Co-Conferring from a Distance

An excerpt from Student-Centered Coaching from a Distance (Sweeney and Harris, forthcoming)

There are lots of ways to formatively assess. One of the most powerful is through one-on-one conferences. In their text, Rigorous Reading, Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher (2013) write, “Conferring provides the teacher with an excellent opportunity. These conferences allow the teacher to gauge the progress for each student, clarify information, and provide feedback for next steps. In addition, teachers keep records of these conferences for later reflection about individual student progress” (p.117). There is no reason why a transition to virtual learning means we should abandon this important practice for formative assessment.

During an in person lesson, co-conferring means we pull up a chair next to a student to discuss how they are tackling their learning. We recommend for the coach and teacher to do this together instead of taking a ‘divide and conquer’ approach. If we fan out to confer with different students, we lose the shared experience of deep conversations with the same student. This may diminish our opportunity to witness and learn from how the student engaged as a learner, and for the teacher and coach to learn from one another. The approach of dividing and conquering also means that the teacher and coach may spend most of their time informing the other of what they heard, making it an inefficient strategy for co-assessing. When we co-confer, we are more quickly able to make decisions and address what the learner needs, sometimes right in the moment. We recognize that it may feel strange to suggest that two people working with one student is more efficient, but from a coaching perspective, we’ve found that this is indeed the case.

Co-conferring in a virtual setting is simply a matter of making the most of whatever technology you have at your fingertips. A low tech way is to create a signup sheet in Google Docs for students to indicate a short block of time during office hours when they will join a Zoom or Google Meet with the teacher and coach. Another structure is for students to have a dedicated time each week when they participate in a conference. We can also poll students regarding their preferences for conferences. John Spencer writes (2020), “As an educator, you can honor student agency by asking them their preferences for check-ins. Students can submit their answers in an online form or in a short interview that you do at the beginning of the year. After students have submitted it, you can look at the spreadsheet and divide up your primary way of communicating with each student. This process sends the message that you value each student’s input in their preferred approach to communication. As a result, they have a greater sense of control over frequency and method of communication.” Of course, we’d also advocate for the coach to be present during as many of these conferences as possible because this ensures that the teacher has a co-assesser by their side.

Language for Co-Assessing
Noticing and Naming“Which learning target would you like me to focus on when I’m collecting student evidence?”

“What points in the lesson will allow us to collect the most evidence?”

“Is there any specific language you’d like me to listen for?”

“Have we planned enough opportunities for the students to demonstrate what they know using the available technology?”

You Pick Four“Are there any specific students you’d like me to focus on when I’m Noticing and Naming?”

“Can you tell me more about these students?”

“Would you like me to listen in during whole group, small group, or one-on-one instruction?”

“Let’s be sure we come together to co-plan after I collect this evidence.”

Co-Conferring“There’s so much we can learn by doing conferences together. How about if I join you in some so we can really get a good sense of where your students are in their learning?”

“What learning target would you like to focus on?”

“How can we structure the conversation so it’s both efficient and informative?”

“How would you like to take notes during the conferences?”

Frey, N. and Fisher, D. (2013). Rigorous Reading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. 

Spencer, J. (2020) The Power of Student Check Ins During Distant Learning and Hybrid Courses. Retrieved from:

© Sweeney, D. and Harris, L. (2021) Student-Centered Coaching from a Distance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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