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Course registration poses concerns of over-enrollment

November 3, 2017

The first round of course registration for the spring semester opens Monday, November 6. The Orient analyzed course offerings and enrollments over the three semesters since spring 2016 to find the departments in which classes were consistently filled, as well as those in which classes rarely fill.

Areas of study that are notorious for over enrolling courses span the curriculum, and for students who wish to take courses in departments where classes typically fill to capacity, registration can be a stressful process.

Predictably, computer science has been the most filled: 57 percent of courses offered since spring 2016 were at or over capacity. Other departments that have had the highest number of full classes include government and legal studies, math, sociology, psychology and English.

On the other hand, some departments—most notably some languages such as Greek, Latin, Russian, Italian and Chinese—have not completely filled a single class over the last three semesters.

Gideon Moore, Drew MacDonald
Taking a seat Data from the Office of the Registrar shows the percent of classes offered by each department that reached or exceeded capacity over the last three semesters. On the more competitive side, the computer science department has filled more than half of its courses—a stark contrast to the six departments that haven’t filled a class in the last year and a half. While computer science acknowledges over-enrollment as a problem hindering the department, others feel it is not an issue as long as they are addressing the needs of their majors.

Departments whose classes tend to over enroll have attempted to expand available class seats by offering more classes, either bringing in new faculty or making existing professors teach more. However, the introduction of new courses comes with the worry that those classes could also fill completely up or, conversely, not fill up at all.

Some of the departments whose seats are in high demand don’t see a problem for majors in the program.

“The most important thing to point out is our biochemistry majors absolutely get into the classes that they need to complete their major, and we’ve never, ever had a student not be able to complete their major because they couldn’t get into a class they needed,” said Danielle Dube, director of the biochemistry department.

The Department of Government and Legal Studies has a similar view.

“As long as there are open spots in some of our classes, we’re not offering too few. We’re not doing this blind, and we’re also doing pretty well to meet the demand,” said Michael Franz, chair of the government and legal studies department.

While departments assure their declared majors that they will definitely receive the courses they need, Rosa Rossi ’19 says she has been turned away from classes so many times that she has had to make serious changes to her major plans. Originally intending to double major in math and psychology, she was forced to drop the psychology major last spring because she had, by that point, been shut out of too many courses including a core requirement for the psychology major that semester.

Rossi appears to have been particularly unlucky:

“Finally, this fall, I was going to have preference for [math] courses because I was a declared major, and I actually didn’t end up getting into any of my math classes,” she said.

A strategy that has proven effective in government and legal studies is offering a large number of first-year seminars along with three introductory level lectures. Most upper- level classes in the department also do not have prerequisites. While competition remains in upper-level classes, those curious about exploring the department early on in their educational career are able to.

The department has also employed an active approach to crafting upper-level courses around student need. Upper-level government seminars are mainly offered in the spring due to first-year seminars taking up fall seminar slots. This semester it is offering nine 3000 level seminars, after offering only one this semester.  Last year, eight seminars were offered in the spring and none were offered in the fall.

“We looked at which of our majors needed advanced seminar courses in various areas of the field of government and legal studies and we decided and figured out that we needed so many spots in international relations, so many spots in political theory, so many spots in American politics and we then tried to match the seats to the student need,” said Franz.

Due to increasing enrollment in the computer science major and very few new faculty hires, the computer science department, which has had the most full courses over the past two years, may be lacking resources to meet student demand.

“We are turning majors away [from courses]. [Also,] there are many people who would like to minor and who cannot get the minor, and we cannot accommodate that because we have to prioritize the majors,” said Laura Toma, associate professor of computer science and chair of the department.

To help alleviate this, computer science has been over-enrolling its courses, sometimes allowing as many as 23 people in a class capped at 16. This appears to be a short-term solution to a long-term problem, as consistently over-enrolling classes doesn’t prevent the problem from continuing and can be detrimental to the carefully constructed class dynamic of small courses.

At the end of the day, this lack of available classes could also be disproportionately affecting select students from underrepresented backgrounds—particularly in STEM fields.

“A concern is there’s been research that shows that when there’s competition for classes, and when the classes are larger than the average, the people from underrepresented backgrounds [are the ones] that somehow perceive that as a discouragement [from enrolling],” said Toma.

Independent research—conducted by the Computing Research Association, a group joining academics, industry and independent researchers, to study the field—suggests this concern is legitimate.

“Even when students can be accommodated, the need to scale course size may also negatively impact retention of underrepresented groups in computing,” the authors wrote. “Large lecture courses are less personal, with less faculty-student and student-peer interaction, two significant predictors of retention in computer science. Students can also have less information on which to judge their progress relative to their peers.”

Peer institutions, such as Swarthmore and Williams, have doubled their computer science faculty in the last ten years while Bowdoin’s has stayed the same. Toma said she has encountered some problems with the administration as she’s tried to make the department more accessible by recruiting more faculty, but she’s hoping for upcoming assistance.

“Obviously we would have liked for things to move a little faster than they have, but I think looking at the positive side, we definitely have seen progress, we do have an extra faculty [member] … but clearly the College needs a way to prioritize all the demands that it has and I’m optimistic that in the near future we’re going to see more resources for additional faculty,” she said.


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