Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yes or No?

A student emailed me about overloading into a course.

On one hand, I really want to stick tough and say no. We've set course number limits where we have for good reasons, and those reasons haven't changed. When we overload classes, we dilute the educational experience of all the students in the class.

The student didn't get registered in a timely manner for whatever reason. One potential reason is that in order to register, students have to pay a deposit up front. For students who are most hard up, that deposit's hard to pay. Students rarely mention that reason, however, either because that's not the reason they didn't get registered, or because they're too embarassed to acknowledge that as a reason.

Of course, we offer fewer courses because the taxpayers are less and less willing to fund public education, and being a state school, we depend in good part on tax funding.

Ideally, we would fill every seat in every class ever term. That would mean 100% efficiency for course enrollment.

Ideally, every full-time student would be able to take a full schedule of courses every term (according to their plans and such).

If we met those two ideals, then full time students would finish in four years. When they can't fill their schedule appropriately, students take longer. When they change their minds a bunch, they may also take longer. Lots of things can contribute to students taking longer than four years to graduate. As an educator, I'm not troubled by students who graduate in five or even six full-time years.

But most taxpayers don't want to fund students for more than a minimum; many taxpayers would rather stop funding the state university system altogether, it seems. And so the system budget shrinks, and the numbers of seats we can offer shrink, but we need to maintain enrollment on our campus.

The thing is, so long as taxpayers think of a university education primarily as a private good, something that benefits the graduate, then minimizing support for the state system makes sense to them. If a taxpayer sees a university education as being in large part a public good, something that benefits the community as well as the graduate, then paying for the system makes better sense. Tax-based funding for public education has dropped across the board in the US, and that drop suggests that fewer people see education as a public good. I hear lawmakers at all levels talk about cutting taxes and I wonder at where we're headed. And I sometimes wonder how many of our students' parents think of a college education as a public good.

But in between the rock and the hard place are instructors and students. So I have to decide to allow the student to overload my class or not.

And while part of me wants to stick to the numbers, the other part of me sympathizes greatly with the student. I certainly don't want to take out my frustrations about the system, taxpayers, legislators, and poor administrative planning on the student.

How do I balance the lowered educational experience of the other people already registered with this student's educational experience? The class is already packed; how much does adding one more reduce everyone's experience? How much might this particular student add? Or not?


  1. Don't you generally get a few students who drop out or fade away from the class?

    My concern with late registrations is that they miss the beginning of class and often don't catch-up... of course there is a corelation / causality problem, as the students with more challenges (which result in late registrations) also tend to have problems.

  2. We have a huge problem with overload requests. I used to be quite sympathetic to the plight of the individual students. However, I have now learned better. It seems that as more overload requests get granted, the incentive for students to actually register for classes on time decreases. By holding a hard line on no overloads, students learn to register (at least for required classes) on time, or even early.

    I believe that this is an important lesson to teach. After all, Visa and Mastercard do not react well to late payments.

    The Combat Philosopher

  3. I usually take a hard line and say no signing students in over the cap. One reason is that usually there are other courses that a student might take to fill the requirement that have yet to reach their cap, and so often when a student wants to be signed in it's a matter of convenience, not necessity. Is this truly a class that the student must take in this and only this semester in order to stay on track to graduate? Has the student fulfilled each and every other requirement necessary? Is the class only offered in this semester and not next semester, or is the student trying to graduate in December so can't put off the course to the next semester? I'd say all of these are salient questions. I'm not saying that I would never override the cap for a student, but, at least so far, when I've asked these questions, the answers reveal that I shouldn't sign the student in.

    As for how much does one extra student reduce everyone else's experience, I don't think it makes much of a difference on the surface (in terms of class dynamic) but it does make a difference in terms of the individual attention that one is able to provide for each student in terms of meeting outside of class and time spent evaluating student work. One more student in a writing class for me means 18 more pages of formal, polished writing that I must read, comment on, and grade, approximately 15 pages of semi-formal writing, countless draft pages that I must glance at, two more mandatory conference appointments, etc. That will probably detract (at least minimally) from the time I spend on the other students who enrolled before the cap was reached. As for how much this particular student might add.... Hmm. I'm not sure. The prejudicial answer would be that if the student can't get it together to register in time, then the student more times than not will not be one who makes his/her education the top priority. A less prejudicial answer would be that maybe the student would be great, but as there will be so many students in the course, the likelihood of this student standing out is probably lessened. Or maybe the student would be great. There's no way to predict that at this stage, whereas there is a way to predict the negative consequences of allowing the student to enroll.

  4. I'm struggling with this right now too. Our institution drops all students automatically who don't make the payment before the semester starts. Of course this is a huge problem for students with need and for those who don't check their campus email just before coming back from the summer break. So I've had a bunch of students at my door wanting to get in. My department does have a mechanism in place for students to be filled into seats during the first week if there are sudden openings, but most departments do not. Even with those "safeguards" in place, I too am sympathetic to students. But I design assignments--such as presentations--around the cap for the course so I really can't stretch it beyond that.

    In the end I think it is better for students that we are consistent. In whatever you do, be prepared to do the same for the next student that knocks on your door.

  5. I tend to take it on a student by student basis -- which isn't precisely just to us, the professors, but I'm just so itchy when it comes to making laws, I can't find it in me to do anything else.

    So what I do, when students want overloads, is I ask why: why do you need this class (rather than some other class), isn't there some other class, are you sure, let's look. I tell them about the policy on overloads. I tell them why we don't do overloads. I make it clear what they're asking for.

    If they still believe they have a real need for the overload, and can articulate it to me, I usually sign the pups in.

    But we're in this desperate little down here, and my students are, in fact, often desperate. I tend to want to cut them every break I can. Nothing else in their lives ever does.

  6. Hi! Long time reader, but I'm somewhat shy.

    Say no! Perhaps I'm horrible, but after many semesters of teaching a required course, I thought that this year I wouldn't have to put up with the begging and pleading and "but I really need this." I'm teaching a very popular course, but it's not a requirement - in fact, if you have taken another popular course, you can't get credit for your major or minor in my course.

    I've gotten so many emails that betray a lack of knowledge about how the system works - we have used an online course waitlist system for the past four years, but students still want to come to class with paper forms for me to sign. They want to come to the first day of class, despite the fact that I have emailed the entire waitlist to tell them that there is physically not space in the classroom for extra students. I have students enrolled in one section and on the waitlist for another because they don't want to come to class that early or late or they really want to take this other class too so can they come at a different time? And then there are the students who obviously only looked at the course title, and did not actually read the prerequisites and restrictions on course enrollment, who send emails every day asking to be allowed into the course...

    But, it is also easier for me in that I have a very supportive department (we don't raise caps, at least not for courses taught by graduate students), and my classroom space restricts how many people I can have anyways.

    Every student has their reasons for wanting to be in my class. I say upfront what the criteria are for letting students off of the waitlist, and that is that. That way I am as fair as I can be, and dealing with the students doesn't take as long as it might otherwise.

    In terms of money issues that students might have - my classes are full of Lacoste polos and Louis Vuitton bags. While there are some students who aren't as wealthy, to my understanding the system is designed so that your advisor can talk to the registrar to arrange something so that you aren't dropped from your courses.

    Sorry for the incredibly long comment, but you struck a chord!

  7. I realized something disturbing this past Spring:

    Every single student I have ever "signed in" to class...either as a late enrollee or an over-ride...has been a terrible student.

    Frequent lateness and absenteeism, inability to hand in assignments on time, websurfing and texting during class, not doing in-class group assignments. Other students did these things as well, but as I looked back over the cohort of those I essentially did a favor for by letting them take the class, I saw a pattern of ill-preparedness to actually do the work for the course that was begged to be allowed to take [the grammar's bad there somewhere, but it makes sense...].

    So, I recommend you ask the same: What has your experience been with students you've allowed in over enrollment caps? Can you afford the time and energy to deal with them?

    Good luck!