Tuesday, August 30, 2016


The Small Section Shuffle

“How many students does a section need to have to run?”  

Even after all these years, small-section triage is one of the worst parts of the countdown to a new semester.  It’s complicated and probabilistic, and nobody notices when you get it right.  

It’s based on both economic and educational realities.  A section has an instructor, and the instructor has to be paid.  Beyond that, the college has all sorts of indirect costs that have to be amortized over all of the sections: those range from basic overhead (utilities, physical plant maintenance, snow removal) to the parts of the college that don’t charge their own tuition (the library, advisors, counselors, IT, administration, etc.)  Covering those indirect costs requires that most sections pay not only for themselves, but contribute towards paying for everything else.  

In olden times, when tuition was a relatively small portion of the budget, this didn’t matter as much.  Decades of disinvestment have made it matter a lot more.

Additionally, a small section requires as much instructor time as a large one.  In most cases, it occupies a classroom that could have been used for a larger one.  So in addition to direct and indirect costs, there’s also opportunity cost.  Commit to too many small sections, and you crowd out bigger ones.  That impacts both student options and the budget.

Internally, disparate section sizes can raise issues of workload equity.  A professor with five sections of 30 students each may look askance at one with five sections averaging 15 each.  Even if total in-class time is the same, the amount of grading and informal student guidance scales approximately with enrollment.  Grading 75 papers takes less time than grading 150.

On the flip side, in some courses, too low a number becomes a quality issue.  If a Public Speaking class has four students, it doesn’t work.  Depending on the course, you may need critical mass to make it educationally worthwhile.

In a more perfect world, we’d have relatively steady enrollment from year to year -- ideally, maybe a steady increase of two percent a year or so -- so we could optimize sections.  When enrollments fluctuate more than that, especially in the downward direction, it’s a lot harder.  And declines aren’t evenly distributed.  

Here, we don’t have the luxury of knowing months in advance who has registered for what.  Students can, and do, register up to the last minute.  That means that if your standard cutoff is x, you’ll get to a week before classes start with sections showing x-2 or x-3.  You have to make your best guess as to which ones will make it.  Some of those guesses will be wrong, and some people with elephant memories will use those in future semesters to argue for smaller classes for themselves.

What factors matter?

The chronic dilemma is that sometimes the factors conflict.  After the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and the obvious solutions implemented, and all sorts of staffing decisions made, there are always a few judgment calls to make at the end.  Indeterminacy can be bounded, but it can’t be eliminated.  Will the Thursday afternoon section climb, or is it stuck?  As Yogi Berra put it, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

With enough of a fiscal cushion, we could run a few small sections as treats.  But that’s not where we are.

If we had more lead time, steady-state enrollment, and a reasonable fiscal cushion, these wouldn’t be nearly so difficult.  As it is, well....

There is an apparent conflict between your statements "Additionally, a small section requires as much instructor time as a large one." and the paragraph starting "Internally, disparate section sizes can raise issues of workload equity." Those can't both be true, can they?
I strongly object to the policies at some schools that prorate faculty salaries for under-enrolled classes. As you note, in-class time and prep time is the same, no matter how many students are there. In composition classes, with a cap of 22 students, to pro-rate already low adjunct pay even lower for a class with fewer than X many students further exploits grossly underpaid adjunct faculty who really can't complain (if they do, they risk not being offered any sections in the future). Composition teachers can't run essays and research papers through scantrons, and adjuncts too often are not even compensated for out-of-class hours anyway. I get that a campus has to be cost-effective, but cutting pennies on the backs of adjuncts isn't an equitable solution. As an adjunct, I would prefer that the school just cancel the class; do it in some way that I can apply for unemployment (not permissible in some states), but don't ask me to work for even less.
Anon 1...

Instructor to,r is really supposed to be instructor pay, the. It makes sense.

I get 'paid' for 15 credits a semester.

If, in those 15 credits, I each 5 sections of 50 each, and my colleague down the hall teaches 3 5 credit sections for 15 students each, I'm grading papers for 250 and she's grading for 45....
When I was a TA (1970-73; we were the classroom instructors, not discussion group leaders)), there was another TA who had a reputation of chasing students out of his sections, whereupon they would enroll in someone else's sections. He'd wind up with around 20 in each of 2 sections, and some of us would have 40+. We ratted him out, by the way.
And what if you cancel them, and 400 students show up to register on the last day before the semester, plus a few hundred more on the first day of class? There is no room in the inn, and we lose a lot of tuition that we badly need. I suspect financial issues, but, for whatever reason, procrastination has gotten a lot worse over the last few years, enough so that no one knows when they will show up to register.

How do you deal with that?
Can you show the students a "thermometer" type graph showing - too few students to run and this course is full. That way there is some imperative for the students to register for the courses they want because they can see if they are going to miss out on the class they want.
I don't have a solution for you—I'm not sure that there is one. With a bit more state funding, it is possible to allocate the instructors a year ahead of time, and continue to offer all courses that were originally scheduled. At UCSC, where teaching funds are tight (though not as much as at community colleges), the tendency is to schedule a few too few sections. If unexpectedly high demand materializes, then more sections can be added at the last minute (if instructors are available and classrooms or labs are available). We generally have a pretty good idea of the size of classes about 3 weeks before classes start, after all the priority registration has happened. Only small shifts (due to drops and getting off of waitlists) happen after that point, unless new sections are added. UCSC students have learned that if they don't sign up early for classes, they may not be able to take the classes they need.

One of our biggest problems is scheduling—we've been over-enrolled for over a decade, and all classrooms are in use in prime time—we can't expand an overenrolled class unless we can bump someone else's under-enrolled class. We are going to shorter class blocks this year, to squeeze an extra class block into the week, so that there are 7 TTh slots (190 minutes/wk), 7 MWF slots (195 min/wk), and 2 MW slots (190 min/wk), for a total of 16 non-conflicting slots. (Labs usually take up 2 adjacent time slots, but only one day a week.) Previously, all blocks were 210 min/wk. Our classrooms are now in use 8am-8:45pm. For 2017–18, they are figuring on having to run until 10:45pm.

My winter schedule calls for two MWF blocks and 3 TTh blocks (4 if an extra lab section is needed). That gives me 16 hours of class time, in addition to another 2 hours of office hours, 3+ hours of faculty meeting and department seminar, 3 hrs biweekly of Academic Senate Committee, and 2 hours monthly of curriculum committee meetings. I don't know when I'll have time for class preps and grading (no TAs, so I'll be grading for about 80 students by myself).
At an Independent K-12 school, we have the exact same issue and the same conversation. Our enrollment is not the same from year to year. For us, our grade level sizes range anywhere from 45-73. When teachers tend to teach say, all of 11th grade, it matters how many students are in the grade. They'll have 73 students while someone teaching 9th grade will have 50. And yes, the prep time is the same, but the grading time is not. And we also have late enrollees. We had to create a new section just last week. We don't have a good answer either, but we're working on it.
My institution has implemented a solution to the problem of differential workloads by realizing that grading time can be reallocated separately from the number of sections/classes being taught. I have taught a disproportionate number of small classes over the past few years, but I then am expected to pick up part of someone else's grading load. So even if I am not teaching a big class of freshmen, I am commenting on, grading, and holding office hours to discuss a bunch of their essays. This allows writing intensive classes to grow more than would otherwise be fair to the instructor and reduces the cost of having some tiny classes run. (Our classrooms are large enough that physical space has not usually been the constraint on class size.) We can juggle the number of students who are being reassigned this way up until the very last minute.
I deal with this issue regularly at both the HS and CC level. And yes, it is a recurring headache in both cases. And no, I haven't seen a diplomatic solution.
I'd never heard of separating grading from the rest of teaching, but now that the Antisocial Scientist has said it it's both brilliant and obvious. Thanks A.S., for mentioning this!

(No idea if we'll ever do it at my college, but it's worth keeping in my back pocket for sure :) )
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