The research on how to effectively structure your college’s academic course scheduling may be scarce, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there. In January 2018, Hanover Research published Best Practices in Course Scheduling. The report takes a deep dive into course scheduling practices for undergraduate classes at four-year institutions, focusing on public universities, and includes three case studies that highlight innovative and successful approaches. In addition to the Hanover Research report, AACRAO has published findings on course start times and lengths from a 60-second survey that was distributed in March 2016. Some schools have also conducted their own internal reviews and updated their policies accordingly.
The way we've always done it.
These are great suggestions, you say, but we schedule faculty. Don’t worry—you are not alone. According to the Hanover Research report, the most common factor in course scheduling was faculty availability at 90.7%. The second most common factor was time block popularity at 76.5%. Finally, the third most common factor was scheduling at the same time as last year (rolling the schedule forward) at 71.4%. While these may be the most popular ways to schedule, it doesn’t necessarily mean that schools aren’t reviewing their practices and slowly updating to offer a more student-focused schedule. There are numerous ways other than the “top three” to increase course scheduling effectiveness.
A few options include:
- Optimize time blocks, alter start/end times, and distribute courses more evenly across the day
- Offer flexible and data-driven schedules
- Create a team dedicated to course scheduling
- Review space and room utilization
- Align course schedule with degree requirements
- Invest in technology
- Reduce bottlenecking
We will concentrate on the first bullet in this post: Optimize time blocks, alter start/end times, and distribute courses more evenly across the day. All of these practices are tied together and will slowly be unpacked throughout a series of posts.
Positive Student Outcomes:
In general, the Hanover Research report shows that classes scheduled two days a week are consistently linked with positive student outcomes. However, not all academic classes can exist in this format—some need to be scheduled one day a week and some three days a week or more, especially if they are lab or language classes. Class lengths also vary. To view the most common class length by term type (semester, quarter, trimester, etc.), take a look at the AACRAO survey starting on page 5. For a semester, 50 minutes, an hour and 15 minutes, and three hours are the most common class lengths. You will want to check with your accrediting body to confirm that your class minutes meet their requirements.
Optimum Meeting Times:
We’ve discussed course length and frequency, what’s next? Let’s look at optimum times. To start, make sure you have an appropriate amount of time between your time blocks. If you have a larger campus, you may want 15 minutes between classes. If your campus is smaller, you could get away with 10 minutes. Next, you will want to look at your student population. Do you have a lot of commuters or are your students living on campus? Does it make sense to start classes at 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., or like some schools, 9:00 a.m.? What about evening classes?
Per NPR, the typical undergraduate student doesn’t live on campus, works part-time, and may have children. If you are one of these schools, start your evening classes at 6:00 p.m., not 5:00 p.m. You need to give your students time to commute to campus. Another important aspect of time block academic scheduling is primetime hours versus non-primetime hours. All classes cannot exist within primetime. When developing a schedule or scheduling policy, require that a percentage of classes exist outside of primetime, especially classes needed for degree progress. The more you distribute your schedule over the course of a day, the more successful your schedule will be at fostering student degree progress.
What about exceptions?
Of course, there are going to be exceptions! You are a partner with the departments and faculty. As registrars, our job is to act as gatekeepers but also be an ally. Allow for exceptions, but also review them. If an instructor wants to offer a longer class time, try to arrange it over two time blocks and not three or outside of primetime hours. Stack classes in a way that makes sense to the students and faculty and in terms of room utilization. Room utilization is just as important to student success. Stacking classes in an efficient and equitable way gives students agency and allows them to create a schedule that fits their needs.
Leveraging technology for Success.
But how do we implement and manage our new guidelines? According to research, leveraging technology can help a school or department actualize their new framework or policy for time blocks. Coursedog allows university administrators to input standard meeting patterns and enforce said meeting patterns. After approval, the information flows directly into your school’s SIS. The meeting patterns can be unique depending on the course component as labeled in your SIS. Lecture classes will need a different meeting pattern than a lab class. When users are inputting their schedule, Coursedog can guide them by offering the correct time block for the class component. Coursedog can also differentiate between components when optimizing your schedule.
Not only can Coursedog distinguish between meeting patterns, it can enforce rules. For example, if a school requires that 40% of classes be scheduled outside of primetime, an administrator can program that directly into the system. We know that not all schools or departments are created equal, so Coursedog allows for departmental exceptions. If a user decides to enter information outside of the rules, administrators have three options for how to handle the entry. The system can display an error, issue a warning, or route the information into a workflow for approval. Errors will function as a hard stop. Warnings will allow the user to continue after receiving a pop-up notification. Rule exceptions will be sent into a workflow and an authorized user will grant or deny permission. Beyond meeting pattern rules, administrators can set unique custom rules. If a specific class shouldn’t have a waitlist, Coursedog can be programmed accordingly. Using technology can not only save time for the departments and faculty, it can save time for the registrar’s office.
In the past, scheduling technology was more rigid. Coursedog's course scheduler can automate class scheduling, providing flexibility and customization that allows faculty and staff to focus on their other duties. Are you ready to optimize your institution's scheduling?