Pre-registration for Spring 2016

Spring 2016 pre-registration ended a week ago last night. After considering how Whitman’s system compares to Grinnell’s, I will discuss the build-up, the enrollments, and the aftermath.

Note: While the enrollment numbers are correct, I have not fact-checked my knowledge of pre-registration processes.

Grinnell College has an unusual pre-registration system. Due to concerns about protecting strong student-advisor relationships, Grinnell only recently moved to online registration. Students build a course schedule using an online scheduling tool; it is virtually “signed” by an advisor. (The Registrar’s Office manually checks  on students with multiple academic advisors—or this is left to the student’s honor.)

All students’ course selections are processed in one large batch, in no particular order. Caps are not enforced and courses do not close. There are no waiting lists. When pre-registration is over, instructors and department chairs receive the entire list of all students who want to enroll in their courses.

The pain starts after pre-registration. If a course is over-enrolled, this is rectified with a cut, close, and balance process. If a course section is overenrolled, a faculty member can choose particular students to cut or provide rules for the Registrar to apply. If multiple sections of a course are offered, a department chair can ask the Registrar to balance the section by moving some students from the overenrolled section to the under enrolled sections—of course, only students for whom this does not create a schedule conflict. It’s also during this time that departments negotiate with the Dean to add or cancel course sections as needed.

Course sections are closed after cuts and balances; students must obtain the instructor’s signature to add a course that has been through this process. (Yes, a physical signature on a paper form.)

Students’ course schedules are released after the cut, close, balance procedure is complete, about a week after pre-registration closes. While a standard load is four, 4-credit classes, a student could emerge from the cut, close, balance process with only two or three courses, sometimes even only one course. These students must work with their advisors to enroll in additional courses, whether that is by appealing to the instructors of the courses they were cut from or by searching for other courses that meet similar goals but have seats remaining open.

Whitman has a more conventional pre-registration system. Seniors pre-register according to their class year, seniors first. Each student is randomly assigned a time slot (after classes end at 4 p.m.) during which they go online to select their courses. Students can enroll in a full load of courses, up to 18 credits—but only in courses that have seats remaining.

If a course is full, students may register their interest by adding themselves to the online waiting lists, perhaps with a note of explanation. In fact, students can add themselves to waiting lists several days before pre-registration begins.

As I understand it, there are two mechanisms by which faculty can shape their course enrollments:

  1. Department chairs can reserve seats for the four class years. For example, if 15 seats in a course are reserved for first-year students, those seats will not appear until the night of first-year pre-registration. (This is confusing to many first-year students, who think the course section is full when in fact seats are being reserved for them.)
  2. Instructors can consent students into the course. As my colleague Albert Schueller warned me, consent is a ticket into a class regardless of whether the student has satisfied pre-requisites and regardless of whether the section is already full. Once granted, consent can be revoked until the student uses it to enroll.

As soon as pre-registration is over, each student should have a full schedule of courses. However, if they are on the waiting list for any courses they would prefer to take, they can only wait to see if the instructor consents them in.

The first email from a student came a full three weeks before pre-registration started. This was a senior who had been granted an exception by the Board of Review to allow CS 167 to meet a requirement that, for reasons beyond her control, she had been unable to fulfill this fall. As soon as the system allowed me to, I consented her in.

The next inquiry came two weeks before pre-registration, and asked about seats reserved for first-year students. That was an easy question to answer. Since Albert had forgotten to reserve seats for first years in the fall (I knew nothing), we had agreed to reserve 15 seats for first-years and 5 for each of the upper classes. Knowing what I know now, I might have reserved seats for first-years and left the other three classes to a free-for-all.

A few days later—still a week before pre-registration started—the flood of requests for consent began. It continued until two days after pre-registration was over. I received emails from 23 distinct students and one faculty adviser. I saw more students at my door. Most requests were from students with late pre-registration slots who were concerned the course would fill before they were permitted to enroll; just a few had specific and urgent reasons to obtain my consent. I referred nearly all of them to the waiting list.

There was one very positive outcome of being here for pre-registration, receiving emails from students, and seeing their notes on the waiting list: I was able to identify students who had prior CS experience. My colleague Yaping Jing has noted that some students in her CS 167 sections this fall are bored and really shouldn’t be there. Through conversations with students about their prior experience, along with an impromptu coding quiz, we were able to place three or four students directly into CS 270, Data Structures.

Most of the flurry was around CS 167, the introductory course. I received just four emails concerning CS 200, ST: Elements of Computer Systems. Two were from first-year students for whom I had not reserved seats, and two more were from students trying to decide between CS 200A and CS 270.

Two or three other students are talking with me about independent studies in various topics not included in the current minimal curriculum. My patter: I’m happy to accommodate these interests, but there is a limit to what I can provide outside my areas of expertise. I can provide three main things: accountability, a sounding board, and greater experience learning CS topics in general. Students seem satisfied with that.

Several other students came to talk with me about planning for a CS minor or pursing career interests related to computing. I have really enjoyed these broader conversations. Although I think it is completely correct to exempt first-year faculty from formal advising responsibilities, advising was one of my favorite parts of my job at Grinnell, and I’ve missed it.

And now, the numbers:

Number Title Enrolled Cap Waitlist
CS 167 Introduction to Programming 31 30 37
CS 270 Data Structures 16 20 0
CS 200 ST: Elements of Computer Systems 22 20 5
CS 400 ST: Algorithm Design & Analysis 10 20 0

In a nutshell, demand is strong. The ten students in Algorithms represent committed minors. The many students in Computer Systems represent strong interest at the intermediate level. Compared to this fall, four more students are enrolled in Data Structures, for a total of 28 this year representing potential minors or majors. And the waiting list for Intro would seem to merit the addition of a second section.

However, gender inclusiveness is a concern. This fall’s sections of Intro are fairly gender- balanced, while 200-level courses have just a few women. It appears that trend will continue this spring. I will have to make special efforts this spring to recruit and retain women in the minor; I look forward to implementing a new application theme (TBD) in the intro course next year.


One big question has remained in the aftermath: How shall we accommodate the long waiting list for CS 167? One approach, certainly, would be to allow students who remain interested to wait for spaces to open in the existing section. However, there are a few problems with that approach: There are seniors for whom this is their last chance to formally study CS, and I want to accommodate them. There are first-year students who hope to pursue a major, and I want to accommodate them too (to the extent that I can). And given the momentum of interest in computer science, it seems wiser to build on that momentum than to cut it down.

Earlier in the fall, Albert and I had discussed preemptively adding a second section of CS 167. We decided not to do that, but rather to see how pre-registration went. Even after seeing the numbers above, my math colleagues thought that surely many students would lose interest in CS 167 after adjusting to their new course schedules. So I sent a Google Form to the students on the waiting list: 31/31 of students responding said they still want to enroll in CS 167.

Albert had volunteered to teach the second section as an overload, but fortunately that will not be necessary. High demand for computer science coincided with relatively low enrollments in both a lower-level math course (Calc II) and an upper-level math course (Real Analysis II). The math faculty agreed to cancel the Calc II section (since those few students could be accommodated in the other two sections) and shift the Real Analysis course from Albert to a colleague, freeing Albert to teach CS 167.

I am grateful not to have to go plea with the Dean for an overload. And I am looking forward to the opportunity to teach alongside Albert. Every time I taught the first course at Grinnell, I taught alongside a colleague, and we always found things to collaborate on and things to learn from each other. I’m sure I’ll find such opportunities here.

A colleague asked yesterday if I was concerned that a new section of CS 167 would take away from other course sections. Of course, given how Whitman’s pre-registration system works, it will take away from other course sections. But I don’t know which ones. And while it might cause problems if a section becomes too small, it might also solve problems—allowing students into those other course sections from their respective waiting lists, or just creating comfortably smaller sections. I don’t think I can hold myself responsible for the consequences of creating another course section. At the same time, I worry that computer science has already taken away from math enrollments. But I don’t think I can hold myself responsible for that, either, since I am doing what I was hired to do.

The question still remaining: When to schedule the second section of CS 167? My Google poll of students on the waiting list does not show a clear front-runner among the options offered. I am also polling students currently enrolled in the spring section of CS 167. Very few have expressed willingness to change sections to accommodate other students, which is frustrating. At Grinnell, the Registrar would balance the new section and the old one, and students just live with the consequences—better to be balanced than cut! I wonder if students would be more willing to change sections if I were teaching the new section?

I presented the enrollment numbers to the CS Working Group in Bellevue last Friday. I also gave my initial evaluation of the new teaching labs. I’ll share what I told them in my next post.

4 thoughts on “Pre-registration for Spring 2016

  1. Lydia

    Hi Janet, this is fascinating and Id love to talk more once you get it all figured out. We are finally in a place with more demand for the Comp 170 course, which had been woefully under enrolled when I started, and are trying to figure out what to do about it.

    1. Janet Davis Post author

      I don’t know if it will ever be “all figured out.” But we should definitely talk more about program building!

  2. Kylie Grenier

    Thank you for mentioning gender inclusiveness as a concern, and taking the time to recruit and retain more women into the CS Minor program.

    1. Janet Davis Post author

      Kylie, just doing my job. As far as I’m concerned it is obviously worth spending time on. Thanks for your comment!


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