Tuesday, August 14, 2012
The Late Registration Two Step
It’s an awful practice. Since students often make plans at (or slightly past) the last minute, we keep taking students until the last minute. But “taking students” can mean different things. The late registrants are allowed to enroll, but finding the classes they want -- especially at the times they want -- is another matter entirely. Daytime sections of the most popular classes -- developmental and introductory gen eds -- typically fill by mid-July or so. By early August, openings occur singly and randomly. Assembling a workable full-time schedule of popular classes in late August requires a planetary alignment.
And that’s just on the academic end. The late enrollee has less time to arrange financial aid, buy books, and get transportation and childcare arrangements aligned. So it’s not surprising that the numbers consistently show that the last students in are the first students out.
Internally, it would be worlds easier to close enrollment a month or two before the start of the semester. But doing that would lead to a significant enrollment drop. Given the degree to which our budgets have shifted away from appropriations and towards tuitions, the impact of that kind of drop would be devastating. We no longer have the margin for error to try it.
On the political side, while we’re being attacked for “high” attrition rates, we’re also expected to be there for displaced workers as soon as they need us. If we say to someone who was laid off in July “try again in January,” that doesn’t help anybody. So we’re caught between setting students up to fail, on the one side, or bending the world to our needs, on the other.
So I’m thinking of a late registration two-step, as a way of both addressing the academic need for student readiness and the political need for responsiveness. I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can provide helpful feedback before I start spending political capital on it locally.
we combined shorter terms with earlier registration cutoffs?
Concretely, it might look like this. Break both the Fall and Spring semesters into halves. (I’ll call them sessions A and B. So September and October could be Fall A, and November and December would be Fall B.) Run courses in 7 or 8 week formats, with twice as much class time per week as now. (Alternately, when appropriate, we could use hybrid formats.) Have students take fewer classes at a time, but spend more time on each class. And have enrollment deadlines, say, two weeks before the start of each session.
That way, a student who showed up in the first week of September would be told she could register for the classes that start in late October. That would give a realistic window for financial aid and childcare arrangements, but wouldn’t force the student to wait until January. (It would also help the student who went great guns in the beginning of the semester, but whose life intervened in November. In this format, the student would have, say, six credits to show for it.) She wouldn’t be shoehorned into a sure-to-fail combination in September, but she would only have to wait a couple of months, and would actually be in a position to succeed.
We’ve found locally that the shorter the class, the higher the success rate. (Summer classes have higher rates than Fall or Spring, and January have the highest of all.) That’s consistent with the national research I’ve seen, too. So I’m thinking that breaking the semester into smaller chunks, and forcing students to register well in advance for whatever chunks they take, might be the best of both worlds.
I’ve been told that this could be a severe headache for financial aid, for technical reasons. But are there other reasons this wouldn’t work? Better yet, has anyone out there actually lived through a system like this? How did it work? Or is there something I’m not seeing?
What we do is have a shorter semester that starts a few weeks late. I'm pretty sure it is populated entirely with the kind of new-student gen-ed classes you describe (English, History, basic math) based on historical data concerning the needs of late-registering students. Students showing up for orientation in the last week or so before classes start can take empty slots in existing classes, but we no longer "shoehorn" them in or open an entirely new section just days before classes start.
Ones who show up after the last minute have no choice. We no longer do a late add after a class has met more than once.
We already have some half-semester classes, often structured so a sequence can be done back to back, but there are not many and those are usually full by now. I posted my comments about half semesters back in April.
Coming from a semester system (~15 weeks) at my undergrad institution, I was not, at first, thrilled with the shorter periods. I felt that if once I got behind in any class, I was almost doomed. There was no time to catch up. If you're kind of at sea for the first two or three weeks of a new subject (common, at least for me) -- the class can be a third over before you start to get your legs under you. However, I can't say that the outcomes were bad. I did pretty well in those compressed classes, and my husband, who was already used to that pace from his undergrad institution, never did agree with me that the terms were too short.
The summer session was actually even further compressed, with some limited selection of courses being taught in six week intensive sessions, of which two could be squeezed into the summer in the most popular cases. I TA'd for the summer physics sessions. Instead of having lab once a week, we'd have lab three times per week, on top of the ~1.5 hours per day, 5 days a week, that the students would spend in lectures. And I think there were study sessions too. This option was mostly taken by students trying to get a prerequisite "out of the way," rather than by future physics majors, so they weren't dedicated to getting the most they could out of the experience. It was a grueling ordeal to be survived. We TA's hated that pace, and I think we all agreed that the level of understanding achieved by the summer session kids was nowhere near the same as for the fall, winter, or spring quarters where they had the full ten weeks (though again, that was somewhat a selection effect).
Squeezing a class that would've taken fifteen weeks at my undergrad alma mater into six is a bad idea, I think. (Breaking up that class into two sessions, with sequential course numbers, would have been much better -- but for that to benefit your late registration people you'd have to make sure to offer both the first and second half of the class every term -- hard to do, maybe.)
Bottom line -- I think 7-8 weeks is too short, if you're going to try to squeeze the same content in. But the quarter system is a popular and proven format, and could probably be made to work.
If you really are interested in more radical experiments, though, you could look into what they're doing at Quest University. There "Your classes are all seminars with fewer than twenty students. You take one class at a time - a new intellectual adventure each month." I think Colorado College runs the same way. One of the faculty at Quest blogged about his experiences switching over to their system here.
Faculty are...coming around. Some more readily adopted to this format than others. Students are...quickly adjusting to the study time involved.
Staff will not enroll students within a week of classes starting. Students have to do that themselves and are very strongly cautioned not too. For all the reasons mentioned.
The six- and seven-week sessions work fairly well for one-credit electives (which, this being grad school, are a fairly significant amount of work and a non-negligible contribution to a 45-credit degree program). For the two- and three-credit core required courses, they're problematic.
The problems arise when instructors try to teach the same course they'd ordinarily teach in 14 weeks in 10 or six weeks. It's especially disastrous when the assignments require group work, because it's not as though six students with full and non-aligning schedules are going to have an easier time planning group meetings just because the semester is shorter. And one class I took during a short summer session had 15-person group projects, because the professor decided that we should do the same project that's assigned during the regular semester but double the number of people per group so all the presentations could be delivered in a single class period (rather than the two periods devoted to presentations during the regular semester). Please, instructors, never ask 15 people to work together on a project that requires work outside of class time! It's a nightmare.
Shorter semesters are worth trying for all the reasons stated, but professors need to rethink expectations for out-of-class work that's anything other than solo reading/writing/studying time. In addition to group work, that applies to assignments that require back-and-forth with professors, TAs, and outside-the-class experts (e.g., the local businessperson a student might be asked to interview).
- Liz B
There are other 8 week courses. Some are hybrid (they call them web-enhanced) where it meets the same amount of time as a 15 week course, but has some work that must be done online. Others are like the remedial math and meet double the time.
The biggest problem for the 8 week courses occurs in the spring. Spring break is fixed by the state and does not always occur 8 weeks into the semester. So, you could meet 1 week and then have a week off in the 2nd 8 week term.
So we were supposed to have a field trip. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that this field trip experience was often "satisfied" by a solo project rather than class time spent interacting with classmates and an instructor.
Final exam was on the last day, so that further reduced the effective amount of instructional time.
Then somebody said that financial aid rules dictate a minimum of 8 weeks. (Is it true? Don't ask me, I don't work on that side of the institution, I just teach.) We technically satisfied this by declaring that our academic calendar begins on Fridays. Week 7 ended on a Thursday (most classes were MW or TuTh) and we had a 1 hour session on Friday of the last week. Too short for a final exam, so it tended to be a joke of a class.
I don't know what they did about Friday classes or Saturday classes, because I never taught those days.
The challenge was that the same 16 week content and contact hours apply to the shorter semesters.
The end result was increased workload for faculty, at no extra pay or reduced pay for the very few.
The late enrollment students keep a'coming and the august effect was multiplied by four.
At the moment the late enrollment period continues to get longer and longer.
The pace is intense. As someone already noted, a student who loses a week to illness (or whatever) often loses the term. Open-ended assignments are tough and timely grading can get overwhelming. We expect our students to put roughly 12-15 hours a week of work in per course outside of class (which is likely prohibitive for students with significant other constraints such as family or full-time jobs).
I don't know how we handle financial aid (I believe we do tuition and financial aid on a per-semester basis).
Overall, it's bumpy pedagogically (particularly for those used to semesters), but it mostly works. Our students like taking a wider variety of courses in a year. This structure also supports some other programs that are unique to our curriculum.
I was referring to DD's mention of a student arriving during the first week of September. If classes started on 9/10, finals would start on 12/24. That strikes me as insane, and you still wouldn't have 15 weeks of classes because of Thanksgiving.
Which reminds me that the thing that bugs me the most about the modern "semester" is that it isn't 15 weeks any more. It is 14 plus finals, minus some holidays.
DD: The issue I'd worry about with moving to this only is sequential classes. If students are in remedial courses, that's just great, (it of course lets them get to collegiate content much faster), and it could be really nice for people who end up needing remediation in multiple disciplines (remedial reading, writing, and math would put you at full-time right there), but if someone's heading for science and trying to take, say, math/phys/chemistry and fit in some gen eds as well, or maybe get in some foreign language classes, it's going to end up causing some gaps between courses.
One way I could see it working is declaring that some courses would only be for the 8-week courses -- which would avoid the issue of populating the late start classes solely with late registrants.
Lack of stamina and endurance may prevent 4-hour marathon practice sessions, but it's not just that. Practice 4 hours a day for 8 weeks, and after those 8 weeks are up you'll forget all the music you've learned. Practice religiously for 30 minutes every day, and after a year you will have skills that last. Music classes need to run for full semesters and full years, for students to achieve the required learning outcomes.