As you start building your 2022 course schedules, you face a challenge common to all universities: contacting hundreds of faculty and asking for their teaching preferences.
What should you ask for? How should you ask it? Can it be automated? Depending on how you approach preference collection, it can take a few hours or many weeks. And it can generate preferences that are easy to schedule or impossible to satisfy. Here's what we've learned after a decade of refining our preference collection system.
Get 1st, 2nd and 3rd preferences from every professor.
Some schedule-makers just ask faculty when they want to teach, and they get back a single day and time. The problem is, what if that time can’t be met? What then?
It’s best to get everything you might need when you have their attention. Ask for 1st, 2nd and 3rd preferences from every professor. It makes better use of both their time and yours.
If you don’t have a lot of excess classroom space and you know some people are going to have to teach outside of the prime parts of the day and week, use the 3rd preference to find out what they want if they don’t get a prime time.
One strategy we employ is to say that one of their preferences must include an early morning, late afternoon or Friday. Knowing where people want to end up if they don’t get one of the coveted teaching spots is valuable information, because most people would prefer a certain non-prime spot over another.
Use a standardized form for collecting preferences. (Don’t just send an email.)
Instead of collecting preferences via email, use some sort of common form. ofCourse generates individualized forms for each faculty member that lets them select their preferences from a list of options. If you build your schedule manually, you can set up a preference collection form in SurveyMonkey or Google Forms.
If you were to just send an email asking, “When would you like to teach?” you’ll get a response ranging from three sentences to three pages. That creates a nightmare, because all of that text has to be translated into something that can actually be used.
Don’t ask faculty where they want to teach.
Most schools have a few rooms that faculty prefer. So asking for a room preference fosters dissatisfaction, because not everyone can land in the two most coveted rooms.
In the early years at ofCourse, we tried this. The first year, we asked faculty when they wanted to teach. Our algorithm generated the schedule, and faculty were thrilled with the results.
The next year, we thought, how can we make this better? We added the ability for faculty to indicate both when and where they wanted to teach. But with only a few sought-after rooms, few professors got their choice. Even worse, some junior faculty members got better rooms than their more senior counterparts. It seemed everyone hated the schedule!
The third year, we asked faculty: what would you rather pick? Your time, or your classroom? The overwhelming response was time. We dropped classroom from the preference form, and everyone was happy once again.
Collecting time preferences from your faculty doesn't have to be painful. Get 1st, 2nd and 3rd preferences; use a standardized form; and don't ask them where. And if you want the world's easiest preference collection system, use ofCourse — where we take preferences and convert them into the best schedule you've ever had.
This post was based on our free eBook, "15 Tips to do Course Scheduling Faster & Better". Download it now.
February 10, 2021