December 11th, 2017

Meaningful Learning through One-on-One Conferences


professor and student meeting to discuss writing

Graduate students frequently get the chance to meet one-on-one with their professors. Yet at the undergraduate level, especially during the first year, students rarely get that chance, unless they take the initiative to come to office hours or schedule a meeting.

This is unfortunate. I teach first-year writing, and at least once every semester, I meet one-on-one with each of my students, usually to review a draft of their first paper. My students love these conferences, partly because they offer a chance for personal contact with their instructor, and partly because the conferences provide them with uniquely meaningful feedback.

Grant Wiggins writes in “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback” that although we call our comments on student papers feedback, anything “after the fact” is not true feedback. Rather, meaningful feedback tells students how they “are doing in [their] efforts to reach a goal.” It needs to happen while those efforts are ongoing, so students can make the necessary changes to succeed. Wiggins adds that feedback needs also to be timely, actionable, and user-friendly; only when students can easily follow their instructors’ advice, and put that advice into practice, are they likely to excel.

In one-on-one meetings, it’s possible to provide students with this kind of feedback, and ultimately, to deepen and enrich the entire learning experience. In view of my experiences, I see three key advantages to the conferences:

One of the most important features of conferences is their timeliness. I usually schedule conferences the week prior to submission, when students have drafted their paper but not completed it. Together, we identify strengths to build on and weaknesses to correct as students get ready to turn in the paper. Because students are engaged in the writing process at the time of the conference, their work is fresh on their mind, and they are open to guidance in a way they cannot be after the paper is submitted. Conferences open a very real window of opportunity for providing feedback when students are able, and willing, to apply.

Conferences also make it easier for students to apply that feedback. When I plan classes, I plan activities that will be useful to every student present, but when I meet with students one-on-one, I am able to speak directly to their individual needs. I may identify specific challenges each student faces, demonstrate appropriate solutions to the challenges, or rehearse possible revisions to the students’ draft. Because students are applying general skills learned in class to an actual paper in front of them, they are more likely to transfer their learning to subsequent papers and, eventually, later coursework and projects.

Conferences also make feedback, and the learning process more broadly, more accessible to students. The first reason for this is obvious; a conversation is easier to understand than handwritten, or even typed, comments. Haven’t we all had a teacher notorious for her cryptic feedback? Haven’t we been that teacher at some point? In a one-on-one conference, this is no longer a concern. Students are receiving feedback orally, not in writing; and they are there in person to ask for clarification and discuss alternatives.

Yet the conference makes feedback more accessible in other, more substantial, ways too. The space for conferences, usually the teacher’s office, is student-friendly in a way that classroom space is not. In a classroom, students are surrounded by peers, while the teacher often stands at the front of the classroom. Ultimately, the conference opens up a more productive, friendly relationship where the student feels freer to seek out, and apply, the teacher’s advice.

Yet in my view, the greatest advantage of conferences is the way they change not only how feedback is received but what feedback is received as well. To a much greater extent than in-class discussions, they allow me to challenge and support my students’ thinking.

We have neither the time nor privacy for extensive discussion of each student’s paper during class. One-on-one, however, we are free to talk about all kinds of things. I may ask students to clarify a point, note a flaw in their reasoning, question their assumptions, provide an alternate view, or recommend an article to read or a podcast to listen to. Patricia Bizzell writes that first-year students are likely to hold strong, black-and-white views of the world, to see everything as “right or wrong” (p. 300). In talking with students about their ideas, I have a unique opportunity to complicate this dualism, and to take their first steps towards becoming thoughtful, nuanced writers.

Bizzell, Patricia. “William Perry and Liberal Education.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 3rd ed. Edited by Victor Villaneuva and Kristin L. Arola, National Council of Teachers of English, 2011, pp. 300-23.

Wiggins, Grant. “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.” Educational Leadership. 70:1 (Sept 2012). 10-16. ASCD. 10-16. Accessed 12 Oct 2017.

Megan Von Bergen is the sole writing and literature instructor at Emmaus Bible College.