Developed by Dr. Kathryn Evans, Writing Studio Director
When instructors meet with students in small groups to respond to their writing, both students and instructors report that students learn more than they do from written responses. Just as important, small-group conferencing need not take any more of the instructor's time than writing responses. (The time that would normally be spent reading a paper and writing comments is instead spent reading and giving oral feedback.) This webpage details the potential benefits of small-group conferencing and outlines steps that instructors can take to achieve these benefits.
Numerous studies have found that students often misunderstand teacher response. While written response precludes teachers from being aware of misunderstanding, the back-and-forth nature of conferencing allows us to gauge how much students have understood.
When our comprehension checking reveals that someone has not understood a point, we can repair our utterances. We can also ask other others to repair; we can ask students what they meant. We get a second chance at communication that we don't get in written response. Moreover, conferencing gives students the opportunity to ask questions. Although students rarely ask questions to clarify teachers' written responses, they do frequently ask for clarification in a well-run conference.
Conferencing offers more opportunities to get students actively involved: students--not just the teacher--can be actively involved in problem identification, and students can take action to actually solve problems.
The more actively involved students are, the more likely they are to learn.
Understanding students' choices. Students' purposes in writing are not always discernable from their texts and yet to help students achieve their intended purposes, we need to know what they are. Conferencing generally gives us more insight into students' purposes and textual choices.
Praise. While typical practices of written response afford only the chance to praise students' written texts, conferencing also allows us opportunities to praise both of the following: the on-the-spot revisions produced during the conference, and students' analyses of each other's writing. This additional praise can be a powerful motivator.
Analysis of more writing. While written response and one-on-one conferencing focus on the analysis of one piece of writing, small-group conferencing showcases analyses of multiple pieces of writing. Students generally learn more in a sixty-minute discussion of three papers than they do in a twenty-minute discussion of one paper (or in a two-minute reading of a written response).
Reinforcement. The end of a conference offers an opportunity for students to summarize implications for their future writing. This summary provides valuable reinforcement of key pointsreinforcement that students would be less likely to get with written response.
If these potential advantages aren't being realized in practice, consider the following strategies:
Start the discussion of each work by giving each writer a chance to use the criteria handout to self-assess his or her work and tell readers what specifically he or she would like feedback on. Asking students to apply the criteria to their own work reinforces the criteria, and asking them what they want feedback on helps the group tailor its feedback to each student's needs.
Rather than allowing the discussion to lose focus, consider these strategies:
Favor depth over breadth. Covering fewer points in more depth allows students to learn more. (Issues that aren't in scope can be always be addressed in future conferences.)
Look for patterns. Rather than overwhelming a student by pointing out ten different errors, we can note that there are only two or three patterns to focus on. We can also teach students to look for patterns.
Prioritize. Which patterns are more serious? Do some undermine the writer's ethos more than others? Render an argument less persuasive? Prioritizing patterns gives students more direction in their future writing.
To leverage the "comprehension checking" advantages of conferencing, consider having students do on-the-spot revisions. After modeling how to find and fix fragments, for example, we could ask each group member to find and fix another fragment. We might also say to students "Compare the paragraph on the bottom of p. 2 to the one on the top of p. 4 and tell me which one you think offers more evidence to support the claim." We could then ask all students in the group to revise the less effective example to make it better approximate the effective example. The group could then compare and analyze all the revisions.
Asking students to do on-the-spot revisions offers three benefits. First, students have a chance to applyand thus reinforcethe targeted writing strategy. Second, they see a range of possible ways to present an idea, thus driving home the point that effective writing involves deliberately generating and choosing from among alternatives. Third, students' on-the-spot revisions allow us to engage in comprehension checking -- to gauge how well students have understood the targeted writing strategy. This knowledge is key, since it tells the teacher whether s/he needs to spend more time on a concept or whether it's okay to move on.
This strategy -- along with frequent comprehension checking -- is perhaps most key in making conferences effective. It's generally better to have writers frame summaries in terms of their future writing rather than in terms of the specific paper discussed on that day. Compare, for example, the following:
"Oh, I did X well and did Y poorly in this paper."
"In my future writing, I should keep doing X and focus on improving Y."
Framing the summary in terms of future writing can make the feedback seem more relevant to students. Thus, they are more likely to remember and apply it. Students' summaries can also provide a final comprehension check, giving us one last opportunity to influence what they focus on in their future writing.
Last Modified: February 20, 2007