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Leaders of Their Own Learning: Chapter 5: Student-Led Conferences

How do student-led conferences inspire students to own their own their learning?

Created By

EL Education

A student-led conference is a meeting with a student and his or her family and teachers during which the student shares his or her portfolio of work and discusses progress with family members. The student facilitates the meeting from start to finish. Student-led conferences can be implemented at all grade levels, K–12. Preparation for a conference creates an authentic purpose for good organizational and communication skills. The structure builds students’ sense of responsibility and accountability for their own learning, and it helps to hone their understanding of what it means to meet learning targets. 

Created By

EL Education

A student-led conference is a meeting with a student and his or her family and teachers during which the student shares his or her portfolio of work and discusses progress with family members. The student facilitates the meeting from start to finish. Student-led conferences can be implemented at all grade levels, K–12. Preparation for a conference creates an authentic purpose for good organizational and communication skills. The structure builds students’ sense of responsibility and accountability for their own learning, and it helps to hone their understanding of what it means to meet learning targets. 

It’s hard to imagine a more high-leverage practice for improving learning than this. It brings the family in as a partner in the child’s growth—instead of being intimidated by facing news from a teacher, the family members are proud to listen to their child present herself with candor and clarity, even when there are challenges. from Chapter 5, Leaders of Their Own Learning

Learning Targets

  1. I can define the key components of student-led conferences.
  2. I can explain the impact of implementing student-led conferences on the school community  and overall school culture.
  3. I can determine what structures will need to be in place within my school to set us up for success with student-led conferences.

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Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment. Copyright 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Review: What to Expect with Student-Led Conferences

What can students and families expect with student-led conferences?  Below you will find a sample letter from a principal and a sample agenda of a student-led conference.

Sample letter from a principal to families explaining what to expect with student-led conferences.

Figure 5.1 from page 186 of Leaders of Their Own Learning

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What follows is the agenda for a middle school conference at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City:

  • Arrive on time.
  • Sit outside the classroom with family members until invited in by teacher.
  • Re-introduce teacher and family members.
  • Thank family for coming.
  • Briefly explain the format and objectives of the student-led conference, reminding family to save questions for the end. (steps 1–5, five minutes)
  • Show family progress report and point out academic grades and habits of scholarship grades, as well as teacher comments and attendance and tardiness.
  • Discuss which subject seems to be the strongest and which is the greatest struggle. (steps 6–7, five minutes)
  • Present portfolio of work from each subject, showing work samples, explaining learning target mastery, and sharing goals and action plan for improvement. (fifteen minutes)
  • Share with family how they can help at home.
  • Ask parents if they have any questions.
  • Give time for paperwork.
  • Thank family and teacher. 
  • Help family to refreshments. (steps 9–13, five minutes) 
  • Make sure family fills out the conference survey. 
  • Make changes if needed to goals and action plan.
  • Put the survey and action plan in the return box.
  • Total time: approximately thirty minutes


Watch: Student-Led Conferences in Action

Let’s take a look at student led conferences in action. Review one student-led conference video, most applicable to your current role, or view two or more to consider how student-led conferences look different for students of  different ages. Consider the following questions:

  1. How would you describe the structure of a student-led conference? What is shared at an elementary, middle school, and/or high school student-led conference?
  2. Compare, contrast, and make connections across all grade levels. What connections can you make to other student-engaged assessment practices?
  3. How does this practice increase student ownership of learning? How do students say it impacts them? How do parents say it impacts them?

Kindergarten Student-Led Conference

Middle School Student-Led Conference

High School Student-Led Conference

Read: Using Portfolios during Student-Led Conferences

Portfolios that help students reflect  on their growth and learning  deepen students’ ownership of their learning. A strong portfolio structure will support strong student-led conferences because it serves as a historical record of student work, self-reflections, and teacher feedback.

Portfolios should be updated on a regular basis and include work that shows evidence of meeting standards, self-reflections, feedback, and rubrics. They should tell the story of student growth toward academic learning targets, which are based on standards, as well as character learning targets.

Some schools set up their portfolios by subject area with students pulling their best work from each subject area to represent their progress in that area. Other schools set them up by learning targets. In this case, students pull work that demonstrates their mastery of each learning target (either academic or character learning targets), regardless of what subject area it is from.

Consider the following questions:

  1. What kind of organization system will make sense for you?
  2. How easy or difficult will it be to implement this system in your classroom? How can you overcome any barriers that might exist?

Read: Goal Setting and Reflection

An important component of any student-led conference is student goal setting. These goals, which are based on academic or character learning targets, live in students’ portfolios. The opportunity to set goals in the presence of teachers and family members is a powerful way for students to engage their community in helping them make progress. Goal setting should be a regular, if not daily, part of teaching and learning. Formulating a goal helps students translate learning targets into personal terms. To be effective, goals should be specific and doable (challenging enough to advance learning but not so challenging as to overwhelm or frustrate).

What follows is a sample student checklist from Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. Consider how the structure of student-led conferences helps students set goals and reflect on their learning.

❏ I have work from each of my academic classes in my crew folder.
❏ I have completed evaluations for each academic class.
❏ I understand how my work and mastery of learning targets have resulted in my final grade in each academic subject.
❏ I know my strengths and weaknesses as a student.
❏ I know how I can improve for next quarter: I have set goals and created an action plan for each class.
❏ I know how my behavior, attendance, and tardiness are affecting my academic progress.
❏ I have practiced speaking about my work in my home language.
❏ I feel comfortable talking about my progress.
❏ I understand how my performance during student-led conferences will be assessed.
❏ I am familiar with the conference agenda.

Questions to consider:

  1. How are portfolios used as a tool to deepen student reflection and learning while supporting students in leading a student-led conference?
  2. How is goal setting used as a tool to deepen student engagement in and ownership of their learning, within a student-led conference?

Watch: Schoolwide Structures for Student-Led Conferences

Student-led conferences are most effective as a schoolwide practice if students experience coherence in how they collect work that demonstrates growth and learning, reflect on their progress, and set goals for the future. Go “behind the scenes” at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School to see how coherent structures support schoolwide success with student-led conferences.

Watch the video Schoolwide Structures for Student-Led Conferences and consider the following questions:

  1. What are the expectations for faculty, students, and families at  student-led conferences? How are these expectations communicated?”
  2. What does preparation for a student led conferences entail? What are the roles and responsibilities of students, teachers, and families?
  3. What structures must be in place at the school level and classroom level to support students in leading their conference?


Review: Student-Led Conferences at Your School

Review The Who, What and Why of Student-Led Conferences from Chapter 5 of Leaders of Their Own Learning. Use this table as a guide to chart your thinking, craft an outline for student-led conferences, or create an agenda for a team meeting to determine the process for student-led conferences at your school.

For more examples of resources and case studies of student-led conferences to support your planning refer to Chapter 5 of Leaders Of Their Own Learning. Pages 201-208 address schoolwide Implementation, What to Expect, and Common Challenges. While reviewing and planning consider:

  1. How would you like student-led conferences to be structured at your school?
    • What is currently happening that will support the implementation of student-led conferences?
    • What new systems and structures could easily be put in place?
    • In what areas will capacity will need to be built?
  2. What do you think the biggest challenges will be in your setting? How will you work to overcome them?

Dig Deeper

Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership:   Read this article and watch the accompanying video to consider a greater range of approaches for the design of student-led conference structures that increase student ownership of their learning.

Guide to Student Led Conferences:   Read this article to delve more deeply into the roles of teachers, students, and parents during student-led conferences.

When Students Lead Parent Teacher Conferences:   Read this article to see how one school district in New Hampshire began using student-led conferences as part of their plan for school reform and improvement.

Students As Leaders of Their Own Learning: This Edutopia article by EL Education Project Director Meg Riordan describes strategies for getting 100% parent participation in student-led conferences. 

Synthesize/Take Action

For Teachers…

  1. What systems and structures will need to be in place in your classroom to support students to successfully lead a student-led conference? What is your first step?
  2. How do you imagine this practice will impact the way that families participate in the conference process?
  3. What solutions can you propose to colleagues and leaders that will help resolve the logistical challenges of preparing for and scheduling student-led conferences?

For School Leaders…

  1. What impact might student-led conferences have on your school culture?
  2. What systems and structures will need to be in place in your school to support teachers in successfully implementing student led conferences?
  3. What is your next step to support your teachers in implementing student-led conferences? What logistical hurdles can you anticipate and proactively address?