Conferencing to Self-Efficacy
Conferencing with students is paradoxically one of the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of teaching freshman composition. It is during the one-on-one conversations that students realize what they think matters and that teachers can get a sense of students’ individual needs. There seems to be a general consensus among writing instructors that conferencing is a fundamental facet of helping freshman transition from high school writing to academic writing. Why is it then that new instructors are not adequately trained to conference with students?
One of the most frustrating things about my initial student consultations was that I did not have a clear purpose for the conference period. I had been told that I should have student conferences, but not how or why I should conference with students. Following the suggestion of a second-year instructor, I scheduled my first conferences after the first draft of the opinion editorials. As I started reading the papers, I was struck with the realization that I didn’t know what I was looking for in their writing. And if I didn’t know what I was doing, how was I going to help my students improve their writing skills? I foolishly started looking for grammatical errors rather than global issues. I hid my insecurities behind a bag of chocolate bars and plunged into the deep water of conferencing.
Offering the students chocolate helped me imagine the students liked the sessions, or in other words, that they liked me. When one of my students asked if I were Lupin, I laughed at the compliment, but I knew the only dementor in the room was my feeling of inadequacy. It was clear that I had waited too long before conferencing; the students had completed a full draft and were thus reluctant to change their topic. If I had held consultations sooner in the writing process, I could have steered the students toward more appropriate topics and thereby avoided the resentment of the students who had invested a lot of time on incongruous issues.
The truth is that the real problem with my first set of conferences was not timing, nor was it the inappropriate topics of some of the papers—it was me. I was untrained, unprepared, and unwise. If my first mistake was waiting too long before conferencing with students, my second mistake was relying too heavily on the students to bring questions to their conference. Most freshmen do not know what questions they should ask because they are completely inexperienced in academic writing. Few of them know what a cohesive paragraph or a topic sentence is, so how would they know to question if their paragraphs are connected or if there are any fallacies in their argument. My lack of confidence led me to fix random mistakes rather than help my students learn to write on an academic level.
Correcting grammatical errors in a paper does not necessarily lead to good papers or good grades. Thus, the outcome of this type of conferencing is unsatisfactory for both student and instructor. It is essential that instructors realize that the focus of a student conference should be to “make better writers, not better papers” (Welsch 4). If instructors focus on helping students become better writers, students will gain confidence in their writing and become less dependent on their writing instructor as the semester progresses. Although “the magnetic pull of correction is a powerful force” (Welsch 4), writing instructors need to resist it in favor of helping students understand that what makes a good paper is not the absence of comma splices or run-on sentences; it is ideas. Until students are good thinkers, they will not be good writers. Conferencing is the best time to teach students to think through the contextual issues of their papers.
If instructors concentrate on helping students to think cognitively rather than to focus on grammatical errors, students will move toward self-efficacy. In “Helping Writers to Think,” university freshman writing instructors Suzanne E. Jacobs and Adela B. Karliner (1977) assert that it is thinking not grammar, that is the problem with first-year writers. Jacobs and Karliner believe that students are “handicapped by their inability to demonstrate thought on paper” (p. 489). They further posit that conferencing nurtures freshman writers and helps students “discover and develop ideas” and create “more coherent, interesting, and well-written papers” (p. 489). However, the problem is not just that students are not thinking but that they are not thinking in an organized, cohesive manner. Freshman writers seem unaware of the importance of cohesive writing. Most of them are unconscious of the fact that their writing is scattered, and they just spew words on a page without any organization in their argument. Conferencing can help solve that problem.
As I became more experienced in conferencing, I realized it was helpful to have a clear focus for the conference and to let the students know what that focus was before they came to the session. By announcing in class that we were having conferences to discuss something specific, such as their thesis statement or sentence cohesion, as well as any specific questions they may have, was very helpful. Liz Roddin (1999), an adjunct instructor, believes it is essential to set “realistic goals” at the beginning of the writing session; otherwise, it is likely that teachers will try to accomplish too much in a single session and vex themselves and their students (p. 12). Midway through my first set of conferences, I realized that I needed to adopt this strategy of focus as my game plan.
By setting a clear agenda before starting to conference with students, both the instructor and the student are more prepared. Another important point Roddin (1999) makes is that instructors should let students know that they will not be addressing every error in the students’ papers and will instead focus on specific aspects in the papers. By doing this, the conference period will be “less overwhelming and frustrating” (p. 12). Roddin further suggests that instructors give the students specific goals to work on and to encourage them to come back for “reinforced learning” (p. 13). By letting the students know at the end of the session that although they have addressed some of their writing problems, not everything in the paper has been fixed, the instructor encourages the student to become more self-reliant. The instructor also removes the possibility of a perceived promise that by fixing the things addressed in the conference the student will receive an A on their paper.
In my first semester as a writing instructor, I had a student who literally haunted my office hours. This particular student had mild learning disabilities and struggled with writing. He was unable to transfer knowledge from sentence to sentence. For instance, when I showed him a sentence with a particular problem and how to fix it, he was unable to correct the same problem in other sentences. It took a while for me to realize this because he said he understood. He would leave my office promising to work on some specific issue but come back the next day with nothing corrected. When he received a generous C on his paper, he was accusatory—he had been to my office every day and he still got what he felt was a bad grade. I tried to explain to him that he had improved from a failing paper in his draft to a passing grade, but he was unsatisfied. He seemed to think that because he had been to my office every day for two weeks, he should receive an A on his paper. In other words, he was not taking ownership of his writing but was entirely reliant on his writing instructor to fix his paper.
Students need to take responsibility for their own work if they want to be successful academic writers. I had another student who had a problem with self-efficacy—that is she blamed me for her poor grade on her first writing assignment. Her problems started early in the semester when she made a poor decision for her opinion editorial topic. She stubbornly refused to make a wiser choice and was angry when she received a C. She told me her father was a professional writer and that he said her paper was good; however, the paper had been a list of angry accusations rather than a unified, structured argument. When she came in to conference for her second paper, I was shaking because I had to tell her that her rhetorical analysis was going to get a low grade if she did not change the way she had arranged her paper. Something was different though; this time she listened to me.
Part of that difference was my approach to the change she needed to make. I was more confident as I pointed out good parts of her writing; I challenged her to save the parts of her essay that that focused on rhetorical analysis and transfer her personal stories into a personal narrative. I then showed her how to restructure her argument. Her final grade for that paper was an A–. Her attitude changed because I listened when she told me she did not understand what I was trying to teach her, and I reinforced the effective aspects of her writing. I showed her that her writing was good, and she responded positively. In “Self-Efficacy Beliefs of Novice Teachers and Their Performance in the Classroom,” Hasan Ozder (2011) argues that teachers with greater self-efficacy tend to have more successful students who also have greater self- efficacy (p. 2). This argument proved true as I conferenced with my students. I found that my self-confidence in what I am teaching or explaining greatly impacts the results of the conference. How I told my student her paper was not working was more important that merely telling her to fix it. By finding something in her writing to compliment and then showing her that she just needed to approach her argument from a different angle, her attitude was changed. With her new attitude, she changed her paper and thus she changed her grade.
Later, when I asked the students to write down what they thought about conferencing, this student wrote, “One-on-one conferencing has really helped me. I am able to have direct and specific advice for ME.” Her comment was reflective of most of the students who emphasized that the most helpful instruction they received while writing their papers was one-on-one help from the instructor tailored to their individual needs. These students indicated that meeting with the instructor gave them the sense that their writing mattered.
When asked to evaluate whether or not massive open online courses are a viable alternative to traditional education, one student claimed that the because alternative courses did not allow access to the instructor for individual counseling, he did not view them as a viable option for serious learning. He stated that
I value the student-teacher interaction that typical colleges and universities offer. . . . [T]he ability to get direct feedback from the teacher . . . is crucial to my education. After conversing with the teacher or getting back a graded assignment, I know exactly what I did wrong and how to fix it. I can get tips and advice from the teacher to know how to get a better grade next time.
These students’ responses typify the value first year composition students place on conferencing with the instructor. With the overwhelming evidence that conferencing is important, I return to my opening question: Why aren’t new instructors adequately trained to conference with students? I suggest that new instructors could be better prepared for conferencing with students by making some minor, but important, changes to the week-long training seminar for new instructors each fall.
First, conference training needs to be given adequate time. A brief skit by the program assistants does not begin to cover the range of problems that come up during conferencing. Second, because it is impossible to provide sufficient training in how to deal with the varying emotions of students during conferences, the focus of the training should be on how the instructor could be prepared for conferencing. The training received by new instructors should include suggestions on when and how to conference with their students. I suggest teachers meet with their students early and often.
Next semester, I intend to make it mandatory for each of my new students to conference with me during the first two weeks of the semester. The theory here is that once students find their way to my office, it will be easier for them to find their way back. Opening this pathway will not only help students understand that I recognize them as individuals rather than random warm bodies in my classroom, but also will help me know what their goals for the class are. During this initial conference, students will discuss their ideas for their opinion editorial; that way, if they have chosen an inappropriate topic, I can redirect their thinking toward an issue that will allow a structured cohesive argument.
The third thing that I recommend is that instructors should use handouts during their student conferences. Handouts help students feel like they are leaving with something more substantial than a bit of chocolate to ward off dementors. The most successful handouts I have used address specific problems that occur in freshman writing, such as how to introduce quotes or how to write a topic sentence. Even when these subjects are discussed in class, students continue to have difficulty seeing the need to apply them to their writing; however, when the teacher goes over it in a one-on-one setting, students feel that the information is tailor-made for them. They pay more attention and then apply the new skill to their writing. Handouts also give the inexperienced instructor something to fall back on during conferencing when a student fails to come to the conference with specific questions and time does not permit an in-depth perusal of the student’s papers.
The final point that should be addressed during new instructor training is direction in when and how often instructors should conference with students. This training should also include how many class periods during a semester an instructor can reasonably cancel in order to hold student conferences. I recommend that conferences should be held twice during opinion editorial, the rhetorical analysis, and the issues paper, with the first conference early in the writing process and the second near the end. Before the second conference, the instructor should have received and read a complete draft. This preparation will allow early intervention and problem solving, as well as also help both the instructor and the student perceive writing as a process rather than as a product. I suggest that these guidelines and directions are addressed during the new instructor training seminar. New instructors will be better prepared as they embark on the shaky ground of conferencing. Better training will generate improved self- efficacy in new instructors, which will lead to better self-efficacy in student writers.
Jacobs, S. E., & Karliner, A. B. (1977). Helping Writers to Think: The Effect of Speech Roles in Individual Conferences on the Quality of Thought in Student Writing. College English, 38(5), 489–505.
Roddin, L. (1999). Starting the session. Writing Lab Newsletter, 23(6), 12–13. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/53637961?accountid=4488
Ozder, H. (2011). Self-Efficacy Beliefs of Novice Teachers and Their Performance in the Classroom. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 36(5), 1–15.
Welsch, K. (2001). The Writing Conference and ‘Correction’ Interference. Writing Lab Newsletter, 26(4). 4-7.