University of Wisconsin–Madison

Save Time by Making One-on-One Conferences as Efficient as Possible

John Bean

Distinguish Between Higher-Order and Lower-Order Concerns

Conferences are most productive if you concentrate first on the higher-order concerns of ideas, organization, development, and overall clarity as opposed to lower-order concerns of style, grammar, and mechanics. The lower-order concerns are lower not because they are unimportant but because they cannot be efficiently attended to until the higher-order concerns have been resolved. (There is little point to correcting the comma splices in a paragraph that needs to be completely reconceptualized.) Conferences should focus primarily on helping students create good, idea-rich arguments and wrestle them into a structure that works.

Start a Conference by Setting an Agenda with the Student

Conferences work best when students are encouraged to do most of the talking—rehearsing their papers’ arguments while the teacher listen and coaches. Too often, though, conferences become dominated by teacher talk. Try to avoid the tendency to tell students what to say in their papers. Although you might picture an “ideal essay” in response to your assignment, very few students are going to produce what you yourself would write. Conferences should be primarily listening sessions where the instructor asks questions and the student does 80 to 90 percent of the talking. Most students have never experienced a teacher’s actually being interested in their ideas. Engaging them in genuine conversation, showing real interest in their work, respecting their ideas—these are enormous favors to a novice writer. To establish a supportive listening tone at the beginning of a conference, the instructor can work with the student to set a mutual agenda.

Develop a Repertoire of Conferencing Strategies

After setting an agenda, you begin the actual conference. How you conduct the conference depends on where the student is in the writing process. Some students need help at the very highest levels—finding a thesis and a basic plan for an argument. Others might have a good overall plan but lots of confusing places along the way. In conducting a conference, you may wish to try one or more of the following strategies, tailored to each individual case:

If ideas are thin…

  • Make an idea map to brainstorm for more ideas.
  • Play devil’s advocate to deepen and complicate the ideas.
  • Help the writer add more examples, better details, more supporting data or arguments.

If the reader gets lost…

  • Have the student talk through the ideas to clear up confusing spots.
  • Help the student sharpen the thesis by seeing it as the writer’s answer to a controversial or problematic question (get the student to articulate the question that the thesis “answers”).
  • Make an outline or a tree diagram to help with organization.
  • Help the writer clarify the focus by asking questions about purpose:
    “My purpose in this paper is…”
    “My purpose in this section/paragraph is…”
    “Before reading my paper, the reader will have this view of my topic:…; after reading my paper, my reader will have this different view of my topic:…”
  • Show the student where you get confused or “miscued” in reading the draft (“I started getting lost here because I couldn’t see why you were giving me this information,” or, “I thought you were going to say X, but then you said Y” ).
  • Show the student how to write transitions between major sections or between paragraphs.

If you can understand the sentences but cannot see the point…

  • Help the writer articulate meaning by asking “so what” questions: “I can understand what you are saying here, but I don’t quite understand why you are saying it. I read all these facts, and I say, ‘So what?’ What do these facts have to do with your thesis?” (This helps the writer bring the point to the surface. You can then help the writer formulate topic sentences for paragraphs.)

Throughout the conference, try to make “readerly” rather than “writerly” comments—that is, describe your mental experience in trying to read the draft rather than telling the writer how to fix it. For example, say, “I had trouble seeing the point of this paragraph,” rather than, “Begin with a topic sentence.” This approach helps writers see that their purpose in revising is to make the reader’s job easier rather than to follow “English teacher rules.”

In conducting conferences, I like to have plenty of blank sheets of paper available; as the student talks, I jot down the student’s ideas. At the end of the conference, I give the student my notes as a record of the conference.