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Handling student course demand

At the department chairs meeting the other day, we were discussing ways to handle courses with high demand. In my experience, when a department sees high demand for a course, they first ask the Dean to help support another section of the course. That other section might come from a reduced common currency obligation [1], from an expansion of a shared contract, from a visitor, or elsewhere. Some departments also look to shift the load (Comparatively few students have enrolled in course B; we can cut that course this semester and have that faculty member teach an extra section of course A.) If neither of those options works, we often cut some students to reach capacity or allow the course to overenroll, or both.

In any case, I was surprised to hear someone say something like We don’t guarantee that students can take particular courses. I’m not sure why we need to offer other sections or overenroll courses. I agree that we don’t always need to allow students to take a course they want, particularly if it’s an upper-level elective. Nonetheless, there are many courses that students should be able to take if they want. For example, if a student wants to take an introductory course in a discipline, they should be able to do so at some point in their career (although not necessarily in the semester they want). A student who wants introductory Latin, or Philosophy, or Music, or Sociology, or Biology, or even Computer Science should be able to include such a course in their individually advised curriculum. Since we expect students to explore potential majors in their first year or so, students should be able to take a course in every prospective major in their first year [2]. Turning from first-years to advanced students, we should make sure that every student who has declared a major [3] is able to make forward progress in that major each semester.

I must venture to guess that that colleague has not experienced demand for their classes that outstrips the slots in their normal offerings. That makes me sad; they are in an important discipline and I’d hope that demand for that discipline would be high. How do we know demand is high, particularly for introductory courses? Well, during preregistration, the course might fill or overfill. I’ve encountered that issue for both introductory and advanced courses. For fall introductory courses, I also need to worry about leaving enough slots for incoming first-year students. Predicting the number of such slots is hard. One can look at historical data, but there are so many variables in student interest that precise predictions are hard.

Let’s take two particular examples from my department, CSC 151, our introductory course, and CSC 213, our mid-level course in operating systems. As chair, I generally try to leave about twenty open slots in each of the two sections of CSC 151 for first-year students. Last year, we had to cut the third years to make sure those slots were available [4]. And, even though we had a comparatively small entering class, all of the slots for one section filled about midway through the first round [6] and all of the slots for the other section filled early in the second round. We ended up over enrolling both sections just to make sure that students had reasonable opportunities. Those experiences give me a few choices: I can severely restrict returning students from enrolling; I can accept that large numbers of incoming students will not be able to take CSC 151 in their first semester, even though they would like to do so; I can allow the sections to overenroll [7]; I can find a way to offer a third section of the introductory course; or I can do a combination of those things. If I believe students should have the opportunity to take CS courses, and I do, I must focus on adding a section and allowing sections to overenroll, if necessary [8].

Let us now turn our attention to CSC 213, our course in Operating Systems. CSC 213 is not strictly required for the CS major; students can also take CSC 211, Computer Architecture. But they must take at least one of the two. National curricular guidelines suggest that they should take both. We also encourage them to take both. We had forty or so students pre-enroll for the spring section of the course, which is capped at 24 and offered once per year. We could identify students who could take CSC 213 another year [9]. Others self gov’d themselves out of the course [10]. But the students who weren’t taking CSC 213 needed to take some CS course, and every one of our courses was at or near capacity. In the end, every 200- and 300-level CS course in the spring ended up being at or over capacity to ensure that our students had appropriate experiences [11]. In planning for next year, I assumed that we would have higher demand for CSC 213; if I had not cut anyone, we would have had similar demand (that is, higher than our offering), and the students cut from this year’s section will add to that demand. Hence, we are offering two sections of CSC 213 next spring. But that extra section has to come from somewhere.

I hope those two examples help answer my colleagues’ question. Why do we allow courses to overenroll or suddenly offer extra sections? Because there’s sufficient student demand for the courses and we think students are entitled to enroll in those courses. CS is certainly not the only department that makes these adjustments. For example, I’ve seen Chemistry and Mathematics/Statistics make similar adjustments to get extra session, and I have no doubt that Economics, Sociology, Art, and other departments also have to make similar adjustments

Should all of this worry you if you are a prospective or current CS major? Not really. The department is committed to making sure that every student gets a strong CS education; that includes being able to take the courses in the major that you need. Will we sometimes encourage you to take a course in a different semester than you planned? Perhaps. Will you generally have full classes? Almost certainly, but full classes at Grinnell is different than at most institutions. We generally cap the 200-level CS classes are at 24 and we’re working to cap the 300-level courses at 20. So, your classes will be large by Grinnell standards, but small by most standards. If you’re an incoming first-year student who wants to take CSC 151, you will definitely get it in your first year at Grinnell, although perhaps not your first semester. If you put us first in your first-round listings, I will do my best to make sure that you can take it your first semester.

[1] There are a few courses at Grinnell that a large number of people can teach. These include Tutorial, intro statistics, and a few of the core courses in the concentrations. I tend to refer to these as common currency courses.

[2] Well, every perspective major within reason. Given that every student has to take Tutorial, and that most take either Mathematics or a foreign language, students should be able to take the introductory course in five or so majors of their choice in their first year.

[3] And even every student likely to declare a particular major.

[4] Cutting students is painful. The considerations that led us to cut third years was as follows: We should not cut second-year students since they are prospective majors. We should not cut seniors since they are running out of chances to take the course. That leaves third years. But come to think of it, we may have had to cut some seniors, too.
I’ve added an extra section of CSC 151 for this coming fall, so I do not anticipate having to cut any returning student [5].

[5] If I’m not cutting returning students, I accept that not every first-year who wants CSC 151 their first semester will get it. But they’ll certainly get it their second semester.

[6] Grinnell has an interesting enrollment process. First-year students develop three lists of courses with their advisor, which I refer to as round one, round two, and round three. In round one, we shuffle the students and put them in their highest-ranked open course. In round two, we reverse the order and do the same with their second set of courses. I think we shuffle them again before round three and then do it all over again. Most students get their first choice in round one.

[7] I’d have to let them overenroll by a lot if I wanted to meet demand.

[8] With some effort, I have added a third section of CSC 151 for the fall. We will not cut any returning students. I hope that allows us to support a reasonable number of first-year students without forcing the courses to overenroll. I have not yet figured out what issues, other than filling our courses part way through round one, will lead me to overenroll the courses.

[9] It is, however, strange to cut second-year students from a 200-level course.

[10] That is, they said, I can take this course another time; let someone who needs it more take it now.

[11] I tried to keep the courses that early-career faculty teach as close as possible to the cap. That meant that my courses needed to overenroll by a bit more.

Version 1.0 of 2017-04-15.