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Six Reasons Why Individual Research Conferences Are A Good Idea

I hear from a number of my fellow law librarians that they don't like doing research conferences with their students. The number one reason I hear for why is that they take up a tremendous amount of time--which is completely fair, given time is a commodity most law librarians are short on.

For me, the benefits of research conferences far outweigh the time needed to perform them. Here are just a few reasons why I include them in my research courses:

1.  As I've already noted elsewhere, they are a great way for instructors to model for their students how to collaborate and communicate in a way similar to what they'll do in practice. Conferencing is a lawyering skill that students need to practice during their legal education.

2.  Individualized feedback is critical to student learning (and it's required under the ABA Standards for experiential simulation courses).  Research conferences allow us to provide feedback in an atmosphere that all but guarantees that our students will hear the feedback instructors are giving. While written feedback can be helpful, we have no way of knowing that our students are actually carefully reading the constructive criticism we are giving them. Even if they are carefully dissecting our comments, feedback is more valuable when students can follow up with questions about professors' commentary. While some students feel comfortable enough to come to office hours and ask questions about our comments, others are unlikely to do so. In an in-person meeting, students hear and have time to reflect on the feedback, and then are able to move forward in the learning process as partners with the instructor.

3. Research conferences allow us to meet each student where they are in the learning process. In the classroom, instructors are forced to teach to the median to move class forward. But, there is no "one right way" to research and analyze legal issues, particularly given the variety of platforms and search strategies at researchers' disposal.  Teaching to the median results in both losing students who have moved beyond the average skill level and leaving those students behind who are struggling the most and need instruction to their current abilities. As such, conferences can become one of the most meaningful learning opportunity for the vast majority of our students, as we can cater instruction to exactly where each student is in their abilities.

4.  Conferences provide excellent feedback for the instructor about how well their students are learning.  Conferences give us an opportunity to learn more about what is and is not working well for our students individually and collectively.  This reflection allows us to make adjustments in our teaching methodology as the course proceeds.  Having met with all of his or her students, the instructor is able to identify global issues with with the class is struggling. The instructor can then revisit those issues, which may be a benefit to those students who had greater issues in other areas and didn't have a chance to discuss the global issues in their conferences.

5.  One-on-one conferences allow us to build relationships with our students that result in their being more engaged inside and outside of the classroom.  Conferences helps teachers and students to build mutual respect.  Conferences, when structured to meet students' individual concerns about their efforts, make students feel heard and valued. This, in turn, results in them staying more engaged as active partners in their own learning.

6.  Research conferences are a better pedagogical tool than waiting to meet until students have started writing, because it allows us to work with our students when they are engaged most deeply in legal analysis and when they are not distracted by trying to communicate that analysis in writing. Research conferences allow students to work out their analysis prior to putting pen to paper, likely resulting in better written and analyzed first drafts of their papers.

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