This article follows on from a previous piece in this magazine where various methods of capturing the students’ subject selections were presented. Here is the next phase on this topic.
Decide What Classes Run
Once the majority of student requests have been submitted, the process of identifying what classes to actually run in the next year can begin. This is a critical process, as it directly and significantly affects the educational pathways of students. It also directly affects the school: in staffing budgets, HR aspects , and reputation. There are many aspects to consider, such as:
Schools often focus on the number of student requests for a given subject as the key metric to consider. However, it is far more valuable to assess the aggregate level of interest for the subject – not the number of ‘votes’, but the degree of importance of these votes. You may end up cutting a subject with more votes if it has less ‘subject interest’ than another subject which has fewer votes, but a lot more interest because of the level of the students’ preferences.
Ability To Grant
Another problem with a focus on the number of primary requests is that in any arrangement of elective lines, there are very different ways preferences can be granted to students. It could be that there are 20 students requesting Economics, but only six can be granted in the lines. So the raw number of ‘votes’ is not so relevant, or the raw aggregate level of interest of these votes, but the level of interest in the granted (or not granted) preferences should be the key focus.
When students miss out on a subject in which the level of interest high, this may be addressed by possibly adding a class. The ability to grant is always the focus – far more than the raw requests.
Interest In The Student
Not all students are the same. Not all ‘votes’ are the same. A number of students will drop subjects before they complete school; some will leave school before their final exams. While it is not easy to predict the future with accuracy, modern timetabling software like Edval allows the user to weight up or down individual students when generating lines, reducing the influence of students who are not expected to stay at school.
The goal is to produce lines that best suit those students who are expected to complete the course, including the academically able as well as those who require a different type of curriculum. Students who are known (or suspected) to be leaving school before completion can be de-prioritised in the process. They still need to be considered, and still need a vote, but a holistic process aims to best satisfy the majority.
A manual analysis and adjustment of course allocations for each student is always possible, but this is often too late – the best approach is to ‘build in’ this knowledge into the process so the lines themselves are generated to a higher quality.
Interest In The Course
Sometimes, schools may want to run a course for several reasons, such as:
- Marketing. This is a specialist course, promoted by the school as part of their marketing, and as a point of difference between other schools.
- HR aspects. An important specialist teacher may be the only one who would take this course. If this elective does not run, the teacher may leave, creating a problem to the school for other classes that teacher teaches.
- Load availability. The overall staffing within the school may work better if a particular course runs, as the teacher who takes this may otherwise be under-load. If we cannot assign them that elective course due to low numbers – what other classes could they teach?
- Loss of interest. If a course does not run, it may ‘die’. Students are less likely to request a course if they know it did not run last year, as they may be worried they will lose their ‘vote’ on one that will not get up. This is another critical way that schools sometimes ‘accidentally’ bias student course requests. Tell students a course ‘may not run’, and wonder why nobody picks it!
There is an art to making a course run. A good timetabler can often make a less popular course viable by prioritising it within the elective line generation algorithms (supported by more complex timetabling software only), such that students are more likely to get the priority course. Or they may be allocated this course as their first reserve in place of their last primary preference which could have otherwise been granted.
Schools have a duty to holistically manage their resources, so just because you can grant a student request, does not mean you need to in all cases. Sometimes making a subject viable is more important than granting the last level request to students who may have equally picked it at random. If they are unhappy, they can request a change, but often will not mind, as they have been granted their higher level requests.
There are many ways to ‘steer’ students to courses you want to make viable, or which are viable but you still want to increase numbers. A good timetabler can engineer the marginal course to occupy a line that has a lot of students who need to pick up ‘a’ course in that line particularly (currently free but needing units). This will statistically increase your chances that some of these will do so.
In consulting with students who missed out on a subject, it is possible to actively encourage them to take a course you want to increase numbers in. You would generally try to match them to what is best for them, but in the absence of strong desire from the student, you simply ‘promote’ the marginal course to them. This ‘selling’ or marketing of education to students is sometimes foreign to schools. It is not ‘selling out’, but sometimes the good of the school must play a part. Take a leaf from business and actively recruit students to your marginal course. Make it happen, instead of perhaps not giving it consideration.
A pathway course is one which has more than one class spread over two or more elective lines. This would ordinarily be a popular course, such as perhaps Biology or Hospitality. The course can be regarded as a pathway, providing flexibility, and aiding the ability to satisfy student choices in all the other subjects on these lines.
The key aspect here is that splitting an otherwise viable single class into two is absolutely nothing to do with that subject at all. Even if you offset the extra class by losing some other class, you may find you now satisfy 20 more preferences in other subjects as a result – but for the same total staffing cost.
Maths is a common example of a good Pathway course. While many NSW schools run Maths as a block line, in other states Maths runs through the body of the lines. Even if you just run Maths over two lines, this becomes a pathway course – used to aid the satisfaction rate for any other course that is on these two Maths lines.
Subsequent Student Changes
Good timetablers will generate lines that satisfy not only current, but also anticipated future demand. A school may generally get a number of new students later in the year, or may anticipate movement within courses. For example, Chemistry can be challenging, and a number of students will be expected to drop out over time. Do the current lines allow another valid option for these students if they fall out of Chemistry later on? Is there another Science-based subject on this line for them, such as Senior Science or Biology?
Maths is another, where a certain number of students may be expected to change from the advanced Maths, into the general Maths courses. It is important to ensure that there are general maths courses available, not only on the same line as the advanced maths, but with adequate space in the general class.
Auto Determine What to Run
It can be quite complex to determine which classes to run, or which to drop, to get the best results. Schools have traditionally decided this manually, usually based on the numbers of votes students have made for each subject. Thus, they begin the elective line generation, based on manually pre-determined class numbers. This totally misses a large area of solution quality.
By allowing timetabling algorithms to actually determine what to run or not (very few timetabling systems support this advanced feature), you can get a far better result – either more student requests satisfied, or a reduction in the number of classes you need to run to satisfy demand. Knowing exactly what arrangement of classes is best can be very tricky to determine manually.
While some may be uncomfortable with allowing the computer to be involved in an area that is traditionally viewed by the executive as ‘their domain’, the results generally speak for themselves. The computer process is merely a tool, used to give you options. And sometimes it gives surprising results. It may elect to cancel a class which 15 students have requested rather than a smaller one, which seemed to be the obvious choice, because this satisfies far more overall.
Don’t miss the third and final instalment of this series in the next issue of ETS where we will discuss the timetabling of the elective lines, and more.
Chris Cooper is Director of Operation at Edval Timetables, a company which provides an advanced timetabling platform, managing timetable construction, maintenance, subject selections, numerous class list management tools and overall curriculum 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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