4 shifts for student-led conferences in a proficiency-based environment

Student-led conferences are for students

Student-led conferences are a key strategy in personalized, student-centered educational practices.

And they’re even more important and potentially powerful in a proficiency-based system.


What is different about Student Led Conferences in a proficiency-based learning system?

The clarity of expectations, transparency in terms of progress, and focus on growth of proficiency-based learning provide students with tools that allow them to truly lead the conference.

In the excellent book Leaders of Their Own Learning, which focuses on assessment (and proficiency) practices in Expeditionary Learning Education schools, Ron Berger introduces student-led conferences by saying “It’s hard to imagine a more high-leverage practice for improving learning than this.”

Here are two videos of student-led conferences in EL Education schools using proficiencies:


What I most appreciate about the EL Education approach is that they situate student-led conferences as a form of student-engaged assessment.

If we focus on the student-led conference as primarily for the student, rather than for the family or for teachers, then a student-led conference looks a lot different than a traditional conference.

Here are four implications of thinking about these conferences as performance assessments (and learning experiences) …that are for students.

1. Clearly communicate learning expectations to students

Since learning targets and scales are good starting points for proficiency-based learning, we should incorporate them into student-led conferences.

Christie Nold, a 6th grade social studies teacher at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vermont, developed a full-blown performance task for student-led conferences, complete with a lesson plan and a detailed rubric that includes social studies standards.

tying proficiencies to student-led conferences


At Crossett Brook Middle School in Waterbury, Vermont, teacher teams are crafting learning scales that fit with their curriculum and SLC structure, using a draft scale based on five Transferable Skills as a starting point.

tying proficiencies to student-led conferences

2. Ensure all students participate

If we recognize that student-led conferences are first and foremost a learning event for our students, then we must make the opportunity available to all of them.

Family participation is ideal and schools should do everything they can to maximize this – they are the most authentic audience and attendees will benefit hugely by attending.

But it is important to have a back-up plan for students whose families cannot attend.

At Crossett Brook Middle School, any student whose family cannot attend will lead a a conference with their Advisory Teacher or another educator of their choosing. Another option is to have students create a screencast of their conference that they can share at home.

3. Prepare students really well

We wouldn’t summatively assess students without giving them the chance to prepare, and the student-led conference should be no different.

Although day-to-day proficiency-based learning is the key to helping students take ownership of their learning, for the conference itself students will benefit from organizing tools such as templates.

The Pittsfield Middle School in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, provides a sample agenda, task list, as well as this goal reflection form:

tying proficiencies to student-led conferences

And the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City (featured in the middle school video above) has a full fledged Student-led Conference Handbook. The Handbook is chock full of resources – see the agenda and script on pages 20-22.

In addition to time for cultivating work, reflecting on progress, and preparing their presentation, students should be given the opportunity to practice, practice, practice. Ideally they will get actionable feedback from multiple sources, including teachers and peers, before they lead their official conference.

4. Finally, keep it focused

Pursuing too many learning targets will undermine proficiency-based learning, and this is true of a student-led conference as well.

“Simplify and go deeper on fewer learning targets” — this was the main lesson learned shared about proficiency-based student-led conferences in a recent Blogazine post from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

Although we want students to be able to communicate how they are doing generally, it is even more important that they are able to thoughtfully make connections between the status of their learning and the quality of their work. Students should be given ample time to explain each featured learning progression and show evidence of where they started, how they have grown, and what they plan to do next. You can’t rush meaningful reflection.

Life LeGeros

Life has worked in various roles in K-12 education, including classroom teacher, assistant principal, math department head, state agency administrator, and school board teacher representative. His dissertation focused on the impact of math teachers' knowledge on the growth of their students. He believes in teacher leadership, student empowerment, and challenging the status quo. He loves being immersed in tech-rich and outdoor environments, though not simultaneously. Find him on Twitter @lifelegeros.

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