[dropcap]I[/dropcap] decided last spring to implement a new teaching strategy: individual midterm conferences with every student enrolled in my classes. That’s approximately 75 students total. Throughout my years of teaching, I’d heard colleagues report that meeting with students individually during the semester had a positive impact on students’ learning experience. I believed them, and yet, I had trouble figuring out how to find time for meaningful conferences with every one of my students without sacrificing too much class time. True, I could insist that students meet me during office hours, but my office hours are usually booked up with advising and remediation appointments, which are important and meaningful in their own right. I decided I needed to make the time. I took a close look at my syllabi, and I rearranged lectures and in-class activities to allow for individual in-class conferences during weeks 7 and 8 of the semester.
In planning the midterm conferences, my overarching goal was to help students succeed in the course and that entailed several sub-goals. First, I wanted to provide students with individualized feedback about their progress in the course and that meant preparing reports for each student. I offered feedback that reinforced areas where the student was performing well and made suggestions for improvement in areas where the student was struggling. Second, I wanted the conference to be a conversation between me and the student, rather than me simply talking to the student. To that end, I asked students to prepare one specific question about the course that I could answer during the conference. I got this part of the conversation started by asking, “Is there something specific that you need help doing or understanding in this course?”
My third sub-goal was to focus the remainder of the conference on the students’ specific questions and concerns as well as help them set attainable goals and strategies for to achieving them.
I aspired to make the one-on-one conferences a positive experience for students. First and foremost, I wanted students to understand that, although we would be discussing areas of concern, the conference was not about me trying to embarrass them or get them in trouble. Because students’ grades would be discussed, I wanted to keep the conversation as private as possible despite us being in a classroom with other students present. I set up a table at the back of the classroom and kept the other students busy with meaningful work. I even played soft classical music to alleviate any concern that our conversation might be overheard. It was important to me that students felt they had my complete and undivided attention during our conference time.
Prior to conducting the midterm conferences, I received permission from my institution’s IRB to collect students’ feedback on their conference experience. At the end of the semester, I asked students to reflect on their conference experience with me and whether it had an impact on their learning. Students answered those questions anonymously.
Students’ feedback was by and large very positive. After analyzing the qualitative data, comments were sorted into three main categories. The first category was self-reflection, which included comments such as “The conference helped me reflect on the work that I had already done in the class and strategies for critiquing my own work on upcoming assignments.”
The second category was seeking clarification/assistance with their learning and included comments such as “I was able to ask my professor for help with study strategies to do better on my quizzes and exams
” and “The conference gave me the opportunity to ask for advice on how to do better on in-class assignments.
” The third category was setting goals, which included comments like “The professor helped me set goals that I felt I could achieve, and I’m proud to say that I met most of them!”
I was pleased to see that students found the midterm conferences helpful. What I did not anticipate was all the ways that these meetings were beneficial to me. I found that each 10-minute conference gave me the opportunity to not only set clear expectations and goals for the student but also gain valuable feedback on things I could do to improve the course. This type of feedback is not usually available to me until well into the following semester when end-of-semester student evaluations are returned. What an incredible opportunity to improve the course right then and there when current students could actually benefit from the changes that I made based on their feedback. I also found that the conferences gave me a better understanding of each student and his or her specific areas of concern. It’s amazing how much you can learn about individual students in just a brief period of time when you give them your undivided attention. That benefit alone would be enough for me to highly recommend midterm conferences to other teaching professors.
Dunja Trunk is an associate professor of psychology at Bloomfield College (Bloomfield, N.J.). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.