Supporting Student Choice in Course of Study Planning

During course of study planning, students have a golden opportunity to shape their secondary school experience. Yet, fully supporting student course choice requires well-aligned processes of course design, course requests, and staffing. Otherwise, obstacles can rise and disrupt students’ ability to guide their academic programs.

Like many schools, the U Prep course of study is fairly prescriptive in the early years and very flexible in the later years. The schedule has seven periods. Middle School students take six required classes, and Upper School students must satisfy graduation requirements: 4 years of English. 3.5 years of history, 3 years of math, science and languages, 2 years of fine arts, and 2 years of P.E. Elective flexibility increases from ninth to twelfth grades, by which point many students can take up to six elective classes.

Some graduation requirements are fixed, whereas others provide options. In the Middle School, sixth grade students choose between instrumental music and a fine arts rotation, as well as selecting among three languages. Seventh and eighth grade students have those choices as well as quite a few additional courses in the fine arts and general studies. Ninth grade students choose a language and two elective courses, and many students satisfy all but their English requirement by the end of junior year.

Here’s where things get interesting. The student who applies correct foresight can craft a course of study with a particular emphasis. Most choose a balanced program that demonstrates a high level of achievement in many subject areas. Others deviate in interesting ways:

  • Taking a free period each semester to allow for depth or slower pace of study, or to accommodate a busy extracurricular pursuit such as dance or club athletics.
  • Playing in symphony or jazz band every year, or working for the yearbook or newspaper, in order to attain a particularly high level of accomplishment in that area.
  • Take as many electives as possible in one subject area in order to satisfy a known disciplinary preference and nicely set up the start of college.
  • Preferring applied courses such as architecture, computer science, journalism, and biotechnology.

Students need specific kinds of support from the school in order to design and craft an intentional course of study. Without these supports, students will end up having to take other courses than their preferred selections, which will diffuse the consistence and intentionality of their program.

1. Build flexibility into graduation requirements

As described above, the academic program should include choices within subject area graduation requirements, as well as free choice beyond subject area requirements.

2. Give students their first choice as often as possible.

This is harder to do than it may first appear. Course scheduling is driven by constraints, such as available staff, classrooms, courses that must meet at the same time, teachers who much teach during certain periods, timing of lunch periods, and so on. In general, the more constraints, the more difficult it is to give students their first choices. Reducing constraints requires reducing accommodations for staff and facilities.

This year, we paid particular attention to the number of sections available to oversubscribed courses. In some cases, we were able to shift teachers accordingly. In other cases, we were not. In the end, here’s how we did. How does this compare to your schools?

Grade First Choice Scheduled
6 100%
7 92%
8 91%
9 82%
10 84%
11 92%
12 94%

3. Allow student preference to inform program change

This is a tricky one. We give very nearly all students their first choice when they are required to choose among few options. 100% of sixth grade students receive their first choice because we honor all requests for instrumental music, fine arts rotation, and choice of language. Sometimes, student preference causes significant changes in program, such as the number of supported languages, a wide range of sizes in musical performance groups, and varied class sizes in fine arts and general studies electives. Changes in program can cause changes in staffing (i.e., our colleagues’ jobs), yet a truly student-centered institution must allow for such changes over time.

For student choice to inform program adjustment in the short term, instructional leadership must be able to see course request data before finalizing the staffing arrangement. A high quality course requests system allows the systematic, rapid collection and analysis of student selections.

Students also collectively help inform the long-term direction of the overall school curriculum. Over years, consistent trends in student choice make plain the changes we should make to course offerings. Recent trends include: increasing interest in Mandarin Chinese; a trend toward applied disciplines, such as architecture, journalism, graphic design, and computer science; increasing requests for English elective courses. This helps the school curriculum stay contemporary and authentic, which in turn improves student motivation and quality of work.

4. Reduce obstacles to new course approval

Does your course proposal process encourage creative course design, or does it put up obstacles? Our Instructional Leadership Team approves new courses, yet we emphasize the constructive process when fulfilling this responsibility. The members of ILT are themselves department heads and are thus on both sides of the process. We check for the thoughtfulness and strategic consideration of course proposals, but overall we work to support the generative work of all subject areas in the school as they refine their course offerings. After ILT approves a course, then the larger, more broadly representative Academic Council considers it. Generally, AC supports the recommendation of ILT.

Course proposals are extremely well vetted within departments before appearing at ILT for consideration. Our courses belong to departments, not individuals, so that they fit within a subject area scope and sequence, are designed collaboratively by multiple teachers, and can be taught by more than one teacher, creating staffing flexibility. Thorough department consideration of new course design increases the chances of approval by ILT.

5. Provide high quality academic advising

Students need help to understand the design principles underlying the course planning process. Fulfilling graduation requirements early and thinking ahead about goals for one’s course of study are two simple recommendations. Tracking courses that are only offered some years, effective use of independent study, strategic selection of alternates, and making course requests in an appropriate order require further insight. Advisors need a lot of training to do this job well, and ideally the registrar and/or the scheduling team should review all student course selections in order to guide students away from course choices that they are unlikely to get for one reason or another.

6. Use a powerful scheduling system

The process of determining when, where, and by whom classes are taught is a multivariate process, requiring a team of people to track its many components. Quality training is required for how to gather student course requests and teacher preferences in structured formats that can easily be used later, and then schedule courses in a manner that creates the maximum flexibility for circumstances that are difficult to schedule. The use of scheduling software is practically a requirement, as it is unlikely that a manual process can adequately analyze the massive amount of data, select optimal options, and make visible issues that need to be resolved. However, avoid scheduling software that tries to do all of the scheduling for you, as the complexity of the full problem exceeds the capabilities of most software packages. (I do know one school that distributes a job to a 16-computer cluster, and runs the program for three days to produce its schedule.)