Elective Lines – Driving Your Timetable

052-055-ETS_57-OfficeSpace-1By Chris Cooper.

Are your elective lines like the proverbial big yellow school bus, taking all your students on the same tired old journey? Perhaps it is time to change the ageing school bus for a fleet of modern, fuel efficient, smaller electric vehicles. Drive your resources better, as you take students in new and innovative directions on their educational journey.

It was easy when all students used the bus. There was one driver and one simple route with few decisions. Now, students expect to be offered many different subjects, which must all ‘fit’ the timetable, and students themselves are increasingly taking on the role of ‘driver’ in their own education.

Coordinating a school bus is easy, but coordinating a fleet of individual students, all going different ways, is less so. A key challenge is managing limited resources to best cater to all requests – both within budget and within ‘the timetable’. Just because you can afford to ‘run’ a class does not mean all students can actually get to this class on time, due to timetable ‘traffic congestion’. Education scheduling is an art. Any decision catering to one student may disadvantage others. The old “You can’t have your cake and eat it” proverb may often be true when managing electives.

New methods give students more individual pathways, compared to the legacy approach of the ‘school bus on pre-defined routes’. The method of scheduling your elective classes is the first key issue to determine.

The aim of good elective line management is to maximise delivery of requested subjects, to the most students, for the least staffing cost. By scheduling all subjects on their own, students could theoretically access every single subject they want, as there can be no clashes. This is not practicable. Unlike university, school students must generally be occupied for every period, and to make everything fit ‘within’ the timetable, elective subjects must be run concurrently with each other.

The secret is to know which subjects should be on together for the best possible solution. Classes on together like this are known as being in ‘a line’ together – as they often appear in a vertical line or column in the timetable. An elective line is thus a group of subjects: students can generally only study one subject per line, as two subjects in the same line would constitute a ‘clash’.

Decide What Subjects To Offer

Determining what subjects to offer is not always easy. Schools want to cater to a variety of student needs. Diversity in the curriculum is viewed positively. It is normal to offer more subjects than a school can actually deliver in any one year, but how many more? Each subject offered which does not run causes unhappiness in students who had requested it.

A misconception is that diversity of choice is always good, and you should try to offer many different options. It may be promoted by educationalists, but good timetablers know that restricting choice can also give better results. Running two classes in a popular subject is often better than running an extra subject, even if you do not need the second class of the popular subject.

Too much choice is not effective if this results in nobody being able to really GET everything they want. Pathway courses are critical to good lines. If you run single classes in all subjects, you maximise choice, but run a few subjects with two classes across the lines as pathways, and many more students actually get their choices as a result of this (slightly) restricted choice offering.

Consider staffing availability and offer course options accordingly. Do not be afraid to actively market some courses over others if you want to fill places. Adopting a more pure approach where all courses are regarded as ‘equal’, and students make up their own minds, may not serve the school well. Promote areas you want to drive further. Be a leader and fill courses to capacity that may otherwise not be viable. Do not simply wish the students selected differently… make it happen!

Neighbouring schools sometimes share courses. The inconvenience of tying lines and having students cross between campuses at times may be offset by being able to offer several more courses as a result, and having more viable class sizes. Get creative. Consider online, distance education courses. Do not be restricted to offering only what your school can physically deliver.

Elective Line Methods

There are a few different methods schools can employ to determine how to best allocate elective subjects to their students. Historically, schools had fixed lines but best practice is now increasingly ‘Free choice’ which maximises student flexibility.

Fixed Lines

Originally, lines were pre-set. Students selected one subject from each line. Combinations which clash can be seen. This simple approach worked, before timetabling software arrived, but problems include:

  • Restricted educational pathways. Fixed lines ‘dictate’ what combinations are possible.
  • Interest in marginal subjects is ‘masked’, if schools run them in a fixed line against more popular ones (which will be selected instead).
  • Less balanced class sizes, for subjects running over two lines. Fixed selection students request ‘classes’, yet it is more flexible selecting ‘subjects’. More students may request the Physics line 4 class, over the line 3 class, than really need to if they just want Physics.

The varying level of subject preferences in the ‘free choice’ method already dictates what students ‘would’ select if offered fixed lines. Any time there is a clash, the student’s highest priority subject wins, so asking students to select from lines is unnecessary. It appears to give students more control, but actually gives worse results.

Hunter Sports High School always offered several classes of both Food Technology and Community and Family Studies using fixed lines, which were always filled and so appeared popular. Changing to free choice, there was not enough interest to run even one class of either subject! Students now have greater access to subjects they prefer, which had not always previously run.

Two Stage Selection

This combines both fixed and free choice methods. Students are surveyed to identify popular subjects. Lines are then made, best fitting initial responses. Students then select subjects from these fixed lines. This may seem the best of both worlds, but is not seen as best practice by the industry. The effort in running two stages is doubled, and the process takes far longer.

There is no real benefit in selecting from fixed lines if student preference levels are known, yet there are disadvantages in this approach.

There are always students requesting changes later on. These individual changes can be regarded as the second ‘stage’ of (re)selection from fixed lines, as a far better alternative to asking ALL students to reselect against fixed lines.

Free Choice

Students request subjects, without restrictions such as the ‘line’ they are on. Once most requests are in, subjects are put into lines, as best fits. This method is by far the best as:

  • Students are granted more requested subjects, than with fixed lines.
  • Full visibility on student interest. Fixed lines hide preferences between subjects. This is critical in determining effective resource allocations.
  • Resource flexibility. Decisions on subjects running, and staff grouping are easier, if lines can be adapted, instead of being fixed from the outset – both in structure, as well as what is running.

Capturing Student Preferences

The method of selection of student preferences can certainly influence the outcome in various ways.

The fixed line method does not give a true indication of what students really want to do, and does not show any preference order. Providing a form in which subjects are listed in alphabetical order and asking students to number their preferences could introduce bias (e.g. Biology gets higher votes as it is a ‘B’ subject). Isolating extension subjects on forms usually means that the level of interest is not properly captured.

Asking students to pick against a fixed line pattern is also biasing choice against how it is offered, not just what subjects are offered. Some schools ask students to request a reserve subject ‘in each line’, which further complicates and muddies the request data. It becomes impossible to identify what their real first reserve choice may be as it could be in one of half a dozen different lines, and there could then be six reserve choices to choose from!

Best practice has students request their subject preferences in preference order, with multiple reserves. There should be a focus on students nominating a subject against a preference rather than a preference against an ordered list of subjects. The focus should always be on determining the degree of ‘preference’, more than just the subjects themselves.

While schools previously captured student requests on paper, it is increasingly common for students to select their subject choices online. Effective systems for this do not just allow students to place requests, but validate these requests against sometimes complex curriculum rules or timetable structures. This ensures student requests are validated appropriately at the point of submission. Furthermore, students should generally be free to modify their preferences online at ANY time. This puts the workload on students themselves, instead of having them occupy the administrators time with all subsequent change requests. Only when the administrator needs to finalise elective lines, should further student submissions or changes be prevented online. Thereafter changes would have to be negotiated directly with the administrator.

With many aspects to the process, perhaps it is time you reviewed your timetabling software and business processes. Tune in next issue, for more on the topic of elective line management.


Chris Cooper is Director of Operation at Edval Timetables, a company which provides an advanced timetabling platform, managing timetable construction, maintennance, subject selections, numerous class list management tools and overall curriculumn planning tools. Parent teacher interview scheduling is one of several web systems available in the platform. 

The Company provides training in timetabling techniques, provides a range of integrated software modules, and also offers a high degree of collaborative support – including completing the timetable for and directly with the school each year as an option.



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