” from our response.  Do we want them to think that writing is about communicating ideas well?  Or that writing is about avoiding errors?)
  • Prioritize the problem areas – students are very poor at doing this
    • Vary how you respond based on the student’s ability
      • The better the writer, the more detailed and varied your comments can be.
      • The weaker the writer, the more focused and prioritized your comments should be.
    • Simplify priorities.  Don’t cover too much; focus on higher-order priorities before lower-order ones. 
      • Higher order: focus, organization, idea development, tone
      • Lower order: sentence structure, grammar/usage, punctuation, spelling
  • Encourage (or require) the student’s involvement.  You shouldn’t be doing all the talking.
    • Ask them to prepare their questions for you in advance.
    • Ask them to choose a focus for the session when you begin.
      • What do you want me to focus on?
      • What most concerns you?
    • Ask them to summarize your evaluation comments first.
  • Read the text (or portions of it) aloud.  Let students hear the language (and the errors) and your reaction as a reader.  All writers benefit from hearing a reader’s response!

Recommended Practices

  • Require at least one conference during the term.  Pass around a sign-up sheet with times listed at, for example, 15-20 minute intervals.  Done early in the term, this helps you get to know them as individuals, ensures they know where your office is, puts them at ease, and makes it easier for some to ask for help later.
  • Be a transparent reader (Walvoord).  Allow the student to see a reader’s reactions.  This is the single most powerful way to convey to students that writing needs to communicate ideas clearly, and that failure to do so has consequences.  Read the paper, or a section of it aloud, commenting on your reading/thinking process as you do so.  Read the errors, stumble over awkward sentences, read confusing sentences more than once, and comment on the sense you are making as you read. 
    • “So, what you’re focusing on is …..”   “You’ve introduced several ideas, but I’m still confused about what you’re actually trying to say in the paper.”   “How is this idea related to the earlier one?”  “Didn’t you already mention this point?”  “I’m confused.  Do you mean … or ….?”  “This paragraph was clear even on a first reading.”  “I like the way you add that bit of humor here.”
    • This “transparent reading” may only have to be done for a part of the paper.  You might just read the introduction, or the first page.  One professor starts with the conclusion and then reads the introduction.   
  • Have the student read a section of the paper aloud, so that he/she hears the problems.
  • Ask students about their writing process.  How much time did they spend on a draft?  What parts of writing are most difficult for them?  How do they usually proofread?
  • Some instructors like group conferences (3 or 4 students receiving feedback individually but in the presence of others, who may have similar or complementary problems). 



Types of conferencing:

  • “Readerly” conferences:  the instructor provides the writer with feedback as a reader attempting to make sense of the writer’s text
  •  “Writerly” conferences:  the writer discusses his/her ideas, strengths, problems, plans; the instructor listens, encourages, advises, responds as a fellow writer/consultant