College Prepares New Course Planning Tool

In an effort to better predict class sizes each semester, College administrators are hoping to implement new course planning requirements for undergraduates next year.

If the plan goes ahead, students will be required to update a non-binding course planning tool before the start of each semester. This information will then be used by teaching fellows, professors, and administrators to more accurately predict important numbers such as class size and number of teaching staff to hire, according to Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris.

Harris said this new program will likely be launched in November to collect preliminary information about course preferences for the upcoming spring. The online application will be a simpler and more “refined” version of the online submission form used by sophomores this year for their concentration plans of study, said Harris.

The change is due in part to difficulties administrators have recently encountered in estimating enrollment for new General Education courses.

“We have lots of [new] courses with no history to guide predictions,” Harris said.

Inaccuracies in pre-semester estimates can leave courses short-staffed and scrambling to find appropriately sized meeting locations.

“The biggest problem is we end up hiring a large percentage of our TFs after the course has begun,” said Harris. “That just wastes money and makes for bad pedagogy.”

For example, Historical Study A-87: “Madness and Medicine,” a Core course that also counts for Gen Ed credit, ended up with 200 more students enrolled this semester than the course heads had planned for, according to Head Teaching Fellow Christopher J. Phillips.

“We had 14 unexpected [sections] and that can be very difficult to deal with in the first week of the course,” he said.

While the class was eventually able to hire additional TFs, Phillips said it would have been useful to have more information about how many students planned on enrolling from the beginning.

Others, including Undergraduate Council President Johnny F. Bowman ’11, have pointed to the benefits of this new process for students.

“[It will] force students to look ahead every term,” said Harry R. Lewis ’68, a member of the Faculty Council and former Dean of the College. Currently, students are given a week to “shop” classes before officially submitting their schedule for the semester.

Administrators stressed that the process is not pre-registration—a term which usually implies a binding commitment to a set of classes before the start of the semester. With this new program, students will still be free to change their study card before submitting it at the end of shopping week.

In 2002, then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby pushed to implement a pre-registration process in which students submitted their study cards for classes in the preceding semester. But the proposal was met with fierce opposition from students and faculty and was eventually dropped.

“I think this course planning tool is a much less disruptive solution than pre-registration would be,” Lewis said.

—Melody Y. Hu can be reached at melodyhu@fas.harvard.edu.

—Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at newcomer@fas.harvard.edu.

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