Wednesday, April 08, 2015


Danger! Obstacles Missing!

Speed kills.  Or so it’s starting to appear.

Last year, in an effort to make it easier for students to register themselves for classes, we lowered the credit threshold beneath which they had to check in with an advisor first.  The idea was that students who are well on their way and know what they’re doing (there’s also a GPA requirement) shouldn’t have to check in for a perfunctory appointment before signing up for classes.  When enrollment dropped a few years ago, we thought that inconvenient registration procedures like that might be a factor.  So with the best of intentions, we decided to make registration easier.  With a speedier process, we assumed, students would sign up earlier and we could plan better.

Now with the new system in place, we’re finding that without the “prod” of an advisor’s appointment, students put off registration longer.  Removing the obstacle removed the sense of urgency.  The seemingly perfunctory conversations served as reminders, if nothing else.  When it got too easy, it became easy to ignore.

Cracking the code of student behavior sometimes involves thinking like Yogi Berra.  Yogi-isms like “nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded” are both absurd and sort of intuitive.  He famously claimed, in reference to baseball, that 90 percent of the game is half mental.  That’s ridiculous, but you know what he means.  Guessing student interpretations of policy changes can be like that.

I learned that the hard way in my first semester as a teaching assistant in grad school.  A student whose first paper was pretty terrible, and graded accordingly, asked for the option of an extra credit assignment.  Not knowing any better, I said yes.  Naturally, the extra credit assignment also turned out to be terrible.  I had painted myself into a corner.  I couldn’t just ignore the extra work, but at the same time, I couldn’t reward something so awful.  Two bad papers do not equal one good one.  I had thought that the student would use the opportunity to raise his game; it simply didn’t occur to me that he thought I graded entirely by the weight of the stack.

I never made that mistake again.

Predictions are that much harder when the student body is as heterogeneous as you’ll find at many community colleges.  Thirty-year-old single parents may respond very differently to a new registration process than eighteen-year-olds who attend full-time.  A process that strikes one student as micromanaging will be just what another one needs.

Perceived scarcity, even though it’s an awkward fit in a college that prides itself on access, can actually be useful.  Certain “prime time” classes always fill first, and students know that, so students who really want those sections have an incentive to register early.  If prime time seats were available right up until the last minute, they might wait that long.

The trick is in finding a system that conveys just enough urgency to motivate, without actually creating unnecessary crises.

How hard can that possibly be…?

Interesting point. The code of student behavior (nice term) is also difficult to predict in advance when the demographic is MIT undergrads. I remember reading statements by the administration saying that they didn't really know what would happen when they changed the constraints under which the students operated. In that case, what happened was that the students tried their best to find ways to game the system.
Allocating scarce resources among competing uses... if that were easy, economists would come more cheaply than composition teachers.
@ Plam I totally agree about students doing their best to game the system. I've been advising them for years, and that's one of the consistent things. It's almost as if making a rule or putting a procedure in place triggers the activation of "the exception gene" in students. As a result, when instituting policy, I always think, "WWASD." (What Would A Student Do)
For those schools with the funds, it might be worth hiring a student worker or two every year whose only job is to review proposals and describe how they or their friends might respond to them - before the procedures get implemented.
To Anon at 7:50am, isn't that one role of student government? I know that we routinely turned to the student body president for the WWASD perspective when making policy regarding gen ed, for example.

Regarding registration, I remain stumped. When I ran an Honors Program that offered early registration, I was always astonished at how many students just didn't bother to register early--and then, often, did not get the classes they needed.

I agree that a sense of urgency is needed. Perceived scarcity may motivate students.
Why don't you do something like - let the threshold stand for people to enroll themselves but if they haven't done so by a certain date than they must make an advisor's appointment.

The ones who are motivated will get on with it, they ones who aren't will be captured in an appointment process.
Also liking "code of student behavior".

My own view is that students need more advising as they get closer to transfer. If you make them choose some sort of track, even if it is as generic as "majors that don't require much (or any) math" versus "majors that require business calculus or calculus", you could probably give them a computerized menu to fill out their schedule as freshmen.

I attribute some of the problems you describe and that I also see to lack of familiarity with how colleges work, even after one semester or two. There must be some carry over from a decade of having your K-12 schedule set by "counselors". They have not really understood that they can freely change courses or sections later on (many months later right now) if they fail a current class or need to work different hours or change their career goals or chicken out (become realistic) on a particular class or combination of classes. And if money is an issue, as it often is, that they don't have to pay for the class until many months from now.
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