Benefits of Student-Led Conferences

By Kip Malinosky, IB Cordinator at Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, VA

For decades, the signature of student achievement has been the letter grade report card. Students have had their academic year of learning, investigations, preparing for tests and presenting projects reduced to a single a letter. Most students, parents, and teachers know that this single grade for each subject is not sufficient information to determine what a student understands. My high school principal put it this way, "Imagine you go to see your Doctor for your physical exam. And she tells you, 'Well, you got a C minus. Have a nice day!' You would say, 'Wait Doctor, what's wrong with me?'"

The amount of limited feedback is the problem with reporting student achievement in a nutshell. Whether students are succeeding or struggling, schools often give them little meaningful feedback about how they could be further challenged or supported. There is a better way: student-led conferences. If schools commit to holding student-led conferences for every student, at least twice a year, a student can be transformed from someone who is "given" a grade to the central communicator of their academic progress.

Student-led conferences are, of course, not a new idea. The National Middle School Association first published "A School-Wide Approach to Student-led Conferences: A Practitioner's Guide" in 2000. There are, however, far too few schools implementing student-led conferences. Let's take a deeper dive into the "why" and the "how" student-led conferences could and should change schooling.

Why Student-Led Conferences

If we want students to be the central actors in their education, then they must not be spectators when it comes to reporting their academic progress. All schools should want students to take greater ownership of their education. International Baccalaureate (IB) schools, in particular, aim to "promote positive student attitudes towards learning, promote the development of critical- and creative-thinking skills . . . develop the whole student" MYP: Principles into Practice (p. 79). Regardless of the label, all schools should embrace these aims.

If students know they will have to showcase their work through portfolios, presentations, or exhibitions, they can feel more motivated to produce high quality products. Standardized tests often do a poor job of demonstrating how students can think critically or creatively. Student-led conferences give students the opportunity to reflect on how their critical thinking skills have developed throughout the year and how they applied creative thinking skills to academic challenges. I recently finished a student-led conference in which a student who is succeeding in every class asked for a book in Amharic in order for her to continue to learn the language her mother speaks at home and ensure she stays challenged at school.

Furthermore student-led conferences allow students the opportunity to discuss personal goals beyond academics and reflect on their social skills, work habits, and service learning goals. At Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, we ask students to write SMART (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Result-Oriented, Time-bound) goals for both their academic and personal life. These student-created SMART goals give students ownership of their learning. One eighth grade student said, "The purpose of the student-led conference is to show [my mom] where I was at, where I am at, and where I want to be." This type of conference is a challenging exercise for eighth grade students and gives them an opportunity to work on their communication skills.

How to Begin Student-Led Conferences

Student-led conferences should not just happen on their own. It is useful to have a template for students to use during the conference and time for preparation. There are numerous ways to structure students led conferences. One successful outline to help students prepare is to begin with values, summative assessments, examples of exemplary student work, skill building, SMART goals, and service learning. Let us examine each of these structures.

Most middle schools have a list of values like the Habits of Mind articulated by Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick. Allowing students to assess themselves on shared school values or habits of mind are a great starting point for student-led conferences. All IB schools have the 10 attributes of the Learner Profile which are ideas including: inquiring, caring, and open-minded. Wildwood IB World Magnet School uses the learner profile to begin the student conferences. One student said, "I need to work on these traits. So risk-taker would be like raising my hand more." The great thing about starting with values is it gives the opportunity to talk about their whole experience at school and not just academic assessments.

But of course, students must talk about their class assessments. It is really helpful if students understand what their grades mean. Having rubrics for every summative assessment can go a long way toward clarifying expectations for students and why they received specific scores on their assignments. The rubrics should be shared with students from the beginning of each unit for this to be more effective. Students should then be able to talk in detail about their successes and challenges in every class and explain to their parents/guardians and teacher what classes they need to focus on.

To elevate the discussion beyond just the parade of numbers and letters, students should choose exemplary work to share at the conference. This again gives the students agency to choose the best work that they have done throughout the semester in any class. I once had students share podcasts they created with other students to solve the Korean conflict. While it's not clear their proposed solution would work, the students were clearly engaged in tackling a real-world problem and proud to demonstrate their ideas to their teacher and parents. A strength of showing student work is that it can really help struggling students. And once students start focusing on a success, they can begin a fruitful discussion about how to expand that one success into other areas.

Next, the student-led conference could transition from a discussion of assignments and grades to skill development. IB schools call this focus on a broad array of skills in the categories of communication, social, self-management, research and thinking Approaches to Learning. The key here is not another set of criteria by which students can be judged but to have a consistent set of indicators for how students can rate themselves. I have several students who ranked themselves as experts on communicating and thinking, but still developing on self-management skills (they had messy binders and were not always on time to class). Students can reflect and share how they are developing their skills.

Then as the conference nears conclusion, focusing on the student created SMART goals is really important. If we value student voice, we need to give them the opportunity to have their own goals. Students will need to have time through a Teacher-Advisory or homeroom class to develop SMART goals months in advance to the student-led conference. The days leading up to the conference, students will need to time review their progress on each SMART goal they chose.

Finally, a great way to wrap up the student-led conferences is to have students discuss what service learning or community service they have done.. Hopefully, students are able to talk about service projects they have chosen for themselves. Having the students talk about what they can do to help others is really powerful. I had students share ideas for creating everything from bike safety signs to gathering empty paper towel and toilet paper rolls to create toys for the guinea pigs and bunnies at the local animal shelter. This part of the conference is often a great time for the teacher or parent/guardian to propose ideas if the student is struggling to figure what out to do.

Implementing Student-led Conferences

While it is best if schools can commit to going school-wide with student-led conferences, it is still a beneficial exercise even if only a few teachers are committed to it. Regardless of scale, creating a detailed timeline for student-led conferences is essential. There are a few things to ensure.

First, students must have access to and understand their grades. These conferences will not work unless students know how they are doing in each class and why their grades look the way they do. Therefore, it is best to give students the opportunity to ask teachers questions about their grades the day before the conference.

Second, students need to feel that they are in charge of their conference. While students need to be given the tools to succeed, it is their responsibility to put those tools to use. They need to rate themselves on following through with school values and skill development. IB schools can use the Approaches to Learning descriptions outlined in MYP: Principles into Practice (p. 108):

  • Novice/beginning—students are introduced to the skill, and can watch others performing it (observation)
  • Learner/developing—students copy others who use the skill and use the skill with scaffolding and guidance (emulation)
  • Practitioner/using—students employ the skill confidently and effectively (demonstration)
  • Expert/sharing—students can show others how to use the skill and accurately assess how effectively the skill is used (self-regulation)

IB encourages schools to permit students to self-assess their Approaches to Learning skills. The preparation necessary for student-led conferences is one of the best ways to do this type of reflection. Students should not be afraid to speak about any shortcomings they have; the purpose is have an honest and focused discussion. On several occasions I have had students rate themselves "Expert" on each skill category only to change their ratings to "Practitioner" after deciding it was a more accurate description of their skill level. This emphasis on skill development is essential for students to continue their learning wherever they go next.

Third, students need time to both prepare and practice for the student-led conference. This preparation can be done by allowing students time to complete a written template or presentation. My students created a Google Slides presentation that recorded their academic progress and SMART goals. Some schools even give kids time to rehearse their presentation. This method is especially helpful for elementary or sixth grade students.

Fourth, in the student-led conference itself, teachers and parents need to practice restraint and let the students lead. This part is difficult because it is natural for us teachers and parents to want to comment. There is, of course, a time for help and suggestions. However, the most important stakeholder in a student's learning process is the student. Teachers and parents should ask questions and request that students elaborate when more details are needed, but we should not steal the spotlight.

Even if student-led conferences can only be implemented once during the year, there are terrific benefits for all involved. Compared to traditional parent-teachers conferences and standardized tests, student-led conferences provide a more robust, meaningful picture of student achievement. Students become the active players in their education while teachers and parents listen intently to learn how they can best support student success. The conferences give students a real audience for their academic achievements and skill development. As one student from Oak Valley Middle School remarked, "Student-led conferences helped me stay focused on school. I improved my test and quiz scores and put more effort into my schoolwork."

Bibliography

Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2018). Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Edutopia. (2015, August 26). Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_WBSInDc2E

Kinney, P., Munroe, M. B., & Sessions, P. (2000). A school-wide approach to student-led conferences: A practitioners guide. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

MYP: From principles into practice. (2017, September) Cardiff, Wales: International Baccalaureate Organization