Integrating Individual Conferences

Integrating Individual Conferences

By Katie Nelson, Ph.D., Inver Hills Community College

During the first few weeks of each academic term, Dr. Kathryn A. Kozaitis (Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Georgia State University) conducts individual conferences with each graduate student in her signature courses on Anthropological Theory and Praxis and Applied Anthropology. This, she finds, helps her build a relationship with them, and “from this relationship emerges a kind of accountability to one another” (Kozaitis). She also holds mandatory office hours for follow-up progress reports throughout the semester. Through these interactions she gets to know the backgrounds, strengths, and areas for growth of her students, and works closely with them to facilitate their success in the course. The early-semester conferences also serve as individualized pre-assessments allowing her to gauge where the group’s level of preparation is relative to the content of her course, and tweak her instruction or course design to ensure that all the students move forward in their understanding of the material. She feels this technique helps cultivate a particularly productive community of learners and a classroom culture of trust that fosters deeper and more transformative learning.

WHAT ARE INDIVIDUALIZED CONFERENCES? 

Individual conferences are intentional one-on-one meetings with a student and faculty member with a particular purpose. The objective can be to discuss coursework, evaluate course progress, address problems or concerns or explore other matters. They can take place at the beginning and end of the term or regularly throughout, and can range from structured assessments to free-flowing conversations. Some faculty build these conferences into the course design and require them as part of the grading criteria. 

From a pedagogical/andragogical perspective, conducting individualized one-on-one conferences with students offers a number of advantages. It helps the instructor get to know the student on a more personal level and allows for better differentiated instruction. Faculty can learn what is working in the classroom and what needs tweaking. Students can gain trust in the instructor and feel known on a deeper level. It can also provide an alternative environment in which the student (and instructor!) can ask questions of one another. In essence, student conferences offer a foundation for relationship building.

⇒ Click here to download a sample of a pre-conference writing assignment I use.

I would argue that in many ways, anthropology education is (or should be) about relationships; relationships with students and instructors, but also, relationships between the student and the course content. Authentic learning (that is retained and integrated into one’s intellectual orientation), of course, doesn’t occur in isolation or in the abstract, but by making connections. Individualized conferences foster these types of relationships and connections. Importantly, they also offer opportunities for contextualized learning and reflective, reflexive and critical thinking. Conferences can help students integrate the course content into their life experiences and appreciate how it is relevant to their lives and learning paths. 


ARE THERE DISADVANTAGES?


Faculty who use individualized conferencing in their course design say it can be a time consuming and labor intensive strategy. It often requires preparation for each meeting, writing notes after the meeting and providing additional written feedback to students. Because of this, it might be impractical to implement in especially large introductory classes. It can be logistically challenging setting up meeting times, so careful preparation to scheduling should be thought through. Conferences with faculty can also be intimidating to some students unfamiliar with the strategy. Setting clear expectations and explaining the purpose (and how it will help students) at the outset can help with these concerns. 

HOW DO FACULTY IMPLEMENT THEM? 

Hilarie Kelly, Ph.D., University of La Verne, teaches a senior thesis class in which she integrates individual conferences into the course design. A primary objective of this course is for her students to design and execute their own research projects and present them to the class. To do this, the students first review the relevant literature and discuss what sampling and data gathering methods to use. They then analyze their results, write the formal thesis, and finally give short, professional-quality presentations in a conference setting, usually with PowerPoint.

Towards the end of the course, in place of holding regular classes, she meets almost entirely one-on-one with students. The conferences are scheduled, required, and semi-structured in that they are set up to discuss each student’s completion of specific portions of the thesis project. It is possible to have students schedule their specific conference time on the appointed day (in lieu of class meetings on certain weeks) by using their Learning Management System (Blackboard), which can also be used for discussion board conversations as well. The full schedule of class meetings and conference days is listed on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester. Most sections of the senior thesis class meet once a week in the evening, so those also serve occasionally as conference days and a set, predictable time frame. This works because students are expected to attend the class every week, whether it is s group meeting or individual conference. This avoids logistical scheduling difficulties when holding the 1:1 conferences.

Sarah Martin, Ph.D., (Professor of Anthropology at Spokane Falls Community College, Co-Chair of the Institutional Teaching & Learning Improvement Committee and Co-Chair, eLearning Advisory Committee) teaches anthropology courses that are part of a writing intensive program designed to strengthen writing skills outside of composition courses. Faculty teaching these classes are required to include revision opportunities in their course design and provide significant feedback. How these components are incorporated into the class is up to the individual instructor.

The majority of her students are exposed to anthropology for the first time in this writing-intensive class. As such, she approach student conferences through three phases: Feedback, Reflection, and Assessment. Also, she refers to the conferences as Instructor-Student Conversations in hopes of conveying that this is a dialogue centered on student growth rather than an evaluation tool.

(Pssst: Download a copy of her assignment overview by clicking on the page on the left or the button below it.) 

Mark Busse, Ph.D., (Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Auckland) uses individual meetings in his two postgraduate courses—Anthropology and Intellectual Property, and Ethnographic Research. In each of those courses his students write a long research paper on a topic of their choice related to the course. To encourage students  to get started early on their papers, Mark asks them to write essay proposals, which are due about half way through the semester. He meets with each student a few weeks before the essay proposal is due, and again a few weeks after their essay proposals are submitted. 

The individual meetings  last for about 20 to 30 minutes. The first meetings are mostly focused on helping students identify a research question and identifying textual sources on which to base their papers. He also uses this meeting to get to know students and their interests (if they haven’t previously taken courses with him) and to talk about their verbal participation in seminars. The second meetings focus on giving feedback on their essay proposals and to address any questions that they have about the essay or the course more generally. These meetings are in addition to his regular weekly office hours.

While the individual meetings are time-intensive, he thinks that they are valuable because they help students produce higher quality work. Importantly, they also help him identify students who are struggling early in the semester and address their problems before they become too large.

TIPS TO MAKE IT WORK

  • Early in the semester, explain the purpose of the meetings and how it will benefit students.
  • Set clear and concrete expectations and outline specific objectives (for both yourself and the student).
  • Ask students to do pre-work or reflection writing before the meeting and review it.
  • Include the conferences as part of your course design and assign points to completing them. 
  • Include the full schedule of class meetings and conference days on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester.
  • Give students the opportunity to sign up for a time that works best for them. Consider using software like Doodle [https://doodle.com/] to help with scheduling.
  • For online courses, consider offering meetings via web conferencing.
  • For in-person meetings have a bowl with candy or treats and offer them to students to help them settle in. 

RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to thank Kathryn A. Kozaitis, Hillarie Kelly, Sarah Martin and Mark Busse for sharing their insights and detailing how they use student-instructor conferencing in their anthropological teaching practice.


REFERENCES

Kozaitis, Kathryn A. (Associate Professor of Anthropology, Georgia State University). Interview with Katie Nelson. November 20th, 2019. Vancouver, BC. 

 

Teaching Resource Contributed By: Katie Nelson, Ph.D., Inver Hills Community College