Why it's so hard to get that course you need.

There's an article in Access (the glossy magazine put out by our School of Journalism and Mass Communication) about why so few of our students manage to get their degrees in four years. Part of it has to do with the fact that most of our students work -- many the equivalent of full time (or more) -- and many have long commutes to get here. As well, many who start out taking courses at community colleges discover that some of those credits don't transfer.

But a lot of the challenge, it turns out, has to do with lining up all the classes to fulfill all the major and general education requirements:

SJSU academic advisor and instructor Michael Randle, who has been working at SJSU since 1998, believes that understanding the requirements, knowing the prerequisites and organizing one's priorities can help students graduate from SJSU in the time they desire. Randle, who teaches the lecture courses "Success and Science" and "Success as Transfers," has seen a variety of factors that cause students to stay at SJSU longer than four years.

"Many need remediation (students do not receive credits toward graduation in remedial classes). A lot of our students work and because they work, they have very specific scheduling needs, which force them to take classes later on. Another factor is that when students devote their time to work, many don't pass their classes and have to repeat them. Last but not least, some courses are only offered in a specific semester, forcing students to wait," says Randle.

From a student's point of view, that course you need which is only offered in a specific semester can be a real source of irritation. Why the heck doesn't the school offer the courses you need more frequently?

Here's some insight from the faculty end of course scheduling.

The "Ethics in Science" course I teach is a requirement for the chemistry major here. So far, it has only been offered in Spring semester, and this is the first year we have offered multiple (which is to say, two) sections of the course. If, for some reason, a chem major couldn't enroll for the course (because of a schedule conflict or a missing prerequisite), he or she had to wait a whole year to try again to take it. If the course were offered every semester -- in multiple sections, with a selection of days and times -- chem majors would have no problem getting this required course out of the way.

However, to date I am the only person in my department who has ever taught this course. There is not at present an army of instructors we could unleash to teach as many sections of it as the students desire. In fact, as philosophy departments go, we do have a fairly large number of (very talented) instructors, but we wouldn't want to assign this course (or any of our courses) to someone who did not have the expertise to teach the material well. The areas of expertise in our teaching staff encompass many different courses which fulfill major requirements for philosophy, major requirements for other majors (many of which are more populous even than chemistry), and a wide array of general education requirements. All of this is to say that if we completely directed our staffing toward making life easier (scheduling-wise) for students in one major, we would end up making life harder for students in other majors.

(Of course, we try constantly to broaden our expertise by taking on new projects. "Ethics in Science" will be offered next year while I'm on sabbatical, which means I need to pull together all my materials and some advice for the colleague who has stepped up to teach it while I'm off writing. It's pretty clear that this pulling-together will be a very big project for me, and that the first outing with the course will be a very big project for my colleague.)

Maybe the department could hire a bunch more people with the expertise to teach the course? This seems unlikely in a year when our budgets are being cut. The other budgetary wrinkle is that increasing the number of sections of a course we offer does not always result in our filling those sections. Within the "resources follow enrollments" paradigm, a full section is good. A half-full section, however, stares up from the budget spreadsheet as a waste of resources. This means that three sections of 30 students is worse than two sections of 45. (A section of 12, by the way, would likely be canceled.) Sure, students might really appreciate having three sets of days and times to choose from, and pedagogically, the smaller class size has a lot going for it, but the three smaller sections are viewed by the people who have to watch the resources as a lost opportunity to teach a section of something else that would enroll 45 additional students.

Even there was sufficient demand that we could fill three sections of "Ethics in Science" each semester, it wouldn't be likely that I'd be assigned to teach three sections of it every semester -- there are other high-demand courses in my area of expertise (like "Philosophy of Science") that my department needs me to teach. Most faculty members teach multiple courses that their departments offer, so their time and expertise are going to be spread around. While this decreases the scheduling options for the chem major trying to complete "Ethics in Science," its a good thing for the student trying to find a section of "Philosophy of Science".

Sometimes, for the good of our own majors and grad students, we even need to sacrifice high enrollments to teach undergraduate or graduate seminar courses.

Maybe the problem is that faculty don't teach enough classes in a particular semester? On paper it might look that way, but students may not be aware of the other requirements of our job (like scholarly output and committee work). These other requirements eat up time -- and they make a difference as far as how we are evaluated for retention, tenure and promotion. Faculty who devoted themselves entirely to teaching to the exclusion of these other activities wouldn't get to stay in the teaching pool for very long ... at which point, it might be a while before their departments hired someone else with the appropriate expertise to take on the courses these altruists taught.

Until we get to a stage in our budgetary thinking where smaller classes are tolerated, there are going to be real constraints on how often required classes can be offered. At this point, the best we can do is make sure students know how frequently or infrequently these courses appear in the rotation and hope that some advanced planning helps the students get the courses they need without too long a wait.

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Sounds a little bit like Catch-22 for the chemistry majors. Perhaps a better question would be, is there a compelling reason why "Ethics in Science" must be a requirement to major in chemistry, when its availability is so limited?

The thing that I have found most useful from a student perspective is knowing in advance which courses are offered only in the fall, or only in the spring, or only by this one person about once every other year. Knowing what you can count on being available every semester, and what are "take it now since you won't get another chance" classes is really helpful.

At my school some notice has come down from on high that no courses will be held with fewer than 10 students - of course, doctoral seminars in our college only have at most that many students because there are only 20-30 total doctoral students. We used to have a pretty good teaching plan that went out like 5 years and even had day/evening so you could plan ahead - but we have a lot of new hires and the courses are still being reconfigured to take advantage of the new professors' expertise. We've ended up with a lot of independent studies - but you can't do that for undergrads. The other answer is to have doctoral students and adjuncts teach a lot of courses - but there probably aren't as many adjuncts in philosophy?

Having no idea of the rest of your teaching schedule and how that might be affected, has any thought/investigation been done on the effects on chemistry majors if the "Ethics in Science" course was taught as one section every semester as opposed to two sections in spring semester? I realize this is not quite as easy on you, but if it was good for the students and overall enrollment, it might be worth trying.

It seems like the lack of resources is the equivalent of a tuition increase, but without the availability of foresight (while people can anticipate that it will take them more than four years, they probably don't know exactly how long it will take, making it difficult to plan how much money will be required). While the lack of resources is something that both you or the people you work with to do anything about, it is frustrating. The experiences of my wife and the sister of a friend who went to college at the local state college (one of the largest in the US, and presumably with relatively large amounts of resources compared to other schools in the state) does not decrease the frustration. Seeing a professor actually teach a class (well, to undergrads, anyway) would be nice, as would finishing in four years (which, only 30-40% of undergrads do here, even with selective admissions - some of that is the students' fault). The relevance of community college credit is also a problem - it's always nice to get a few years in only to find that the requirements have been changed and you need some more years to finish. The fact that budgetary constraints apply neither to tuition increases nor to external development projects at the local U does not help, either.

By Robert Bird (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

One of the things a chair has to do "or the sun won't come up tomorow" is schedule courses. This is not easy; one has to consider classroom size, equipment and location; the nature of the instructor pool; the needs of the students; the function of other departments, etc. etc. etc. There are enough constraints that it cannot be done really well, so the best job one can do brings minimal satisfaction. I got to do it in the situation of changing from quarters to semesters and from five schools to a College of Arts and Sciences. It was a worthy challenge.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

A number of traditional (e.g., University of Phoenix) and non-traditional (e.g., Capella and Walden) post-secondary institutions now offer courses and degrees online, primarily as a consequence of an increase in the number of non-traditional (i.e., professional adult) students who are likely to have scheduling conflicts.

If the ethics course is mainly in lecture format, it should be possible to create an online version of the course (possibly in conjunction with the regular course) for students with scheduling conflicts. There should be two advantages for having an online version: (1) no scheduling conflicts because, technically, students should be able to access course material at any time (e.g., download and watch videotaped versions of the actual class at anytime they choose); and (2) the potential to handle a larger number of students given that there is no (physical) seating capacity limit. The disadvantage is that there will be more students and more work for you as an instructor, particularly if a modular learning format is used, which typically entails an increase in the number of assignments marked per student.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

"A number of traditional (e.g., University of Phoenix) and non-traditional (e.g., Capella and Walden) post-secondary institutions now offer courses and degrees online" - of course, the content and validity of those courses and degrees is of extremely low quality, since the goal of those "institutions" is to make money rather than educate.

I'm not sure why this is such a problem nowadays. Back in the days when I received my undergraduate degree, things were laid out quite clearly about what our requirements were. We had our core courses, we had our "general electives" and everything was spelled out clearly in our course booklets. I never had a guidance counselor, never met with a guidance counselor, and still managed to complete my degree in 4 years. I went to a state school, with over 28,000 students so I'm not sure if that played a role in class availability or not.

This problem actually resulted in me dropping out of school the first time around. I was attempting to major in what was then called "Radio, TV, and Film", now probably Mass Communicaiton or some such, at the University of Maryland. There were two required course for majors, Writing for Mass Media, and Editing for Mass Media. These weren't just required, they were required prerequisites before you could take any other course in the department. The first one was offered in the Fall term, the second in the Spring. Also, they were not allowed as electives for any one in another major. When I first tried to sign up I was told there was a waiting list. I was #75. There were 200 seats available. I asked the registrar if she really though nearly half the class, all majors who had to take this class, were going to drop. she just stared.

I ended up taking a couple of years of French, Geology, Geography, a senior level English course on Grammar and Usage, the History of Alexander and the Hellenic Age, etc, etc. Eventually, after 4 semesters, getting closer and closer each time on the waiting list, I got frustrated and quit. That was in 1985. I finally graduated last December with a BS in History at 42.

"of course, the content and validity of those courses and degrees is of extremely low quality, since the goal of those "institutions" is to make money rather than educate."

A few points:

(1) It would most likely be difficult to convince anyone that post-secondary institutions in general, have not taken on more of a profit-based rather than education-based quality; particularly if we operationally define profit-making as a disproportionate rise in tuition cost per student relative to the costs of educating. If we were to go with the somewhat non sequitur statement that profit-making entails low course quality, Ivy league institutions (which I believe also offer online versions of some courses) should have the lowest quality courses given their outrageously high tuition costs per student. It's difficult to tell how much of their tuition costs are actually due to the quality of the resources (e.g., having high quality instructors) and how much to profit and what might be a brand name effect.

(2) It is entirely possible to have low quality traditional courses. As an example, a situation where an instructor 'teaches the text', and for which students can simply read the textbook, not show up to class, and pass final exams (often in multiple choice format) with an A or B.

(3) It is also entirely possible to have high quality online and traditional courses. As an example, I happen to use a blended-learning (online + classroom) pedagogy in my courses. For the online component, I have students interact in an online discussion format (very similar to the comment sections here on Scienceblogs--in fact ScienceBlogs are now an aspect of the content of my courses). They are marked on the quality of their comments. The correlations between their traditional classroom scores (e.g., in class midterms, final exams) and the non-traditional online discussion scores is high and significant. And since they use screen names in an online setting, the relationship is not due to marking biases on my part. So student quality (rather than course quality alone) must be a significant aspect of education delivery mode.

(3) In support of comment #2, the no significant difference phenomenon provides evidence that learning delivery mode (e.g., distance vs. classroom) does not impact learning in relation to learning outcome measures of traditional courses. Of course the majority of these studies are related to undergraduate education, so more research is needed to identify drawbacks in offering advanced degrees in an online or correspondence format, and, what types of courses (e.g., those that require labs) would not be particularly conducive to acquiring critical career-related skills that may not be possible to acquire in an online setting.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 15 May 2008 #permalink

Couple of things:
When I first attended SJSU - Jan 03 my tuition was about $1,400 /semester. Now it's in excess of $2,500! As a Graduate student I'm paying more for a 2 year M.A. then I did for the B.A. BTW- I finished in 5 semesters - mostly by getting previous work accepted and by 3 semesters of 21 credit load. You too can do this by taking courses at Community College.

How does one get the courses they need? (Assuming you're speaking of GE and SJSU Studies Courses) I did it by camping and flexibility. To get 100W, I camped out in the course and went to every class meeting for the first 2 weeks despite all indications that the class was "full" Eventually the professor gave up and gave me the add code. (Someone did eventually drop the course) I also hunted down every course that would even slightly fill needs in the major then applied for waivers. (Got a Geography course to count as a Humanities) Paperwork and an administrative work-around are essential tools to finish. One needs to be willing to work and work hard to get through school.
BTW - What the difference between JS186 Ethics and your specialized course? In the School of Art and Design we have required courses too, and offer them every semester. JS 186 was a fine course that met SJSUS requirement "S."

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 15 May 2008 #permalink

Wow! Being a student in the USA seems complimicated! When I were a lad, at the start of each semester, you were told what courses you HAD to take, and were given a list of options to choose from. Then, after four years you graduated.

By Donalbain (not verified) on 15 May 2008 #permalink

I don't think it's the once-a-year class that's a problem so much as the once-a-year class that is prerequisite to everything else. If "Adventures in XXX" is required to graduate, offered once a semester, but has no prerequisites, students basically get four (or five, honestly) passes at getting it into their schedule. Sure, maybe you end up sitting in it as a senior in a classful of freshmen who haven't learned how to schedule their hangovers properly yet, but you get in. But if "Adventures in XXX" is required to start a long chain of classes, and is only offered once a year, you could find yourself with a year's worth of unnecessary classes just because you are unable to reconcile your life's schedule with the school's.

By chancelikely (not verified) on 16 May 2008 #permalink

The year, (1954 or '55) I decided to major in Geology at UT Austin, the university enrolled 2000 putative freshman geology majors. There were course prerequisites. The first lecture of the sophomore Petrology course, prerequisite to junior-level Historical Geology, we were told, "There are 350 of you in this class. This class will be offered in the summer semester with an enrollment of 50. The next course, Historical Geolgy, has room for 175 students. Therefore, only 150 of you will receive a grade of C or better, and only 25 of the summer students will receive a grade of C or better. The competition was fierce.

Three or four years later, the oil boom had gone bust and UT Austin had two entering freshman geology majors.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 17 May 2008 #permalink