New program aids scheduling

As students scramble through shopping period with planners, Post-it notes and Google calendars, the Registrar’s Office has turned to an algorithm to help with scheduling.

The office is expanding its existing technology to streamline course scheduling: One new tool facilitates teaching fellow allocation in lecture classes, while another, older tool has been expanded to the economics department to place “Game Theory” and “Introductory Microeconomics” students in discussion sections based on time preference. Economics Department chair Benjamin Polak, who teaches “Game Theory,” said he hopes to expand the time preference tool to place teaching assistants in classes and schedule popular, same-level economics classes so they do not overlap.

With the newer tool, departments can tell the Teaching Fellow Office how many discussions sections are needed for each course, and when they will be offered. This helps the office to assign teaching fellows to courses, marking a change from the previous system, which was conducted through e-mail, fax and paper.

“The Registrar’s Office had to constantly check with the Teaching Fellow Office to verify they had allocated the number and size of sections that were being requested,” Jill Carlton, University registrar, said in an e-mail. “Often they had not yet made the allocations. This caused delays.”

Now, when teaching fellow allocations are approved, departments can view the number of sections and section size and fill in the days and times they need. They can then publish these times to the electronic database, where they become available for students to select.

The older preference selection system, for sections, is an online interface operated through the Online Course Selection website that asks students to rank preferences for discussion section times. An algorithm optimizing first choices then places the students into sections. The department can then evaluate the results and consider changing section times, Polak said.

“The idea is we would like to match section times so that the classes meet student demands a bit better,” Polak said. “We don’t want students unable to take a class because we put the sections in the wrong times.”

He added that the department can use the results to eliminate unpopular section times and create additional sections during the times that best fit student schedules.

Several years ago, the Registrar’s Office worked with the English Department and the Yale College Dean’s Office to develop an online system for placing students in English courses based on preference, Carlton said. Eventually, the system was modified for the Chemistry Department, which began using it about four years ago, and has since been used in other forms for freshman seminars, college seminars and history seminars.

While Polak said he is hopeful about the system, he said he is sure it will not function perfectly the first time. But he added that the department used the system to place students in “Introductory Microeconomic Analysis” last week, and it ran smoothly. He added that professors will encourage student feedback, although they have not set up a formal student evaluation of the tool.

“Down the road a little bit we can also use the same idea not just within the class but even across classes,” Polak said.

And if it works well, other departments may incorporate the tool, as well, Polak said.

With some of the largest classes, the Chemistry Department offers more sections than any other department, and it has been using the online selection tool — created by Information Technology Services— for about four years, chemistry professor Kurt Zilm said. He added that a few seminars and music classes also use the electronic system.

But this year was the first time the Chemistry Department also used the online system to place teaching fellows, an example the Economics Department hopes to follow.

Although Zilm said the section selection system is vital to his department, he said there was a learning curve when it was first used, and that there is still room for improvement. Since the Registrar’s Office operates the preference selector under the same system that handles grades and confidential student information, Zilm said the system must balance security with ease of use. He added that preferences could cater better to students if each department knew what other courses students planned to take.

“Once you get organized, it works pretty well, and I think it makes for a good student experience,” he said. “We could do a whole lot better job if you guys had shopping baskets or made shopping lists, so we had some place to start.”

Theresa Ryckman ’12, who is using the new system for “Game Theory,” said she thought the system seemed straightforward to operate but wished the process had started and ended sooner. She added that she already knows her section times for her other courses and will not be able to change them if she is placed in an economics section at the same time. But she said she thinks creating additional sections at the most popular times would help.

“Game Theory” and “Introductory Microeconomics” students should be assigned a section by tonight at midnight.

Comments