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…?