Teaching through conferences
It’s a practical reality that English composition teachers have to instruct the group as a whole. Especially in the freshman and sophomore courses, there are required elements that we all have to cover, like the rhetorical analysis of an article.
The difficulty comes in the part of mass teaching, i.e. teaching the same concept to a number of people all at once. There will be students who could have written the paper without instructions, and there are those who still struggle with concepts after three weeks of class instruction. So what can be done?
Try conferences. Conferences provide the personalized instruction that some students find most helpful, while keeping the individualization at a manageable level.
Schedule conferences to happen during class time
When a student signs up for a class, that means that he or she is setting aside time for that course. Some classes have an online/in class component, and some classes are strictly online. Evaluate your situation. If you have brick-and-mortar courses, use the time you have been assigned. If you have only online courses, then pick a couple of days that you can be on campus, with specific hours.
In order to avoid conflicting with work schedules or transportation issues, keep it simple. Have conferences during class time.
Why use ‘class time’ for conferences? Because that is the time students have already blocked out for the course. Students do a lot more than just study during the school term. In order to avoid conflicting with work schedules or transportation issues (as in, I’ll miss the bus if I have to stay after 4 p.m.), keep it simple. Have conferences during class time.
How many conferences should be in a semester?
It’s ideal to have at least two rounds of conferences in a full semester. Gauge your classes’ responses. If you believe more conferences would be beneficial, add more.
If you’re doing only two sets of conferences, add them to the calendar about one third and two thirds of the way through the semester. Starting after you’ve had some weeks of class interaction means you’ll have a better grasp of your students’ writing abilities, and they should have a ballpark idea of how your grading and policies work.
Schedule ten minutes per student for each conference for the first round. For the second round, for more advanced courses, allow up to fifteen minutes per student. Should a student need more than the allotted time, have them come during your office hours.
Make a chart. Circulate it in class and have students choose time slots. Circulate the sign-up sheet about a week before conferences begin, and then re-circulate the chart every class day until the first conference, so students will remember which day and what time they chose. Be sensitive to personal privacy: check with your department about publicly posting names and other personally-identifiable information before posting a name sheet outside your office door. If you will be posting information publicly, think about assigning numbers to the students: post each student’s number with the chosen time slot to completely avoid any confidentiality issues.
Have something to discuss
Schedule your paper assignments so that you have students turn in something before conferences. During conferences, return the assignments. For the first round of meetings, this does not have to be a major assignment, but it can be one of the weightier ones, like a literature review or an annotated bibliography.
Grade the paper before you hand it back. Take notes as you grade, so that you can remember what you want to discuss. Mistakes or perfect spots may seem obvious to you as you are reading each paper, but after about eight papers, you forget the details. Write it out. Keep track of who did what.
Second conferences, which take place a month or so before the end of the semester, can cover a major paper. Schedule it so that you can go over the major paper before the final draft is due. This gives students a heads-up on their progress. Is it on the right track? Was it missing something important? Explain your criteria. Go over the details. By the time the paper reaches your desk for the final grading, you’ve given the students their best chance at handing in a perfect paper.
Conferences are also a time when you can go over cumulative grades. There will be students who really want to know how they are doing – a scholarship or financial assistance may be in the balance. So, have the grades ready to talk about before the conferences begin. Your department may require midterm grades – or not. Be proactive. Give students information on how they are doing, so that they can decide to go into high gear before the desperate end of the semester.
Have students actively participate
When you go over a paper, have your student take notes on things that can be improved. For example, if a student is stumped on locating a scholarly source, go through the process with him or her. Have the student grab a pencil and paper – or a laptop – and record the steps. If there is a part the student has missed in the paper’s development, have him or her write it down on the copy he/she will take home.
Notes that students make on their own work from conferences seem to make a greater impression than spoken directions. Some students quickly ask, “Can I write that down?” Absolutely. If it’s written down, the student can look it up later, instead of struggling to remember, “What did she say?”
Aim for the Best
College is a wonderful environment for development. Students come to the composition classroom – some with very sure skills, and others with a great deal of trepidation. As the instructor, you want to give them the best chance possible for understanding the material, learning the process and making the grade. Hand out instructions, yes, but also offer conferences where you can talk. It’s amazing how just a few minutes spent in conference can clear up confusion.