Teaching for Independence: Student-Led Conferences

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One of my goals this year is to teach for independence.  Not only do I want students to have meaningful and transferable learning skills they can apply in their classes and their life beyond school, but I also want them to have an arsenal of learning strategies and the confidence they can overcome challenges in any form.

Studies have show that self-assessment is a key component of moving students forward.¹  Beyond that, I view self-assessment as a life-long skill that is helpful and necessary in any domain.

The way I talk about it with my students is, “You won’t always have me here to give you feedback, but you will always have you there to give you feedback.”

This year, we took conferences as a chance to practice that.

Here’s how we prepared:

  1. We took time in class to self-assess.  Students self-assessed their learning behaviors, their academic achievement, and their progress on independent reading.  We spread out the self-assessments over a couple of days, and each time I reminded the students this was an opportunity to celebrate successes and set goals, to create a resource that would help them lead their conference, and to take time to communicate with me and their guardians anything they thought we should know.
  2. I compiled grade-print outs.  I like having the spreadsheet handy of student grades, so we can reference areas to celebrate and areas in which to set goals. We use standards-based grading, and I find the end-of-quarter grades particularly useful in analyzing patterns and addressing individual learning needs.
  3. I gathered my students’ Writer’s Notebooks.  We had student Writer’s Notebooks handy.  During conferences, when reviewing areas of strengths and challenges, students often reference them to show specific examples of their work.
  4. I framed the conference, setting expectations for the conversation that would follow.  When students and guardians walked in, I took a minute to touch base.  After greeting one another, my standard phrase was, “There a couple ways this conference can go.  (Student name) took some time to self-assess, so we can hear from (him, her, them, etc.), or if you have specific questions or concerns, we can start there.”  In most cases, guardian’s wanted to hear from their students first.
  5. I provided feedback based on the student’s lead.  For example, when the students shared their self-reflections, I would follow-up by sharing what I noticed about the strength they listed, and what I noticed about the challenge they identified.  To me, this felt like an organic way to hear the student’s perspective, share successes, and identify areas of growth as a team.
  6. I asked the parents or guardians, “As a (parent, family member, etc.), what are you noticing?”  After the students shared their thoughts, I wanted to create time for guardians to share their feedback.  After all, they know their students more than anyone else.  I found “What are you noticing?” to be the magic question.²  I learned more from asking this question and listening to what parents noticed than I could have anticipated. Additionally, I think parents appreciated the space and invitation to speak openly about what they noticed with their student and me in the room.
  7. I had a notebook to record ideas and action steps.  Every time a new student entered the room, I flipped the page in the notebook and titled it with their name.  I noted strengths and struggles we identified, and when we made individual plans or ideas for following-up, I noted it down.
  8. I listened for patterns. Throughout the day, I noticed patterns in student successes and student struggles. For example, I heard many of my students say they struggled with planning and organizing their writing for timed writing prompts, such as On-Demand Assessments.  I realized we had spent a lot of time identifying and practicing note-taking strategies and strategies for introducing and explaining evidence, but we hadn’t spent a lot of time talking about how to quickly plan and organize and essay. One of my take-aways from the day is to spend time in the next couple of weeks teaching strategies for flash-drafting.

Overall, I found conferences meaningful, productive, and enjoyable.  It was a time to get to know my students and my students’ families a little better, and a time to constructively problem solve together.

This time, I noticed I did a lot of the note-taking and was in charge of recording next-steps and ideas for the future.  Next time, I want my students to have joint-ownership of this, recording their thoughts, take-aways, or actions steps in their Writer’s Notebook too.


  1. McMillan, James H., and Jessica Hearn. “Student Self-Assessment: The Key to Stronger Student Motivation and Higher Achievement.” Educational Horizons, 2008, pp. 40–49.
  2. Johnston, Peter H. “Chapter Two: Noticing and Naming.” Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, Stenhouse, 2004, p. 17.