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Conferences between student writers and their writing teachers are a time-honored staple of process-oriented writing instruction. Online classes, while they may incorporate many of the other elements of the writing process model, frequently omit writing conferences since the face-to-face, real-time format that is typical of conventional writing conferences is inconsistent with the asynchronous mode of communication typical of distance learning. As learning management systems become more robust, however, and as the COVID-19 pandemic has increased reliance of distance learning, it is worthwhile to think about how an online learning environment can support constructive student-teacher writing conferences.  

Logistics

In my experience, video-based writing conferences are most productive when they include only one student writer at a time. While on-the-ground writing conferences may sometimes include multiple students as a way of encouraging students to support and to learn from one another, my experience suggests that the inclusion of multiple students into an online writing conference turns out to be distracting and inefficient. One-on-one video conferencing allows the instructor to focus on the needs and concerns of individual students and reduces the cognitive overload that can result from trying to hold a video conference with several different student writers at the same time.

The amount of time necessary for each conference will vary depending on the class, the assignment, and the student population, but 15 minutes is a useful baseline duration. Conferences shorter than that are unlikely to provide enough time for participants to hold a meaningful conversation about the student paper.

In the interest of making these conferences as efficient as possible, students should have a chance to read and think about the instructor’s written feedback on their papers before the conference begins. This means that instructors should try to return students’ papers at least 24 hours before the conferences are scheduled. Between the time that students get their papers back and the time that the conference is scheduled to begin, students should read through all the instructor’s feedback and formulate specific questions to ask in response. Likewise, it is helpful for instructors to make their own notes about aspects of the student’s writing that they would like to discuss during the conference. These conversations are expedited and enhanced when both the teacher and the student are holding paginated printouts of the paper—including the instructor’s feedback—to refer to, consult, and annotate during the video conference.  (At the same time, of course, it is also important to make allowances for the fact that, during stay-at-home times, not all students will have access to a printer.)

As a useful supplement to these printouts, instructors can also use the video-conferencing format to screencast the student’s work. While the printouts allow both participants to easily locate specific parts of the paper and to examine the document as a whole, sharing a screencast of the student paper allows for more targeted discussion while also enabling the instructor to highlight text, write outlines, delete words or passages, move text around, and perform other editorial functions. The moderator can include the student’s and teacher’s webcam video boxes alongside the screencast of the paper to enhance the participants’ ability to communicate effectively while they discuss the document.

The conversation

Before the conference begins, the teacher should encourage students to prepare a list of any specific questions they have about the written feedback on their drafts. They should also encourage students to come up with their own questions about their drafts as well as ideas about what kinds of revisions they would recommend for their own paper.

Additionally, instructors should be prepared to explain any comments they made in response to the student paper, although they should be willing to deviate from any pre-scripted comments in order to respond to the student’s own concerns. Instructors are well-advised to begin the conversation with a sincere and specific piece of positive feedback regarding the student paper. Instructors should acknowledge the challenges associated with writing and the student’s initiative in addressing a particular topic, and they should praise any aspect of the paper that reflects the student’s effort. Leading with positive feedback reassures students that the instructor respects them, and it establishes a sense that any revisions should build on the students’ strengths rather than compensate for their weaknesses. While this kind of positive approach always enhances a constructive process of learner feedback, it is particularly critical in videoconferencing, where miscommunication and estrangement are constant dangers.

Writing conferences in any medium are also more constructive when they focus on structural or rhetorical aspects of student writing rather than on technical errors. While instructors might provide written editorial suggestions on a student paper, and while the conference provides opportunities for students to ask about these edits, the majority of the student-teacher conference should focus on the ultimate goals of the student’s paper and the overarching strategies the student used or could use to meet them. At the same time, the most useful feedback on student writing addresses specific passages and paragraphs rather than making broad claims about abstractions like “readability” or “persuasiveness.” The more targeted the instructor’s suggestions are, the more useful they will be to the student when they revise their essay.

Finally, the student should leave the conference with a specific plan for revising the draft. The more specific the plan, the likelier it is that the student will carry it out successfully. End the conversation by itemizing specific revision strategies that you have discussed during the conference. As an additional step, I find it worthwhile to ask students to send me an email summarizing our discussion and enumerating the action items we identified.

Writing is such a personal activity, and the most successful writing instructors take advantage of the interpersonal dynamics between students and teachers to motivate, inspire, and empower student writers. As more writing instruction continues to move into online formats, writing instructors and writing students need to continue to explore ways of remaining “present” to one another. A robust procedure for incorporating student-teacher conferencing into online instruction can play an important part in supporting student achievement.

Randy Laist, PhD, is a professor of English at Goodwin University.


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