Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Getting an education

Today was one of my subcommittee meetings. This is a subcommittee that covers one aspect of the whole university, and I feel like I'm being schooled.

Today we discussed a proposal that students not be allowed to sign up to repeat a class they've failed until just before the term begins. The argument was that students repeating a class get in (because they've got more advanced class status, for example) before students who want to take the class for the first time and that's unfair. (And, given the budget cuts we've suffered in recent years, almost all of our classes are full to whatever limit when the term starts, so students often have to wait a semester to get into crowded courses.)

Let's make up an example: say, math course 21 which fill the entry level calculus requirement for many science courses. Let's imagine that there are 30 seats in Math 21 each semester, and that in any given semester, 33 students would sign up for the course if they could for the first time. And two students would need to repeat the course.

If we use the current rules, then students get assigned a number based on their progress (basically, seniors go first, then juniors, and so on), and randomly within their progress level. That means that the people who failed Math 21 last year as first years, are now sophomores, so they get to sign up, leaving only 28 positions for the 33 people (mostly first years) who want in. That means 5 people have to wait a semester, and that there will continually be at least a rolling wait for some people.

Under the proposed rule, 30 of the 33 people who want in will get to sign up. And the two people who failed would pretty much never be able to get back in. Rule-wise, they would be allowed, but in practice they would have no chance of access. (At least in classes that are always full.)

We had a lot of questions, and not many answers.

A few people talked about students "gaming" the system by signing up for an extra course and deciding late in the game which course to drop. Thus, they take a seat that someone else might fill, and drop it (assuming that all classes are full, and intro level classes often are). Or the student stays in the course, chooses to miss the final, guaranteeing that s/he will fail, and be able to retake for a better grade.

On the other hand, it seems likely that many students who need to repeat a course are first years who got a rough start; they probably aren't doing this a lot, and they'll take good advantage of the opportunity to repeat a course and do significantly better.

The thing is to balance access to classes, fairness, without being over-punitive or whatever. (Yes, we want students who aren't capable or interested in being students to drop out and do something else with their lives; but mostly we want our students to learn lots and succeed here.)

There are impacted courses in different departments, but mostly the problems seem to come in courses that are gateways to schools or areas of study, courses that students have to finish as pre-requisites before applying to or continuing on in an area of study.

Any change one department makes is likely to change things for students elsewhere. There's a whole unintended consequences thing with big complex organizations.

There is also, it turns out, a committee whose job is to oversee course availability! Aha, the best of all committee acts, turn the problem over to another committee. (Fortunately, this subcommittee gets lots of "guests" sitting in on our meetings, since what we do has potential to make big impacts all over the place, and one of the guests today knew about the other committee.)

In truth, this is a budgeting issue. We have politicians complaining in their campaign ads that our public universities don't offer students enough opportunities to take required classes, and at the same time, they've been voting our budgets down and down. So it's a zero sum game at this point. Even deans and provosts can't magically create new classes out of thin air; they have to budget for adjuncts, pay for lab equipment and such. And of course, creating a new class by hiring an adjunct for one department means not hiring an adjunct in another department (and the same goes for tenure line faculty, though it's more complex).

On yet another level, the budget really is the responsibility of the Head Honcho, the bossman who's supposed to go to the legislature and educate them about why they shouldn't cut our budgets further, the guy whose job it is to sweet talk business leaders into funding scholarships, projects, and such, and yeah, it's also a matter of convincing voters that public education is a public good, and worth paying taxes for.

So, this election season, please tell your candidates that you want more public education! And while we're at it, let's tell them that we want music and art programs in grammar schools!

(Meanwhile, while deans can't make courses out of thin air, could we at least require that they not let the snow start before Halloween? It's a small enough thing to ask, isn't it?)

1 comment:

  1. This is a really rough situation, Bardiac, and you're right - it's all bound up in problems with funding. And it also strikes me that there is little one subcommittee can do to make this situation right.

    1) One problem is the prereq. problem in certain majors. If students know they've got to get a B in a particular class to get into a major, for example, they will be more likely to drop the course and/or to take the F. I'm not saying that majors should relax their standards, but if people are going to blame students for "gaming" the system, they've got to acknowledge the ways in which the system can force them to play those games.

    2) Another problem is inadequate advising, especially as it relates to those programs that don't admit people until they've passed a cadre of courses. If students are stuck in the general advising pool, they may not even go to see their adviser (or know who their adviser is), and thus nobody is telling these students to consider other majors - that if you can't pass calculus, pre-med may not be for you. So these students may keep slogging away at something they're bad at because they're not getting good advice because technically they're not in the major that they think of as their own.

    Anyway, those were two things that came to mind as I read your post. I'll be interested to hear how this is resolved.