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Ask any registrar: optimizing a departmental or course schedule is among the most thankless tasks there is.

The goals of course scheduling are obvious:

  • To ensure that no student is closed out of classes essential for graduation.
  • To make it easier for students to balance their studies with their work and caregiving responsibilities and be able to participate in extracurricular activities.
  • To use instructors most efficiently while being responsive to their needs and preferences.

But meeting the conflicting needs and demands of a host of stakeholders is a recipe for virtually irreconcilable disagreements. It’s a problem from hell.

Here are the challenges:

Problem 1: The Time Band Challenge

Many campuses, to a registrar’s dismay, lack fixed time bands. The result: gaps in student schedules. Many undergraduates discover that they must sit idle for a half hour, 45 minutes or even an hour between classes.

The explanation for the lack of regularized time bands is straightforward but extremely frustrating nonetheless. Studio classes, drama classes, clinicals and graduate and professional classes don’t readily conform to a standard schedule. Schedules need to accommodate the work hours of particular groups, such as teachers. At some campuses, long distances between buildings or a shortage of elevators make it difficult to synchronize schedules.

On many campuses, as many as 40 percent of classes are “off-schedule.”

Imposing fixed time bands is ultimately a political decision that requires input from deans, department chairs and, in most cases, the faculty senate. But if you hope to optimize the use of scarce classrooms, it’s a battle that must be waged.

Problem 2: The MWF Problem

Most faculty members prefer to teach two days a week, but historically those who teach on Mondays must teach three days a week.

The obvious solution is to go to a two-day schedule for all classes, except those, like foreign languages, that require more. But should those two days be Monday and Wednesday or Monday and Tuesday or Tuesday and Thursday or Tuesday and Wednesday? And what about Fridays and Saturdays? Should Fridays be reserved for labs and breakout sessions? Should there be Friday-Saturday offerings or longer classes on Saturdays?

Like the time band challenge, this is as much a political as a pedagogical decision.

Problem 3: Block Scheduling

Since the overwhelming majority of college students work and commute, it makes sense to offer classes in blocks: early morning, late morning, early afternoon, late afternoon and evening. But this means that many instructors would have to teach outside their preferred sweet spot, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and departments might be forced to offer introductory and gateway courses at unconventional and inconvenient times.

Given the value of block scheduling for today’s new student majority, this, in my opinion, is a battle worth the fight.

Problem 4: A Shortage of General Purpose Classrooms and Science Labs

Everywhere I’ve taught, there is a lack of general purpose classrooms. Columbia only had 100 and UT Austin fewer than 250. If these classrooms are used inefficiently, the number of classes that can be offered shrinks substantially.

Lab space is especially limited, a problem worsened by the need for cleanup between classes. One institution addressed the lab space shortage by leasing space at an underenrolled nearby college—but that presented its own challenge: giving students sufficient time to walk back and forth between campuses. In many instances, there is no cost-effective solution, and home lab kits and virtual labs offer the only way to expand capacity.

Problem 5: Unmet Demand

Ask undergraduates and they’ll tell you that too many high-demand classes are closed—at least at the times they’d prefer. Since closed classes delay graduation, this is a challenge that needs to be addressed.

A number of institutions have discovered an academic version of Say’s law: that supply creates its own demand. Stephen F. Austin State University found enough unmet demand for general education courses to fund 19 new full-time, non-tenure-track faculty lines.

Of course, many department chairs regard estimations of unmet demand as a crapshoot. They must find additional instructors and run the risk of a dean’s wrath if they incorrectly estimate demand.

There are two alternatives. One is to allow students to take the course elsewhere and award transfer credit—a solution that few institutions are happy to embrace, since this involves the loss of credit hours. The other is to offer the classes online, either synchronously or asynchronously. But many departments seem reluctant to embrace the online approach, viewing it as less effective pedagogically and as unfair to faculty who must teach on campus face-to-face.

Problem 6: The Instructor Equity Challenge

Who teaches what when is a major source of internal department conflict. Among the disputes: Who is responsible for service courses or those that fulfill major requirements? Who gets their preferred teaching days and hours? Who will teach graduate students? Is online teaching regarded as a perk or an imposition?

The answers to such questions ultimately involve issues of fairness and equity. If senior faculty get a preference in course assignments, is this at the expense of junior colleagues and adjunct instructors?

Problem 7: Course Scheduling, Student Services and Fostering a Sense of Community

If a campus is to be more than a place where students and faculty parachute in and exit as soon as their classes are over, then a college or university needs to consider how course scheduling lines up with other activities, such as student support services, guest lectures, college events, training workshops and department meetings. One solution: build a common time into the schedule, for example, at midday, and dedicate that time for various events and meetings.

Typically, course schedules reflect tradition or inertia. This gives instructors and departments predictability, but their convenience can be at odds with students’ needs.

My advice: design the course schedule from a student-centered perspective. Ask yourself: What are the class availability bottlenecks that delay graduation?

A student focus will encourage your department to ask a series of crucial questions:

  • At what times should these classes be offered to best accommodate students’ schedules?
  • Which instructors are best suited to teach particular classes?
  • What class format best balances cost-efficiency and student success?
  • Do your department’s offerings need to be aligned with other departments’?

So what can your department do to maximize flexibility and increase students’ options while not compromising quality or sacrificing learning?

Think outside the box.

Consider offering more online, hybrid, weekend, low-residency and compressed intersession classes.

Experiment with demand driven course scheduling.

By analyzing the number of students declaring a particular major and the number of students unable to enroll in a particular course, departments can project the need for specific classes semesters or even years in advance.

Class scheduling is not a trivial matter or a bureaucratic exercise. It not only plays a pivotal role in terms of student satisfaction, but done well, it can facilitate their academic progress. It can boost the number of credits students take and reduce time to degree. In addition, it can help campuses use space more efficiently. Equally important, schedule optimization is essential to better accommodate the needs of students who commute, work, care for family members and participate in extracurricular activities.

Class scheduling optimization software exists, but as Matt Reed has observed, building an optimal class schedule is as much an art as a science, involving issues of fairness, equity, student and faculty preferences and cross-departmental coordination. But as difficult as the scheduling process is, it is among the most important campus responsibilities.

Optimizing the class schedule is not simply a matter of using classrooms or deploying instructors more efficiently. It’s among the very best tools we have to maximize the number of credit hours that students accumulate and make their complicated lives more manageable.

Their needs, not institutional convenience, need to be our lodestar.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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