Students, profs both play full-class waiting game

By Ryan Johnson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, January 19, 2006

"Welcome to the first day of class. I'll be your professor this semester. I see we have more people in here than are registered. I'm sorry, but I won't be able to add anyone."

Most students have heard something like this from a professor during their time at the UA. With the rampant class-availability problems that define to a certain extent the undergraduate experience here, we're accustomed to rituals such as the "sorry, but the class is full" speech on the first day of class.

Inevitably, several students stand up and walk out of the room, which is unfortunate - those students would have a pretty good shot at a seat if they just showed some patience.

Indeed, many students and professors engage in this mutual error: Professors are too quick to chase students away, and students are too quick to give up the hunt.

As a result, many "full" classes end up with empty seats. Sometimes the exodus of the enrolled occurs quite early, as students switch to other classes; sometimes it happens after the first exams are handed back. Either way, when those seats aren't subsequently filled, it exacerbates our class-availability problem.

It's not just a handful of openings, either. In just the first three days of the semester, the Office of Curriculum and Registration processed nearly 1,800 change-of-schedule forms, to say nothing of changes made online through WebReg. That means a lot of empty seats.

Fortunately, there are easy solutions.

What should students do? Not give up. First, only a single person in the class needs to drop for a seat to be available on WebReg. Second, professors secretly love it when a student persists. Ask at the end of each class period about how you can get in. Say you'll wait until someone drops the class. Stick around.

Students frequently drop classes a month or more into the semester - if you think a class is full, just wait until the first test is handed back. And even if nobody drops, there's a good chance the professor will add you anyway.

Alana DeYoung, a sophomore majoring in international studies and Spanish, said she usually has trouble getting registered before the semester starts because international studies majors aren't part of any department's pre-registration procedures. However, this semester she filled out her schedule the way she wanted by aggressively checking WebReg for drops and being persistent with professors.

What should professors do? For one, at least allow students to add until there are as many students as seats. Plenty of 40-seat classrooms are set up on WebReg to allow a maximum of 30 students. While keeping student-to-teacher ratios low is a noble aim, finding classes for students is much more important.

Most professors understand this. According to Pat Rhyner, administrative secretary for political science, most political science professors keep their own wait lists even though the department doesn't insist on it.

But this isn't always the case. Indeed, from a professor's perspective, adding more students is probably a bum deal; it means more grading without more help from TAs and preceptors, and less interaction with students.

Wesley Fletcher, a business economics senior, said that some professors refuse to add students for logistical reasons.

"I was trying to add a Trad class, and the professor probably could have added more students, but he said he wanted to keep the student-to-teacher ratio down," he said while making an advising appointment.

Because of this, departments should do what they can to help fill all available seats. According to Scott Johnson, an adviser for social and behavioral sciences, some departments, such as psychology, keep internal wait lists. Such wait lists constitute a good first step and should be instituted more widely at the university.

Moreover, quite a bit more could be done at the university level. Classes that are likely to have excess demand should be put in the biggest classrooms available. Building bigger classrooms would help in the long term.

But technology could play a role as well. If WebReg and the online schedule of classes made it easier for students to find vacated seats, more students would fill them. What about putting an asterisk next to classes in which a seat was vacated that day? Or letting students subscribe to e-mail notifications about vacancies?

If even one extra student made it into each class on campus, the result would be an improved class availability situation. On top of trying to get additional funds, the university should be doing more to make do with what it has.

Students and professors can help. So go back to that class that you walked out of on the first day. Ask the professor what you can do to get a seat. It won't only help you; it will help the entire university.

Ryan Johnson is a senior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at