Tess Hellgren ’11 shops for course books inside the Harvard Coop.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Improving the classroom experience

5 min read

Pre-term planning process will keep focus on education, off logistics

Students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) can look forward to less shuffling between classrooms, more books on the shelf at the Coop, and a better experience in section next spring, thanks to a new pre-term planning (PTP) initiative that will be implemented this October.

“Pre-term planning will allow us to use resources more effectively to improve students’ overall educational experience,” says Noël Bisson, associate dean of Undergraduate Education. “Best of all, the system allows us to preserve the traditional exploration of classes at the start of a new semester.”

In late October, students will be asked to identify courses they are thinking of taking in the spring using a new online PTP tool on the Office of the Registrar’s website. College seniors and first- and second-year students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) will get to participate first. Juniors, sophomores, and freshmen will follow on a staggered schedule. The process will wrap up for the College in mid-November; early December for the GSAS.

Bisson and her colleague, Stephanie Kenen, also an associate dean of Undergraduate Education, say that it’s important for students to understand that PTP is not pre-registration. Students are not bound to take the courses they select and are free to explore different classes early in the semester. Registration will proceed as usual, which also means that participation in PTP does not guarantee a place in a limited-enrollment class.

Faculty will provide useful information about spring term courses so that students can make informed selections during PTP. Jay Harris, dean of Undergraduate Education, has asked faculty to activate course websites and update with relevant information — including course descriptions, a list of preliminary topics and readings, and a rundown of assignments and requirements — at least a week before the process kicks off.

With some sense of student interest, administrators and faculty can make better decisions about resources. They can, for instance, hire teaching fellows in numbers more appropriate to each class. The fellows in turn will know earlier what subjects they will teach, and will have more time to prepare. Bisson says this will lead to better section meetings.

“It’s not counterintuitive,” she says. “Graduate students who know what they’re teaching ahead of time will do better as teachers.”
Bisson says that PTP will also give the Registrar’s Office a better idea of how many students will enroll in a class, allowing them to place courses in spaces that are neither too big nor too small. As a result, students will be subject to less disruption and scrambling in the first weeks of the semester.

“The information will help enormously with classroom assignment,” she says. “The way things are now, we have no idea how many students will be in any given course at the end of the first week. So many can show up to the first couple of classes that we need to move it to a larger room. Then half of them decide not to take the course, so we have to move it someplace smaller. This can happen two or three times, so students and faculty can’t really settle down until the second or third week.”

Bisson also says that PTP data will lead to more accurate ordering of course materials, reducing the chances of a Harvard student’s least favorite sight: an empty shelf in the Coop’s textbook department.
“When course materials sell out, students put their energy into tracking down books instead of class work,” she says. “That leads to a poorer educational experience.”

Even though PTP selections are not binding, they will still give faculty and administrators the information they need to make improvements. That’s because PTP numbers should accurately track enrollment for many courses, even when students who initially express interest in a course do not end up taking it.

“Pre-term planning undertaken at peer institutions has shown that what matters is the overall number of students interested in a particular course, rather than the interest of any particular student in that course,” Bisson explains. “For instance, say 100 students indicate interest in a particular course. When registration time comes around, it’s likely that close to 100 students will end up enrolling — but not the same 100 who had originally selected the class. Someone usually takes the place of the student who decides not to enroll.”

Bisson says that PTP will begin paying dividends in a few semesters, when enough data has been collected and analyzed. Until then, there will be bumps along the road.

“We don’t expect the PTP numbers and enrollment numbers to match exactly,” Bisson says. “Some courses will correspond more closely. Some will have larger error rates. We’ll understand enrollment patterns a lot better after a few times through the process.”

PTP will be back in the summer to allow students to make selections for fall term. Incoming freshmen will not participate, however, so that they can have access to advising resources before picking classes. For now, students can find out more at the PTP website, by emailing ptp@fas.harvard.edu, or by visiting the website of the Office of the Registrar and clicking from Undergraduates to Pre-Term Planning.