The sudoku puzzle of course scheduling

When Rose Pitkin ’14, a neuroscience major, wanted to take a genetics course during the 2012-2013 school year, she was disappointed to discover she could not take the course without sacrificing another class that was important for her major.

“I didn’t take genetics last year because the lab section that fit into my schedule was at the same time as a double credit bio seminar I wanted to take,” Pitkin said.  “Because of how the bio seminars work, I could have taken the seminar for one credit, but the section I was required to take was at the same time as the genetics lab.  Either way, I was not able to take genetics that semester.”

While Pitkin‘s scheduling troubles arose when one class’ lab section overlapped with another course’s scheduled day and time, other students have experienced difficulty finding courses to take within their major or interests simply because the department’s amount of and schedule of offerings.  And, as political science major and public policy and peace and conflict studies double minor Brian Kaissi ’15 pointed out, some departments offer several of their courses on the same days and times.

“It’s always been difficult to plan my academic schedule,” Kaissi said.  “This upcoming semester, if I don’t get into a specific honors seminar I would like to take — which is highly likely — then there is only one other poli sci class offered that I haven’t taken already and that works with my schedule.”

Playing on a sports team can cause further limitations.

“Picking a schedule in the spring as a baseball player is incredibly difficult, because we are unable to take afternoon classes from Tuesday to Friday due to game conflicts,” Kaissi said.

“Departments such as poli sci offer the majority of their classes in the afternoon.  There’s a select few classes that start in the morning, the majority of these being intro classes.”

Every department at the college is responsible for determining its courses’ days and times each semester. Professors request times and days that they think would work best with the courses they are teaching that semester.  These recommended schedules are based not only on the professors’ schedules but also the nature of each course.

“Most faculty in the [history] department feel that a smaller discussion-oriented class should either be taught in one-hour, 20-minute blocks or three-hour blocks, rather than 50 minutes,” said Timothy Burke, the chair of the history department.  “So there is pressure on Tuesday-Thursday [classes] in particular, but since the three-hour slots are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — no Friday — that also puts pressure on MWF mornings for our survey classes.”

Computer Science Department Chair Lisa Meeden and Biology Department Chair Amy Vollmer agreed that some classes work better in the 50-minute Monday, Wednesday, Friday format, while others better fit the 75-minute Tuesday-Thursday format.

“Some faculty like teaching their intermediate courses on Tuesday-Thursday because it gives them more time for interactive small group exercises in class and more time for students to take exams,” Vollmer said.

Burke said the history department also tries its best to accommodate as many students as it possibly can.

“We start by trying to make sure that none [of the department’s survey courses] are happening at the same time,” he said.  “Faculty often negotiate directly with their Honors students about a date that will work for them all, but we work very hard to make sure that none of our seminars are taught at the same time so that no student has to choose between two of them for scheduling reasons.”

Generally, the college’s science division works together in building the division’s schedule to allot the Science Center’s classrooms appropriately and to avoid time overlap with classes that students may want to take in the same semester.  For example, no biology classes are scheduled for the Monday, Wednesday, Friday 9:30 a.m. time slot, as most chemistry and biochemistry lectures occur during that time.

Within the computer science department, CS31 Introduction to Computer Systems and CS35 Data Structures and Algorithms never share a time slot, because many students want to take these courses simultaneously. Economics Acting Department Chair Philip Jefferson said that the economics department only coordinates with other departments to ensure their large lectures can occur in appropriately sized classrooms.

Jensen said that the natural progression of classes in many natural science and engineering departments, especially in the first few years, prevents conflicts in courses that occur at the same time.

“We also have some idea of which courses our majors will be taking in other natural science and engineering departments — We know that our first-year students are pretty likely to be taking multi-variable calculus and linear algebra — so we make sure not to have conflicts with those courses,” he said.

In the biology department, however, some courses are deliberately scheduled during the same time slots.

“We purposely offer courses at the same time because […] some of our courses are over-subscribed and therefore students lotteried out of one can take another without rearranging their schedule,” said Vollmer, who described the scheduling process as a giant Sodoku puzzle.

Burke added that departments’ overlapping their course times may be beneficial for students, as he does not think students should stack their schedules with courses all within the same discipline.

“I believe you can take too many classes in a single department,” he said.  “The college and faculty all agree on that up to a point — that’s why we have the 20-course rule and why we have distribution requirements.”

While Pitkin understands that scheduling conflicts are sometimes inevitable, she thinks departments should consider coordinating due dates for courses that students commonly take in the same semester.

“I think it wouldn’t be so hard to look for trends in what classes people take or shop,” Pitkin said.  “There are always a ton of students enrolled in gen chem or orgo and intro bio.  And yet both classes had exams [last Friday].  My perception is that there are a handful of classes that always have overlap enrollment.”

Vollmer said that professors do not coordinate due dates or days of exams. She added that overlap of exam studying or paper writing just emphasizes the need to plan ahead.

Another obstacle arises when students take classes at Haverford or Bryn Mawr or when Bryn Mawr or Haverford students take classes at Swarthmore.

“Bryn Mawr and Haverford have set up offset class schedules that make it efficient to move from class to class between those two campuses — but not between those and ours,” Registrar Martin Warner said.

Monica Nelson ’15, a Bryn Mawr student who is taking Sociology of Humor at Swarthmore this semester, explained that Bryn Mawr’s schedule differs from the College’s by 10 minutes.

“Taking a class at Swarthmore definitely restricted the courses I could take at Bryn Mawr,” she said.  “I actually delayed two required courses for my major so I could take Sociology of Humor.”

Nelson added that despite the inconvenience, having the opportunity to take a class at the college has been worthwhile.  For students such as Kaissi and Pitkin who have experienced frustration in picking their schedules, though, Burke encourages them to take the opportunity to take a class outside of their comfort zone.

“Sometimes the class that can change your life is the class you least expected to take,” he said.  “A bit of randomness or whimsy in selecting classes is a good idea for everyone.”

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