Students thrive when we connect with them individually and provide personalized attention, feedback, and support. In these situations, students can ask questions and share specific examples of their work. They also have opportunities to communicate how they are feeling about their learning experience, and we can get to know them better both personally and academically. Conferences and tutoring sessions allow us to address small questions and obstacles immediately before they become major issues, and we can adapt the learning pathway, so it aligns with each student’s needs and strengths.
Quizzes have their place and can give us a quick, whole-class progress check, but this type of assessment generally provides only a snapshot of superficial or low-level learning. Student conferences and tutoring sessions, on the other hand, allow us to go deeper and understand our learners more completely. Granted, it can be challenging to find time to meet with each student and provide this more personalized and responsive support. However, through thoughtful, strategic, and creative lesson planning, we can find the time we need to meet with our students both individually and in small groups. This is a worthy goal since the more we can connect with students personally, the more we can individualize and personalize instruction, and through these personal connections, we can accelerate learning.
4 Ways to Find Time to Meet With Students
In this approach, you will meet with each student on a rotating schedule. The frequency that you meet with each student and the length of time that you can spend in each conference will vary depending on how many students you are teaching and how you structure your class time. If you typically use whole-group instruction to teach a concept and follow that with application and practice time, you can target the work time for your conferences. While students are working on their own, you can make your way around the room and check in with individual students. If you desire a more private conversation space, you can call them to your desk or another quiet location in the room.
Instead of these unscheduled meetings during work time, you could have students sign up for a meeting time using a simple sign-up form, like this one created in Google Docs. By giving anyone with the link rights to edit, students can add their own names. Having students sign themselves up for a conference slot allows those with the most pressing needs to sign up first. This enables you to provide immediate feedback to students that need your help the most, and you can provide it quickly. However, this strategy may also mean that you don’t get to some students as soon or as often as you would like, especially if the same students sign up repeatedly before you’ve had a chance to meet with all of your students. If this is a concern, you can set up a formal conferencing schedule. You can put out a sign-up sheet and ask each student to put their name in an open slot. Alternatively, you could use your knowledge of the class and develop the schedule yourself, putting the students first who you think may need the most immediate attention. This strategy ensures that you will meet with all of your students over the course of a specified time period.
If you use blended learning strategies in your classroom, you can leverage the power of technology to gain more one-on-one and small-group time with your students. Essentially, you can use the technology to “clone yourself” by providing directions and direct instruction virtually, oftentimes through videos. While students are engaged in self-directed activities, you can meet with students. Three blended learning strategies work especially well for this purpose.
- Station Rotation: As students work through stations on their own or in groups, you are able to meet with small groups or individuals at the teacher station. You might use Mondays and Fridays to check in with students and Tuesday through Thursday for small-group instruction. It’s up to you to decide how frequently you wish to dedicate the teacher station to conferencing.
- Playlists: In this approach, students work through a list of learning tasks. Much of this work can be done without direct teacher guidance since students will be following written or recorded directions embedded into each part of the playlist. While students are working on their playlists, you can pull small groups or individuals aside for conferencing.
- Flipped Learning: There are two main forms of flipped learning: the traditional flipped classroom and in-class flipped learning. You can use both approaches to gain time for conferencing.
- Traditional Flipped Classroom: In this model, you flip direct instruction to homework, and then students come to class the next day and apply their learning at higher levels of cognitive complexity. If you design the in-class experiences in a way that allows students to work without your direct guidance, you can meet with individuals or small groups during this part of class.
- In-Class Flipped Learning: Instead of watching flipped videos as homework, students review flipped instruction in class as you meet with students. Oftentimes, the in-class flipped approach is embedded into station rotation and playlist work, as part of the self-guided learning tasks.
Project-based and inquiry learning are two of the most student-centered forms of learning practiced in schools, and conferencing plays a critical role in both models. Because students have considerable voice and choice throughout the process and essentially plan their path forward, instructor guidance often occurs during these conferences and check-ins. As students are working on their projects—either independently or in small groups—you can pull students aside for progress checks and question-and-answer sessions. These formative checks help you make sure that students are on a path to success.
You can increase the effectiveness of these check-ins by providing students with a structure and process that includes predetermined checkpoints. For instance, after students identify their problem, require them to check in with you to see if their goal is viable and discuss how this choice will impact the next steps in the process. Another example is to check in with students when they have determined how they will seek answers to their driving questions. You can have a conversation about whether or not this plan will work and what specific strategies might increase its effectiveness. These checkpoints help students use their time more efficiently and effectively by heading off wrong turns before they go too far down an unproductive path. Ultimately, this improved efficiency and effectiveness accelerate learning.
This strategy is significantly different from the first three, and it typically requires additional staff to make it work. However, it still fits in the same family of strategies because it results in one-on-one or small-group communication time between teacher and student(s). In addition, some of the findings related to high-dosage tutoring can also be applied to the conferencing strategies.
High-dosage tutoring is a research-based approach that has resulted in significant acceleration of learning. A meta-analysis study by J-PAL of 96 different tutoring programs found the following:
“Across all estimates and studies, tutoring interventions show a large and statistically significant effect on learning outcomes of 0.37 standard deviations. This impact translates to a student advancing from the 50th percentile to nearly the 66th percentile.”
This highly successful approach involves personalized instruction by a trained adult to an individual or small group of students.
EdResearch for Recovery published a report in February of 2021 summarizing additional research regarding high-dosage tutoring. They report that for tutoring to be successful, student groups should be limited to one to four students. Also, these tutorial sessions should occur at least three times per week for 30–60 minutes per day. Because of where they are developmentally, elementary students may benefit from 20-minute sessions, five days per week, rather than the longer, less frequent meetings. The best programs lasted for at least 10 weeks. Studies have also found that when these tutoring sessions occur during the school day, the rate of success increases.
Support staff can be valuable assets in a tutoring program. Because tutors work with students in such a personalized environment, these staff members require less formal training than a fully licensed teacher, who must be skilled at teaching a full class. Paraprofessionals, college students, and volunteers can all be effective tutors if they are given some basic training and support. However, tutors who are not licensed teachers do much better when they meet one-on-one with students. The effectiveness of tutoring even for highly trained teachers declines when group sizes exceed three or four. Math and Reading Corps are two examples of tutoring provided by assistants and volunteers.
The Hamilton Project, in the publication, Improving Academic Outcomes for Disadvantaged Students: Scaling Up Individualized Tutorials, points out some of the successes experienced with tutoring models:
“Compared to regular classroom instruction, tutoring also increases time on task (90+ percent versus 65 percent) and improves student attitudes and interest. Tutoring has been shown to increase the amount of feedback and correction between student and instructor, a key characteristic of effective teaching, and also ensures that students—including those who are struggling in school— receive the kind of individual attention they need.”
In contrast to rotating conferences, blended learning strategies, and project-based or inquiry learning—which can all be designed by each teacher in their individual classroom—high-dosage tutoring requires a more system-wide approach since additional staff are involved in a more formalized system that requires a larger time commitment. If schools can find a way to fund, staff, and schedule these programs, the research indicates that this approach can be highly impactful.
- Ander, R., Guryan, J., & Ludwig, J. (2016, March). Improving academic outcomes for disadvantaged students: Scaling up individualized tutorials. The Hamilton Project.
- J-PAL Evidence Review. (2020). The transformative potential of tutoring for PreK-12 learning outcomes: Lessons from randomized evaluations. Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.
- Robinson, C. D., Kraft, M. A., Loeb, S, & Schueler, B. E. (2021, February). Accelerating student learning with high-dosage tutoring. EdResearch for Recovery