Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Conferencing: Who Should do How Much Talking?

Kathryn Evans

Common conferencing advice is that we should talk less and get students to talk more. An important but little-cited study by Walker and Elias (RTE 1987), however, suggests that who does how much talking is not necessarily relevant.

Looking at five conferences judged to be successful by both student and teacher and five judged to be unsuccessful, Walker and Elias found that students averaged 32.8% percent of the utterances in the highly-rated conferences, while in the low-rated conferences students averaged 33.6 percent of the utterances—hardly a difference.

Rather than who does how much talking, they suggest, successful conferences centered on encouraging students to articulate criteria and evaluate their work using those criteria. The evaluation of student work was ultimately accomplished collaboratively; after instructors elicited criteria from students, they explicitly responded to and built on those criteria.

A case study I'm doing with some of my former students supports Walker and Elias' findings. Like Newkirk (RTE 1995) and several other researchers, I'm using a methodology that prompts students to reflect on conferences by having them listen to and comment on an audiotape of the conference. While Newkirk and others studied one-on-one conferences and I'm looking at small-group conferences, the methodology remains illustrative. After listening to a tape of a small-group conference, for instance, one of my students, Christa, said she had trouble articulating everything she needed to say about her classmate's writing. Remembering Walker and Elias' study (and my practice of using criteria to structure one-on-one conferences), I asked if it would help to have the criteria on the table in front of us. Her reply echoes Walker and Elias' findings: "That would be helpful. That would be really helpful. Um . . . yeah definitely helpful, especially with long papers because, um, at least for myself I'm a visual person and I can't necessarily . . . wrap my head around all of the factors on every single page and every section of the paper all at once." She also countered my concern that I had talked too much, noting that she was "very thankful and grateful when you would start talking." The "listen and reflect" methodology, then—at least in this case study—lends further support to Walker and Elias' finding that who does how much talking is not necessarily relevant to the success of a conference.