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Optimizing the Course Schedule

Another way to promote student success.

October 28, 2019
 
 

Why aren’t class schedules more like airline schedules? We expect airline schedules to respond to shifts in passengers’ demand and to make the most effective use of airplanes’ seats.

Shouldn’t we expect the same of our course schedule?

A well-designed course schedule can serve several strategic goals. It can:

Promote Student Success

A more regularized course schedule can boost student retention rates, improve course pass rates, increase the number of credits students take and reduce time to graduation. It can also better accommodate the needs of students who commute, work, care for family members and participate in extracurricular activities.

Currently, top concerns among students include course availability, class overlaps and unnecessary gaps between classes.

Better Utilize Campus Space

Classrooms are one of campuses’ most highly valuable and scarce resources; using facilities more efficiently would allow faculty to deliver more high-quality instructional experiences. Currently, however, classrooms at most schools are underutilized many hours of the week.

Maximize Departmental and Program Flexibility

A well-designed class schedule will allow departments and programs to teach in ways that align closely with their pedagogical approaches and curricular goals, giving them greater flexibility in offering hybrid or modularized courses, labs, seminars and practicums, as well as support team-based learning, collaborative inquiry and other novel forms of instructional delivery.

Promote a Sense of Community

At some institutions, course schedules recognize a common period when student activities, college events, guest lectures, training workshops and department or college meetings can be regularly scheduled.

Several trends have emerged in class scheduling nationwide. The most obvious trend is central assignment of classrooms.

Over time, at most institutions, the number of general-purpose classrooms gradually declines, as departments claim space for offices, labs, departmental libraries and resource centers, seminar rooms, and study and office space for graduate students. This process has prompted a counterreaction, as the provost’s office or registrar’s office reclaims space for assignment.

A second trend is toward standardizing class start and end times. The goal is to create a schedule with fewer course overlaps and maximize opportunities for traditional and nontraditional students by standardizing class start and ending times. Unconventional class bands are not unusual for studio classes, lab sections and graduate and professional courses. In many instances, scheduling oddities arose to meet particular needs: for example, to accommodate the schedules of teachers enrolled in master’s programs, or to ensure that students have time to reach a distant building.

But these nonstandardized schedules add up. On many campuses, as many as 40 percent of classes are “off-schedule.”

A third trend is toward time block scheduling. Block scheduling’s goal is to make it easier for students to balance their studies with work and family demands by ensuring that classes are offered in distinct blocks of time, in the morning, early and late afternoon, evening, and weekends. This approach has the added benefit of creating groups of students who move through the curriculum as a cohort.

A fourth trend is to increase students’ course options. Online is the most obvious way to increase students’ options, but other approaches include hybrid, evening, weekend, low residency and intersession courses.

A rarer development is the rise of demand-driven course scheduling.

Thanks to the power of data analytics, campuses are gaining an ability to predict course demand. By analyzing the number of students declaring a particular major and the number of students unable to enroll in a particular course, departments are better able to project the need for specific classes semesters or even years in advance.

Changes in major requirements, too, often have profound effects on demand for a class within or outside a department. A demand-driven approach helps an institution identify curricular bottlenecks and forecast courses that will need extra sections. Such an approach can also ensure that students are able to fulfill prerequisites, maximize the number of credits earned each semester and move efficiently toward timely graduation.

A colleague described his department’s approach to course scheduling as “inertia.” Tradition and faculty preference, not course demand, were the primary factors determining what was taught when.

Optimizing a course schedule is no easier than optimizing an airline schedule. It requires a campus to study student and faculty preferences, degree plans, course wait lists, seat-fill rates, oversubscribed and undersubscribed classes, and classroom utilization rates. But done properly, it can make a world of difference. At Stephen F. Austin State University, a curriculum optimization exercise revealed enough unmet demand for general education courses to fund 19 new full-time, non-tenure-track faculty lines.

Unlike airlines, the goal of scheduling optimization is not to generate the maximum amount of profit, but to better serve students’ needs. That is certainly an admirable aim, one well worth the effort.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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