Preparing for Effective Conferences with Students

Dawn Biehler, Department of Geography
Some of the most effective writing instruction takes place in individual conferences with students.  Here's a step-by-step guide to make the most of your conference time.

One-on-one conferencing yields the best results if you …

        * Prepare well so you can think on your feet during the conference.

        * Convey a strong message to students about the strengths and weaknesses of their draft.

        * Ask students questions to encourage critical thinking about their own writing.

        * Think of this as a chance to learn about your students as human beings.

        * Begin working on revisions together during the conference.


Planning and preparing for great writing conferences: A model timeline





  • Plan out when conferences will occur, factoring in time for grading.

First day of class

  • Collect information about students on note cards or other medium.
  • Explain that you take writing seriously, that conferences are mandatory, and that feedback is an ongoing process. Perhaps mention “optional” conferences for assignments where conferences are not mandatory.

One week before due date

  • Remind students that next week they will sign up for writing conferences – they should bring their calendars.

On the due date

  • When setting up time slots, allow yourself some breathing room between conferences.
  • Pass around a sign-up list; instruct students how to prepare for conferences.

While grading

  • Keep in mind that you cannot comment on everything; make sure the top two to three issues stand out clearly.
  • Note instances of strengths or problems by page number for easy reference.

Minutes before the conference

  • Briefly review the student’s note card, the draft, and your comments.
  • Be ready to talk about the top two to three issues in the paper.

The conference

  • Establish rapport by greeting your students and asking questions.
  • Explain the agenda of the conference.
  • Ask the student about what aspects of the draft they like and which they want to change.
  • Return the draft while explaining your overall comments.
  • Allow the student to read your comments, and then allow them to ask questions. The whole rest of the conference may flow naturally from the student’s own questions and concerns.
  • Coach your student to plan revision strategies, and begin implementing those strategies by working through a small piece of revision together. See page 4 for examples.
  • Ensure that students will take appropriate next steps. Make sure they write down ideas, strategies, and actual revisions.
  • End on a positive note, remind students not to throw away the draft, and encourage follow-up if appropriate.


A good writing conference goes a long way…

Research and educators’ experiences point to at least three benefits of writing conferences.

1. Better writing and thinking – on both the final draft of the conferenced paper, and on future assignments. Meeting face-to-face allows you to coach students in ways that discussion section or lab does not. Here, students see what it is like to be a reader of their writing. The questions you ask of students in the conference, and the skills you ask them to practice right there, in front of you, will encourage deeper thinking on this assignment and carry over to future writing exercises.

2. More productive relationships between TA and student. The writing conference is a chance to learn more about your students and demonstrate how you can help them improve as writers. Many students find writing to be an intimidating process; here you can encourage them to ask questions, to seek additional help, and to trust you as a reader.

3. Smoother-running discussion sections. Many TAs find that after writing conferences, students contribute more freely and thoughtfully in discussion sections.

…but you have to be prepared to take advantage of those 15 minutes.

It is easy to allow conferences to become a rote exercise or a hollow gesture – these will bring none of the above benefits. On the other hand, great writing conferences can follow many different paths. The points below expand on the table on page 1 based on my own conferencing style.



1.     Try to schedule writing conferences for the week when you return the first draft of a staged assignment, allowing at least an additional week between the writing conference and the deadline for the final draft. This way you can talk about very specific writing issues on which students will be eager to take action. I have done writing conferences both after a one-draft paper and between the first and final drafts of a two-draft paper. I much prefer the latter – students take the conferences more seriously, and they grow much more as writers.

2.     When will you hand back drafts – in section or at the conference? Often you will not have a spare week in which to hand back comments prior to conferences. Whatever the case, set aside enough time to grade the drafts, and know how and when students will get the comments back. If it’s during the conference, they will need a few minutes to read the comments.

First day of class

3.     Explain your commitment to writing from Day 1. By saying that you take the writing component of the course seriously, you prepare students for the work ahead. I like to explain that writing is an ongoing process – that there is always more growth and improvement to do – and that writing is a way of thinking. It may also help to explain that feedback on writing is a never-ending process – taking your suggestions will not automatically get them an “A.”


On the due date

4.     Tell students how to prepare for the conference. By having students ask questions about and reflect on their draft as a homework assignment, you help them generate some of their own structure for the conference. If you hand back drafts in section before the conferences, have students read your comments thoroughly and write down two to three questions to bring to the conference. Otherwise, you can ask students to jot down two things about the draft they are proud of, and two things they want to improve, and use these to start conversation during the conference. Ask them to bring a notebook for writing down ideas and thoughts about revisions. If you are concerned about their citation practices or research skills, you might request that individual students to bring their research notes.

5.     Warn students against missing their appointment, but tell them what to do if they can’t make it. I typically tell students that they should call my office if they find themselves delayed or unable to attend at the last minute. I emphasize, however, that rescheduling is a serious inconvenience to me and that they should make every effort to make their original time slot.

While grading

6.     When commenting on drafts, resist the temptation to correct every problem. Decide on a few important issues to focus on, bearing in mind the LOC-GLOC distinction. This guideline for responding to drafts is important both for students and for your own preparation.


Minutes before the conference

7.     Briefly review the draft right before the student arrives. In the few minutes before a conference begins, refresh your memory about the most important topics to discuss, and be ready to point to specific instances of problems that you found in the draft.


During the conference

8.     Be ready to greet students and put them at ease before talking about the paper. I always address students by name when they arrive and ask them a few genuine questions about themselves; being too businesslike or hurried is not only unnecessary, but also off-putting. Having collected data about students on index cards on the first day, I often ask about their hometown or major, as well as about their semester and their impressions of the class so far.

9.     Talk about the draft as you hand it back, rather than letting your written comments speak for themselves. In my class, we hand back comments and drafts during writing conferences. Especially when a student writes a poor draft, it is tempting just to hand back the comments and let the student see how they did. When I first started teaching Comm-B, I made this mistake a few times, and I found it came with two problems. First, students sometimes found the surprise upsetting. Second, they don’t necessarily get the big picture just by reading the comments. I now prefer to ask what they like about the draft and what they think needs improvement, and then convey a strong message about what I see as the strengths and weaknesses as I hand over my comments. Here are some lead-ins that I often use:

v  “This is a strong first draft. You do a good job of X and Z. You have some work to do on Y.”

v  “I see some good ideas in this draft. There are some areas, X and Y, where you’re going to have to do a lot of revision, though, okay?”

v  “I want you to know that X is good, but you still have a lot of work to do for the final draft. It looks like you had serious problems with Y and Z, and we can talk about those when you’re done reading.”

10.   After students read your comments, ask whether they have any questions. Ideally, students will be able to start the conversation about next steps, though many will need more guidance – see below. When appropriate you can turn students’ questions back on them.

11.   Even if the student agrees with your comments, don’t just let the conference end there. It is common for students to say, “Well, it looks like if I just change X and Y, I’ll get a good grade. Is that all we need to talk about?” Here is your cue to ask how they will make those changes, to have them walk through parts of the revision process with you, and to impress upon them the serious work that is left for them to do. In some situations, students know they want more help after reading your comments, but don’t know how to ask the right questions. If you have done a good job in the process of writing comments, you should have identified a few problems to work on in the conference, and initial ideas about how to approach them. Here are some examples of ways to use this opportunity well.

v  In general, it is better to ask students questions than to give them instructions. Present yourself as a curious and interested reader.  

v  Ask about how they might improve their thesis statement. This might involve having them articulate their argument without looking at the paper, asking them to explain their reasoning, or getting them to talk about how their sub-topics relate to the thesis.

v  Probe their use of evidence or examples. This is one of many ways to show students what it is like to be a reader of their writing. Try asking questions like, “What is the connection between this example and your overall argument?”

v  Discuss strategies for organizing ideas. I often ask students, “Did you write an outline before you started your draft?” The answer is almost always, “No, but I know I should. I’ve never been good at organizing my thoughts.” At that point I often suggest that they make outlining a habit, and that they try a reverse outline for the draft. Help get them started by asking questions about what each paragraph does. Make sure they write it down!

v  If a student has serious problems with sentence structure or clarity, work together to revise a short passage that exemplifies those problems.

Remember, asking students questions is not the same as letting them lead the conference. Be sure that you address global concerns and not only local writing; students often mistake grammar or other local issues for the most pressing revisions needed. Also, get them started walking through their revisions, be it a reverse outline, a new thesis statement, or other global aspects of the draft. Use those fifteen minutes well!

 12.   You can offer feedback about class participation here, too. Before I say good-bye to a student, I often try to work the topic of participation into the conversation. If a student seems to be tentative about speaking, I might say, “I thought your comment the other day on X was really insightful. It was good to hear from you.” If the student has been vocal and I want him/her to keep it up, I say, “I really appreciate how active you’ve been in discussion.” For those who have been completely silent, I try to get them to talk about what they think about the class, to encourage them to talk, or even to remind them of the grade value of participation. I have been impressed with the results of these little nudges.

 13.   On the rare occasion when a student misses a conference, decide on consequences. I have never levied a grade penalty for missed conferences; instead, I withhold drafts until students arrive for their conference. In these cases you have to decide whether to allow these students extra time to complete their final drafts, or if you will hold them to the original deadline.