The Art Of Class List Management

By Chris Cooper.

Class list management involves assigning students to classes, changing subjects, checking data and ensuring students are where they should be. ‘How hard can it be?’ you might ask. Yet this is a huge area, occupying much time in schools and with the wrong tools or processes, there are significant problems –the devil is in the details. Class list management can be another timetabling ‘dark art’!

Types Of Class List

Core classes: Groups of students attending several different core subjects together. for example, students in “8A” do English, Science and Physical Education together.

Streamed Classes: A subject like Maths is locked together for two or more core classes, allowing lists to be set by ability – separate to their core class groupings.

Elective Classes: Students request subjects, like Physics or Chemistry, or in junior years, a language elective.

Practical Classes: Use specialist rooms with with smaller class sizes so students can be monitored closely when working with equipment. (for example Art)

Study Classes: Students and staff change each period, based on which students are not in a teaching class that period.

Mixing Core And Practical Classes

Some schools use old structures where practical subjects are ‘isolated’ from core. Students ALL do Art or Design and Technology or Music during a given period, when no core classes are scheduled. A more efficient structure splits two core classes into three practical classes. For example, both 7A and 7B core classes become three practical classes (7-1,7-2 and 7-3) and these can run with 7C and 7D, OR another three different practical classes. If core classes took 24 students each, then the 7A and 7B group of 48 students splits into three practical classes of just 16 students each.

Mixing core and practical classes means you can run 7A and 7B core subjects with either 7C and 7D (2 classes), OR 7-4/5/6 practical subjects (3 classes). This is more flexible, as practical classes have more room to move when being allocated periods – in this example, classes can be scheduled when three specialist teachers and specialist rooms are available, not six. It is easier for coordinators to solve class list problems than for the timetabler to solve resource problems – hence the benefit of complex structures that offer more flexibility.

While some schools do mix core and practical classes like this, they may retain fixed practical groups, so there are always two Design and Technology and one Visual Art, or two Visual Art and one Design and Technology for example. Ultimate flexibility allows different practical subjects to float within the core groups, so individual classes of Art and Music and Design and Technology can float within the mix. Not all timetable systems support this more advanced structure, especially if practical classes change each semester, but it can provide a vastly more efficient timetable, catering far better to part-time language teachers for example, or allowing greater access to art or technology rooms which are in high demand and also have more restrictive spread requirements as they often need doubles. The smaller the scheduling unit, the more likely they fit into the timetable.

Simplifying timetable structures also improves class list management. Why register students to English, Physical Education and Science classes individually? If you register them to a core ‘group’ (for example 7A), you can allow them to pick up all these classes in one go, automatically. This approach also increases data accuracy, as when working with class groups instead of class lists – you can’t create clashes, as the group structure provides protection against class list clashes.

Clever class grouping and mixing not only simplifies class list management, it aids flexibility and can even save money as it may reduce the need for an ‘extra class’ in some cases.

Who Has Responsibility?

The timetabler often has responsibility for ‘entering’ class lists. These lists are generally provided by coordinators or teachers in different ways such as Excel worksheets or hand scrawled notes. Previously the timetabler was the only one  with the know how to enter class lists into the database, which could only be used by one person at a time – preventing collaboration and workload distribution.

This is against best practice, and there is a better way. Distributing work directly to coordinators is great, because:

  • The timetabler focuses on the timetable, instead of being constantly distracted by requests to add, or change class lists (primarily administrative tasks).
  • Class lists are created directly by staff with appropriate authority. This empowers coordinators who make changes, instead of notifying change requests. They can easily see the impact of their requests – where under the old system they may not notice class list clashes, size imbalances, or other problems that are less visible until entered into the main system. No more students allocated twice to the same subject, students missing subjects, or student names that may not match those in the timetable system. School administration systems don’t manage complex class structures, hence they are best done in a timetabling system which provides a better environment to make changes.
  • Lists are accurate, and always up to date. No more waiting for the timetabler to get round to entering class list ‘change requests’, as they are made directly, and on the spot by coordinators. No double handling of the data.

Perhaps you need to review how your school currently manages class lists, or who actually enters them. There are many reasons to adopt the (new) current best practice in this field.

Computer Allocated Class Lists?

Suggest to teachers that junior core class lists are best set automatically by computer, and they will likely disagree vehemently! A common response is: “No computer could possibly understand the educational and social needs of our core class lists – these absolutely must be set manually by the coordinators.”

This would be true if the computer was solely responsible for setting the important core lists – but that is not the process. Best practice uses a computer to initially set them, followed by manual adjustment by coordinators. Previously, coordinators started with a blank slate. They assigned each student separately to lists, then as they neared the end, there was much re-arranging of students, as the class lists were developed. This can take hours, and may be good, but generally not as ‘educationally optimum’ as would be if a computer were used as a tool to assist the process.

A good system automates the process of allocating students to classes with respect to many factors, such as maximum class sizes, gender balance, and social relationship balance. Social balance is interesting, as more schools are adopting social link entries in class lists. This gives teachers instant visibility of ‘issues’ in their current lists (this can be helpful for replacement teachers), it allows instant visibility of the impact of any change in a student’s class, as well as the ability to automate set lists to maximise separation of students who should ideally ‘not be together’ (mischievous pairs), or ‘should be together’ (buddy pairs) – and similarly with regards to students that should, or should not, be mapped to specific teachers to best cater to their educational needs.

Where there are more than two core classes in a school, this process has a large number of variables – far more than any human could possibly consider. If, however, coordinators are initially given computer allocated class lists which are already well balanced in size, gender, and importantly in ‘social links’, they are off to a great start. Rather than a blank slate, they can instantly see a reasonably good arrangement – and overall visibility of a complete arrangement makes it easier to manually adjust them. Manual allocation from scratch means doing the task 100%, plus half again (chasing your tail) adjusting existing allocations. The computer gets it 80% right to begin, so there is far less work to complete the task.

While it is nice to reduce the workload, the greater benefits are in the quality of the solution. A better starting point maximises the educational mix of students in each class – above what would have been done manually, while still retaining the human touch.

When Is It Done?

Schools often wait till after the timetable is completed before collating class lists. Best practice builds class lists concurrently with the timetable itself, for many reasons.

  • Faster. Why wait? Good timetable software allows multiple users to construct lists at any time, independently from the timetable.
  • Better analysis. Perhaps a new class may be needed, or one cut?
  • Can religion float with practical classes? Is another part time language teacher needed? Good class list data means better and faster decision making, to take advantage of opportunities.
  • Data integrity. Managing lists directly with timetable construction allows valuable checking for structural errors, before it is too late. Does History run in line three or was it four? Can a student be in the top Maths class but also take Japanese? Are there enough general rooms for Monday period one across the school? Perhaps new enrolments have pushed up class sizes, and now prevent the use of some smaller general rooms that were needed, forcing more specialist classes to occupy this period.

Study Class Lists

Schools have a duty of care, and need to know where students are at all times. Study class lists are difficult to manage, as students vary the subjects taken, or classes are moved off-line on some periods. Some schools manage a separate study list for every period on the timetable, which is difficult and cumbersome. More advanced timetable systems use an exception rule to automatically register students to study classes when they are otherwise free. This reduces the effort, as well as greatly improving the accuracy of these lists. It means there is no need to actively register students to study classes manually, as they are always correct for every period for every student, regardless of how many subjects a student changes.

Setting class lists seems simple. For years, schools compiled lists separately to timetable construction, and were ‘double handling’ lists given to the timetabler. Technology has changed, as has best practice. Who makes changes? When are they made? What system is used to set your school’s class lists? Perhaps it is time to review your school processes!

Chris Cooper is the Operations Director at Edval Timetables, and is actively involved in educational scheduling research. He has also published a government accredited textbook. For more information, please visit:

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