Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.
I am currently in the midst of holding individual conferences with students in one of my writing classes. These individual conferences, which last anywhere from 15-45 minutes, are extremely valuable for many reasons. I get an opportunity to not only give individual, customized feedback but also to have productive conversations with students about their ideas, their writing process, their drafts, and their revision plans. Also, these conferences help me get to know my students better, which often times leads to more investment in the course and in their writing projects. While individual conferences have clear benefits, so do group conferences. Group conferencing can help students become stronger writers and better at giving helpful revision feedback to other writers; they also have the potential to save instructors’ time.
Before I explain the values of group conferencing in detail, let me describe this kind of conferencing and provide one possible structure for organizing conferences.
Group conferencing simply entails an instructor meeting with two or more students to provide feedback and have a discussion about a draft of a writing project. When I hold group conferences, I often ask students to exchange papers prior to the conference and be prepared to give specific feedback to their peer related to the assignment guidelines and assessment criteria. I ask students to informally jot down notes that they can reference during the session. In preparation for group conferences, I follow the exact same steps as my students. I often meet with two students at a time for 20-30 minutes, but the conference length will depend on the nature of the writing assignment and the amount of pre-writing or drafting work students have done beforehand.
Below are some reasons why group conferences are valuable:
- Group conferences provide instructors an opportunity to model what productive feedback is and sounds like.
It is valuable to hold group conferences prior to facilitating peer review so that students can learn the kind of feedback that is helpful to give for revision and the kind of language that is productive in talking about another writer’s work. Orchestrating a productive peer review session is incredibly difficult, most of the time because students don’t know what it is or how to do it. As a result, often times, even with a specific prompt, students resort to giving feedback on grammar or mechanics. In a group conference, students have the opportunity to witness the instructor’s thought process and how they support each student writer. Further, the instructor can help redirect student comments that focus on lower level concerns as well as praise or help students further develop or elaborate on their comments. Instructors may consider asking students to compose a brief reflection noting what they learned about giving meaningful feedback in the group conference.
- Student writers have the opportunity to witness how an audience takes up and understands their writing.
In a group conference, the instructor and students are a real-life audience. The student writer is able to visually see and hear how a real audience engages with their writing. Further, instructors and students inevitably offer different feedback. The instructor and student might focus their attention on completely different aspects of the paper, which may be helpful in understanding variances in audience engagement as well as differences in how people perceive what constitutes strong writing.
- Feedback offered on one student’s draft often prompts another student(s) to reflect on their own draft.
In a group conference, students get to hear two sets of feedback on two different papers. Regardless of whether or not the students are writing about the same topic, students will often hear feedback on someone else’s writing and use it to think about their own writing. A student might say, “I really like the way Suzy organized her paper. I think it works better than how I did it” or “I did that too! I’m happy to see we both are meeting the expectations of the assignment.” In my experience, moments like these illustrate the value of group conferences.
- Oral feedback often times is more productive than written feedback.
I have written about the value of using talk in learning environments in a previous blog post and some of what I say there about audio process notes applies to group conferences. For both the instructor and the students, oral feedback, as opposed to written feedback, offers the opportunity to be informal and conversational. Talk invites dialogue, divergence, and unexpected or surprising moments that often lead to good ideas and thus strong feedback for writers. Unlike written feedback, the instructor and students don’t have to worry about complete thoughts or sentences: the opportunity to ask questions or ask for clarification, for example, is a strong affordance of face-to-face interactions.
- Group conferences often take instructors less time than individual conferences or providing written feedback.
When instructors are faced with teaching anywhere from 50 to 90 student writers, the amount of time spent on giving feedback on student writing is an important consideration. In my experience, group conferences save time without shortchanging good revision feedback. This is especially true when both the students and instructor come to the conference prepared and ready to engage in meaningful conversation.
There are three major challenges that I’ve faced when conducting group conferences: students not submitting their work to the instructor and peer prior to the session, students being ill-prepared to give feedback, and student lack of engagement during a session. In efforts to foster “buy-in,” instructors should talk to students about the value of group conferencing, what they can learn from engaging in them, and what they need to do—both before and during the conference—to make the session as productive as possible. Instructors may also want to consider attaching a grade weight to the group conferences.