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4 Ways Student-Led Conferences Can Impact Your School

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  • School Leaders

Parent-teacher conferences can be an effective way to discuss student achievement and progress, but they lack one key element: student engagement.

The solution? Student-led conferences.

The premise is simple: For students to be invested in their own learning and develop a growth mindset, they need to be involved in conversations about their strengths, weaknesses and goals. Student-led conferences promote a school culture of engagement and growth and ask students to play an active role in planning their own learning.

What are student-led conferences?

A student-led conference is similar to a parent-teacher conference, but the student is present and in charge of leading the discussion.

  • The teacher acts as a facilitator for the discussion
  • The student presents their work and guides the discussion
  • The parents listen and speak with their child about his or her academic and social progress and needs

Student-led conferences can take a number of different forms, but roles stay the same. They allow students to be a part of the conversation about their academic and social goals, and are an opportunity to discuss how the teacher and parents can help the student succeed.

Older students will have a portfolio of work they’ve completed throughout the school year (more on that in a bit!) and can use an agenda to guide the discussion through key topics, including:

  • Their strengths
  • What their goals are
  • What they’re proud of
  • Where they still need to develop

Teachers with younger students can set up a system of learning stations where students can show parents what they’ve learned, and parents can observe and ask questions.

According to Nancy Little and John Allan, two of the first educators to develop a student-led conference strategy, student-led conferences fit seamlessly into every teacher’s student learning goals:

“The teacher’s primary goals are to teach students the basic principles of accepting responsibility for the work they do at school, to help students learn new concepts and skills, and to offer students the opportunity to show their achievement to parents.”

Student-led conferences encourage students to think critically about their own abilities and achievements, and help students develop skills they’ll use long after they’ve finished school.

That sounds good, you might think. But what my school is doing right now seems to be working just fine — why should I bother?

Let’s keep going.

The benefits of student-led conferences

1. Increased parent involvement

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Parent attendance is one of the biggest obstacles to traditional parent-teacher conferences.

Since student-led conferences directly engage students, parents are more likely to actively participate.

In their book Implementing Student-Led Conferences, authors Jane M. Bailey and Thomas R. Guskey write:

“Student-led conferences are an effective method for promoting parent participation in the learning process. Many schools that have implemented student-led conferences have seen a dramatic increase in parent attendance at conferences.”

Bailey and Guskey also note higher parent attendance for student-led conferences correlates with parent involvement in student learning, and can boost academic outcomes. Another educator-led study found:

“By implementing [student-led conferences] using student portfolios, we observed an apparent increase in parent participation at school which appeared to have some relationship to students being more determined to achieve their academic goals.”

During student-led conferences, parents become active listeners and learn how they can support their children’s learning at home. Parents enjoy seeing their children succeed, and student-led conferences naturally highlight student success.

Important note: If parents can’t attend their student-led conference, students might be disappointed. It’s important to let parents know in advance when the conferences are taking place to avoid any problems. Consider scheduling multiple time slots to accommodate different work schedules.

2. Boosted student confidence and engagement

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The benefits for students are impressive: responsibility, self-reflection, goal-setting and leadership skills.

Student-led conferences can reframe the learning experience and get children invested in their own learning. Even struggling students can find something they’re proud of to show, and it gives every child a view of their learning progress.

In their book A School-Wide Approach to Student-Led Conferences: A Practitioner's Guide, educators Patti Kinney, Mary Beth Munroe and Pam Sessions expand on some of the academic benefits they saw:

“Students became much more responsible for completing assignments, more articulate in explaining work, and more accurate at analyzing themselves as learners. This, along with one-hundred percent participation by parents, sold us on student-led conferences.”

In the traditional parent-teacher conference, students don’t have this sense of responsibility, and they don’t have a voice in their own learning progress. Student-led conferences encourage them to reflect in their own words on how far they’ve come, where they still need to learn, and what they’re proud of.

3. A better picture of student achievement

Involving student voices in the conversation about their education seems like a no-brainer. Guskey and Bailey write:

“For a discussion of student work to be relevant, accurate and complete, students must be involved in some way. Having students lead a conference with parents or other significant adults is a great way to maximize this involvement.”

When students are included in the conversation, they understand they need to be actively involved in their own academic and social progress.

In the traditional parent-teacher conference, students are disconnected from feedback and don’t always understand big-picture learning goals. With student-led conferences, students receive useful feedback and are stakeholders in their own learning.

Even with the student-led conference model, parents are still likely to want to talk to the teacher one-on-one. This can easily be done in a separate evening, or at the beginning or end of the student-led conference.

4. More information for teachers

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Teachers see their students almost every day, and have a good idea of their academic strengths and weaknesses. Asking students to interact with their teachers and parents can give new insights that allow teachers to make the learning environment more effective.

Teachers are more likely to be able to connect with parents who don’t always come to traditional parent-teacher conferences. This means that they’re able to build relationships with parents they can use during the rest of the school year.

Other benefits for teachers include:

  • Meeting with parents in a low-stress environment — Student-led conferences lead to better relationships with parents, since meetings can be more casual and they don’t always have to talk about specific problems.
  • Insight into the parent-student dynamic — Teachers can observe and understand what kind of support students have at home.
  • Better relationships with students — Student-led conferences help students realize teachers are an active partner in their learning journey.

How to run student-led conferences in your school

There are many different ways to adapt student-led conferences to your school’s needs, depending on the layout, class size and structure of you school.

While some schools opt to hold student-led conferences as one-on-one meetings, other schools hold small group sessions with a few families. Some schools hold student-led conferences as an alternative to parent-teacher conferences, while others think it’s best to hold both at different times of the year.

No matter what format you decide to use, there are two key elements that should always be present:

A clear understanding of roles

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In order for student-led conferences to be effective, each participant (student, teacher and parents) must understand their roles. In their book, Kinney, Munroe and Sessions write:

“Remember, your first year’s organization is critical. A smooth, well-organized initiation into student-led conferences goes a long way toward convincing your staff, students and parents of its many benefits.”

Students are to facilitate the discussion, show their work and communicate their learning goals with parents. For this to be effective, teachers need to devote some of their class time to preparing students.

This can happen a few different ways:

  • Teachers give time for students to select portfolio content throughout the year.
  • Students meet with the teacher one-on-one to go over their portfolios and rehearse
  • Teachers provide students with a sample script to help them guide the discussion appropriately
  • Students pair up and take turns playing the role of the parent and the student, going over what they plan to say during the conference.

Parents need to come prepared to listen and talk with their child. Blindsiding parents with last-minute details of how student-led conferences work is a recipe for disaster. Instead, use parent evenings or newsletters to explain what a student-led conference is, their role and when the conference is taking place.

Teachers are there to facilitate discussions and act as a mediator between parents and students. They’re also responsible for making sure the student is prepared for the conference, and often act as the first point of contact for parent questions.

To make sure your teachers are prepared, consider running specific teacher professional development sessions. Kinney, Munroe and Sessions emphasize this when they write:

“Our best advice for training your staff is to keep it simple. Most of the procedures used in student-led conferences are just an extension of effective teaching practices currently in use. Remind them of this. Give as much support, modeling, and encouragement as possible and you will reap the reward in the end!”

Well-developed student portfolios

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The student portfolio is a central element of successful student-led conferences. Portfolios vary based on the format of the conference, but they usually include:

  • A selection of the student’s work from throughout the year
  • An agenda for the meeting
  • Sheets for setting social and academic goals

Ask teachers to help guide portfolio selection so it accurately represents student progress. Encourage students to present sample work they’re not satisfied with and explain how they could have done better, or find examples of where they improved their performance during a unit or individual project.

One best practice is to have teachers regularly set aside time throughout the year for students to select work they’d like to include, and make sure all students have a dedicated binder they can store their things in.

Student-led conferences across grade levels

Learning looks different at different ages, and student-led conferences should reflect that. Here are some best practices for making sure they’re as effective as possible.

Student-led conferences kindergarten

While it might seem difficult to have student-led conferences with kindergarten students, it’s actually an effective way for parents to understand their child’s learning progress!

Instead of a portfolio, have teachers set up learning stations that demonstrate some of the key skills students have mastered. Students tour different learning stations with their parents, who observe and ask questions where appropriate.

Learning station subjects can include:

  • Writing their name
  • Identifying numbers
  • Recognizing letters of the alphabet
  • Using reading comprehension skills

At this age, students are learning important foundational skills they’ll use for the rest of their life. Why not let them show off to their parents?

Student-led conferences elementary

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Learning stations are a great way to engage elementary students and ask them to begin reflecting on what they’ve learned throughout the school year. Stations can be divided by subject or concept and include a short activity to demonstrate student understanding.

Teachers should take time to prepare students for the tasks they’ll find during the conference, and can even include information at each station designed to spark discussion between students and parents. Teachers can also provide time for students to rehearse with their peers to reduce anxiety.

An added benefit to this process is student-led conferences might engage students that teachers struggle to connect with through normal evaluation methods. Teachers can also use this opportunity to connect with parents who might not be able to come to regular parent-teacher conferences.

Student-led conferences middle school

Middle school students need to bridge the gap between elementary school and the looming shadow of high school. This is a great age for students to identify areas of interest they might want to pursue later, or start thinking critically about their educational strengths and weaknesses.

Students will benefit from the process of selecting portfolio work and reflecting on their academic and social skills. As with the other examples, teachers can provide discussion questions to guide conferences and give students time to rehearse with their peers.

At this level, student-level conferences are likely to get a little trickier, since students might have multiple teachers for different classes. Solutions include:

  • Organizing conferences by homeroom
  • Sorting students into teacher-led peer groups
  • Assigning students to a subject-specific teacher, especially if it’s a subject they’re passionate about.

Student-led conferences high school

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In high school, students take on more responsibility and start thinking about what subjects they’d like to study after high school is over. Conversations during student-led conferences can also vary based on grade level:

  • 9th Grade — Students can talk about how to succeed in a new academic setting and set goals for the next few years.
  • 10th and 11th Grade — Conferences should focus on how students are meeting their academic goals, if they’re taking the right courses and what their post-secondary options are.
  • 12th Grade — In their final year of high school, the teacher, student and parents should meet to make sure the student is on track with their academic goals.

Student-led conferences in high school should be focused on teaching students to advocate for themselves and take complete responsibility for their social and academic goals, since these are skills they’ll need for college or the workplace.

How Prodigy can help students prepare for student-led conferences

EdTech is becoming an increasingly valuable tool for personalized learning and classroom instruction, but did you know that it can also help students and teachers prepare for student-led conferences?

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Prodigy Math is an adaptive math platform that delivers curriculum-aligned content while students go on quests and explore new worlds. There are many different ways to use it as part of the student-led conference process:

  • As a learning station — Give students five to ten minutes with Prodigy during their student-led conference so they can show off their math skills! Teachers can use the Assignments tool to align Prodigy to their in-class content.
  • Key insights into strengths and weaknesses — Teachers can use Prodigy’s powerful Reports feature to see where students are excelling or struggling, and what skills they need to work on.
  • Transparency between teacher and parents — Encourage parents to sign up for a Prodigy parent account, where they can monitor their child’s progress throughout the curriculum and support them as they build more math skills.

Teachers get access to free tools and a dashboard that tracks student achievement and usage. Sign up for a free teacher account today!

Final thoughts on student-led conferences

Student involvement, parent engagement, and more effective teaching — need we say more? One study, by Cheryl Lambert of Austin Peay State University, found the student-led conference “offers students the opportunity to take the lead in the conference using their own work evidence; thereby, encouraging ownership and responsibility for quality outcomes.”What could student-led conferences look like in your school?

Create or log in to your teacher account on Prodigy Math – a game-based learning platform designed to make math fun. Aligned with math curriculum across the English-speaking world, teachers can use Prodigy for differentiation, engagement and assessments.