Making Conferences Work

This is my first year trying a gradeless classroom. It’s been a rocky start and I’ve had to make a lot of changes along the way.

I teach 9th grade Biology and Intensified Biology (similar to Honors Bio in many schools). To learn more about my journey, read my previous article “Diving into Portfolios.” One major thing I’ve learned is the power of a portfolio to inform the mandatory quarter-grade I must give students, and to help students to take control of their own learning. The process of building a portfolio and reflecting on one’s work teaches students important metacognitive skills needed to improve self-regulation. The conference allows students to demonstrate their best work and participate in the evaluation process, making the teacher’s role more of a facilitator or guide, and less of a gatekeeper.

Unfortunately, most of us are bound to class schedules that do not allow for separate conference time with our students. Instead, teachers implementing portfolios and learning conferences must do it during class time or during planning periods, as I did. Of course, this is no easy task. One of the main issues I had was juggling my attention and class time between teaching students and running one-on-one conferences. This didn’t always work. A lot of my conferences had to be rescheduled due to interruptions such as behavior issues.

Some teachers skirt this issue by showing a movie or giving the students independent reading time, but the jam-packed Virginia Biology curriculum does not allow for this. Every class period must be spent learning core content, or we’d never finish the curriculum before the SOL Tests (the end-of-year standardized exam in Virginia). I’m still working out which activities students can complete independently for a sustained period of time, but here are some things I’ve learned from implementing portfolios and learning conferences.

  • Provide a portfolio template. Don’t expect students to just try something they’ve likely never done before. Develop your own portfolio first to figure out what you expect from students. Then, create a template for them to fill in with their own information. I made a template in Google Slides with sentence frames for students to fill in. I also listed examples of assignments we’d completed that would be acceptable evidence of mastery.
  • Use a letter-grade rubric. Another teacher advised me to include a letter-grade rubric as part of the conference process, so I included it in the portfolio template that I gave students. Thus, when we reviewed each student’s portfolio, the last slide showed the grading criteria and the students had to explain what grade they’d earned based on these criteria. This was a critical tool for facilitating the grade discussion. Without it, many students genuinely have no idea how to evaluate their learning. When we looked over it together, students were able to make honest assessments of their achievement and growth. Some students, who hadn’t read through the rubric initially, tended to grade themselves lower when we went through it together.
  • Sell it as a celebration. Because my students felt so stressed about being evaluated in Quarter 1, I tried hard to sell the portfolio as a benefit to them. I spent an entire class going over the benefits of portfolio and what my expectations were. I told them creating a portfolio is a celebration of their growth and success, a testament to their learning. I showed them articles on how portfolios are used in the workplace and explained how this will be something they can use to demonstrate their accomplishments in the future. I also helped them understand that this was a way for them to have a voice in determining their own grades.
  • Use your Learning Management System such as Canvas, Blackboard, or Google Classroom if you have one. Otherwise, use Google Sites or Moodle (both free) that students can access. I ended up posting the agenda for each lesson on Canvas and starting each class with a warm up like this one: “Go to Canvas and read today’s lesson. What do you have to complete by the end of this class period?” This not only made it easier for students to keep track of what they needed to work on without me, it also was immensely useful for students who happened to be out sick during that time. If your students do not have easy access to online resources, you can always create a daily agenda on the whiteboard or on chart paper.
  • Use online resources. The students were most independent when they worked on their computers on something like Gizmo (my Biology students LOVE these), Amoeba Sisters (another favorite), or HHMI (excellent interactive video lessons and simulations for science). Playing a science board game resulted in too many behavior problems. Unless your students are well-trained in collaboration, I would avoid group work. Also, have a game or activity ready for students who finish their work early. PBS’s NOVA Evolution Game explores the evidence for evolution and explains how to build a cladogram. This game is extensive enough for students to play for at least a 45 minute class period. Another alternative is to have the students color diagrams of difficult biology concepts, like DNA and meiosis. The students are noticeably relaxed and on-task when they’re coloring!
  • Avoid behavior problems by over-emphasizing expectations. I now over-emphasize exactly what is due by the end of each class period, knowing I won’t be able to monitor student progress as I normally would. I go over the agenda with the students once, then call on random students to see if they can explain out loud what is due by the end of class and where to put it. Sometimes it’s a physical handout that goes in the inbox. Other times it’s an online submission in Canvas. It also helps to remind the rowdier students to “make good choices,” like not sitting with friends who might distract them. I’ve found these little reminders take only a few minutes more up front, but save time in the form of fewer interruptions during conferences.
  • Use a timer and schedule. It’s really easy to get into long conversations once you have the chance to sit with students one-on-one. I gave myself 5 minutes with the timer, but most conferences were still about 10 minutes long. Because I underestimated conference times, I had to have students do makeup conferences during all my planning periods, before school, after school, and on our teacher workday at the end of the quarter. With 125 students, I needed at least a full two weeks to complete the conferences. This quarter I will give myself 3 weeks to allow for more wiggle room, and to account for makeups, since there will inevitably be students who miss their conferences for one reason or another. Here’s a copy of the portfolio introduction presentation I gave to students to emphasize the structured nature of the learning conferences.
  • Keep students accountable for learning during conference time. Whatever activity you choose, it’s critical that it’s meaningful and that students know why it’s necessary. Activities that directly relate to an assessed learning outcome are inherently more important to students. Work that seems like “busy work” to students will not keep them busy. If it seems like a waste of time, students are more likely to goof off and interrupt conferences. One thing that’s worked for me is to outline the details of an independent project or unit assessment before conferences begin, then give the students structured work time while I continue conferences. Research projects work well for this. You can also give students an exit ticket or quiz that they can complete independently, such as this Google Forms Properties of Water Quiz I gave my students. I also give students a lot of online quizzes, where only they can see the score, then tell them to write a learning reflection about the outcome. Classzone has some great Biology quizzes ready to go.
  • Teach students to utilize their peers. In order to help me focus my attention on the student who I’m conferencing with, I tell my classes that I’m completely unavailable for help during each conference. They now know to only ask me questions between conferences and to use each other as much as possible for support. This is immensely helpful for keeping the conferences on schedule and conveys a level of importance to each individual student when it’s their turn for a conference.
  • Ask questions. Many students don’t know how to express what they know and don’t know. Try to draw out as much information as you can. Don’t tell students where they stand. Instead, ask them to explain their progress towards the rubric or grading criteria. If they haven’t shown much, or were missing a lot of work, use that time to identify study and time management skills that are particular to the student. Make an agreement that they will work on these goals in the following quarter. If necessary, schedule another meeting to create a learning plan or contract with the student that outlines a timetable for missing work.
  • Create a safe space. A good portion of students seem skeptical and even threatened by having to “prove” themselves to the teacher. I use a lot of careful phrasing to put these students at ease, to encourage them to open up to me, and to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to be self-critical. Do not underestimate this. Many students cannot be completely honest with themselves as a kind of defense mechanism. I had to prove to them that our conference was truly a safe space for learning and growth. One way to subtly convey this to students is to NOT call this a “Grade Conference,” as that conveys that the conference’s main focus is assessment. I now refer to the conferences as a, “Learning Conference,” and sometimes add, “at which time we’ll determine together what letter grade best represents your learning.”
  • Open your heart and listen. Try to hear what students have to say. Think of this more as an opportunity to learn, rather than a moment to assess. This is an opportunity for you to really get to know your students and make them feel valued.

Copy of Molina 4th per 2015

Tamara Molina is a 9th grade Biology teacher in Arlington, Virginia. Her interests range from sports to coding to dance to social justice, passions which she shares with her students whenever possible. She started the first water polo club at T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, VA and currently sponsors her school’s Girls Who Code club. You can find more of her work at

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or continue the conversation on Facebook. And please join Tamara and co-moderator Cristi Jusruld for a follow-up #tg2chat on Portfolios & Conferences this Sunday, May 13 at 9 p.m. EDT/6 p.m. PDT.

One thought on “Making Conferences Work

  1. Many thanks for sharing your experience (and feelings!) I teach maths in Spain and here everything rounds around grades.
    I have a simple question. When do the students complete their portfolios? So you give them feedback when a unit ends? In that way, they have not time to improve, isn’t it?
    I wish I could implement conferences and portfolios in my classroom.
    Again, thank you! And congrats for your job!


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