Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Teaching Time Conflicts

As the semester ominously approaches, we've noticed that we're facing a number of class time-slot collisions in computer science.

This is unsurprising.  Until recently, we've been fairly ad hoc in assigning class times;  for the most part, each faculty member, more or less, just picked their time.  Not surprisingly, our Tuesday-Thursday slots are packed.  Computer science faculty like to have Monday and Friday free -- often for travel to conferences, but also to minimize teaching days (MWF vs Tu-Th).  This also seems to match student desires;  many seem to like to avoid Friday classes if possible.  (We can sometimes arrange M-W classes, but strictly speaking it's against some policy -- we can't do them in the morning.)   And class times are further limited -- many faculty (including myself) and students are put off by classes before 10 am or after 4pm, there's the weekly faculty lunch meeting and various seminars to consider, and so on.

The problem has gotten a little worse in recent years, as we've happily been offering more classes (new faculty, and the benefit of some visitors), making it more noticeable.  

We're not so clear that this is a terrible thing.  Other classes -- such as popular distribution requirement classes, various math classes, and so on -- appear to have taken the natural MWF slots, so we're avoiding those external conflicts.  (Although not entirely -- my class has conflicted the last few years with the 2nd semester math class on algebra, which leads to a few e-mail exchanges each year on what can be done about that.)  We tend to avoid really dumb conflicts where it's clear lots of people might want to take both courses naturally.

But it's clear it's become enough of an issue that we have look more carefully at it, and honestly, it wouldn't hurt to put some more reasoning into our scheduling rather than keep following the path tread by historical accident.

While I'm sure the CS faculty will generate plenty of ideas, to get the ball rolling, does anyone have any good suggestions on how to design a procedure to assign class times?  In fact, I think we're still at the size where we can all do it together and resolve possible conflicts peacefully and happily, but rather than waste lots of faculty time going through all the permutations, it seems worthwhile to create an approximately good starting point.  It seems like intro classes should get top priority, and following that theme, perhaps grad classes should get placed last.  Or perhaps an ordering should be tied to faculty members, not classes?  I was thinking every faculty member give their three top time orderings, and give preference to junior faculty members.  Other insights welcome.


Paul Beame said...

I faced this many years ago when we had a similar mess (the university scheduling office had randomly assigned them one term). The first easy idea was to look at prerequisite chains and schedule classes in the same chain at the same time, which guarantees no conflicts. (Though it can prevent faculty in an area covering for each other.) I ended up with half a dozen chains at the undergrad level and it was easy enough to fit them in (as MWF classes plus possible sections on other days). Capstone courses would be TTh. We have less structure now, though.

For core grad classes we did a standard tiling of the best pairs of 1.5 hour time slots each week and just fill them each term so none conflict. This uses M-Th but Friday is free. If we want to run two at the same time we just poll students.

In general the schedule defaults to what it was the previous year but we give younger and grumpier faculty chance to change time slots.

Geoff Knauth said...

Put students first. How well do you know their goals and conflicts? Your best idea is that intro classes should get priority. Some undergrads have sports or labs (like bio) in the afternoon, so it makes sense that grad courses go later in the day. Grad students are more sympathetic if a professor disappears to a conference. I remember when 9am MWF seemed "too early." Now I laugh at that notion: after college I spent 10 years 7 days a week on the water at 6am, which was formative. Find out how MIT handles scheduling, since they have such a large number of EECS classes you couldn't take them all if you stayed 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Can you elaborate on the MWF thing? I can't remember having a class listed as MWF that actually met three times a week - I recall them being listed as MW(F) in the course directory...