Timetabling is a complicated and occasionally (or perhaps often!) exasperating task for all timetablers, especially when other expectations are very high! One of these timetable expectations that is often taken for granted and seen as something that “should be simple”, is that each class will be timetabled into a a room that suits the class size, teaching pedagogy and equipment demands.
This article isn’t going to explain why this is more complicated that it an seem (although this is a by product!) but rather specifically look at this expectation and provide 6 methods for improving the rate at which activities are timetabled into the right size room, with the equipment the class requires, in the style that suits the classes desired teaching pedagogy.
As with every article, I welcome your input so if you have any other tips and methods, please add them to the comments field at the bottom of the article to let other know.
1) Timetable Data Collection, Ad-Hoc Bookings And Software Set-up – How Are Teaching Activities Assigned Rooms?
I have touched on this briefly already, but in order to assign the correct room the timetable data collection stage and timetabling team/person must request from every activity the information required in order to timetable an appropriate room. Therefore for each timetable request, class/activity size – i.e. number of students, teaching style – i.e. group teaching, seminar teaching, computer workshop and equipment – i.e. whiteboard, AV, Microphone most be requested (as well as other factors that enable the right time/day to be assigned)
The information the timetabling team/person asks for must match what is actually available at the institution, therefore all rooms must have the correct capacity, room type and equipment set-up and updated regularly on the timetabling software. This will ensure that the timetable team/person can use the information collected via the timetable data collection stage to quickly assign rooms that match the requested requirements, ensuring that as long as the information is correct (see following points!) the most suitable room can by timetabled for each activity.
2) Timetable Data Collection – Room Requests and Suggested Days/Times
Every timetable will (hopefully) go through a timetable data collection stage, which is the critical stage for ensuring the timetable team/person has all the information they require to create a timetable that reflects the staff, students and space demands for each teaching activity that must take place. Some useful questions to ask yourself in relation to the timetable expectations mentioned are, “is the the timetable data collection process collecting the information the timetabling team/person requires?” and “are staff providing the information the timetabling team/person requires when making requests?”
At first thoughts, you may automatically think yes – due to the timetable having been produced each year, so far without fail! However, when you release the timetable is it perfect? Or are there changes that have to be made, sometimes 20, 30,40 or even a 100 requests a day leading up to the start of the academic year? If so, then there is always may be room for improvement!
To ensure that classes are timetabled into the right room, your timetabling team/person needs to know each teaching activities predicted student numbers, teaching pedagogy and equipment requirements. Therefore, I recommended that this is exactly what is asked for i.e don’t enable staff to request specific rooms or specific times. Removing the ability to request a specific room, will encourage staff to provide accurate information on the size and type of room they require, with the equipment they need. It also creates much more freedom for the timetabling team/person as they can find a suitable room, that they know matches the teaching activities requirements.
The ability for a timetabling team/person to grant specific room requests for all requested activities is typically impossible as more requests are received than available timeslots. When this happens another room is typically assigned, that matches the core criteria – however if the person requesting the room has presumed that they will get the space they requested, they are much less likely to have filled the core criteria out correctly therefore the room they have been allocated may well be unknowingly unsuitable. This then typically results in requests to change the room once the timetable has been produced or even worse once teaching has begun, with overcrowding occurring or unsuitable teaching rooms having been assigned to teaching activities, impacting on the timetable and the student experience.
I also recommend removing set days and times from the timetable data collection, as this will give the timetabling team/person even more freedom to find a suitable room that matches the requested teaching activities size, teaching pedagogy and equipment requirements. Removing this option for requesting days/times is important as if two activities have requested the use of a certain type of space at the same time, of which there is only one suitable space available, one of these activities will have to be moved to another day/time – if so, what day/time?, or another room will have to be assigned – if so, what room? Other aspects should also be considered when considering a change from requested days/times and it would be worth checking out this previous article for further information.
3) Timetable Data Collection – Keep It Simple!
I don’t think I have met a single person who says they really enjoy providing timetable data collection information, it’s usually a job that is completed once each year at a specific point in the year and due to its seasonality sits on top of all the other day to day expectations that the department administrative/academic staff already have. Therefore it must be accessible online, work, be user friendly and not require unnecessary information.
Strip it down to its basics and configure the form to work so the person completing it doesn’t need any timetabling knowledge or a separate manual to complete it. The aim with point 4) is that they will have some knowledge, but by doing this you are ensuring that the technical jargon is removed and the form is laid out in a sensible and methodical fashion. Ensure the language matches that of the people completing the form, for instance using the term “capacity” for an activity (I have done this!) can leave a person thinking – does this mean room capacity or student class size? – If the person decides room capacity, they may decide they want a larger room than their student class size. Therefore “Number of students” or “Class size” would be more appropriate.
Ensure the timetable data collection form structure is natural to use, i.e all the teaching room requirement questions are on the same page. Are there fields you require/don’t require? Make sure your audience can easily see this – i.e. a *, next to those that are required as well as ensuring forms aren’t submitted without these fields having been completed. If following the advice of point 2), then try to ensure the form is set-up to ensure that staff can’t request impossible combinations. For example, if there is only one group teaching room with a capacity of 40, a request for a group teaching room for a class size of 50 is going to end up in a room being assigned that doesn’t match the requesters expectations. Therefore it is better to remove the potential for this request from the timetable data collection form.
It is also very important that the form is accessible wherever a person maybe, from any device. Therefore test it off campus, on PC/MAC/Android/Tablet devices and make sure it still works s desired and is easy to use. If the timetabling team/person needs timetable information and the person who they need it from can’t complete it from where they spend most of their time, on the device that mostly use – the chances are, that the data accuracy may be jeopardised.
4) Timetable Requirements – Communication and Understanding
Understanding of what is needed and why throughout the timetable process shouldn’t just be held by the timetabling team/person, all staff that request timetable activities must understand what is expected from them and why. Without this shared understanding, the timetabling team/person will receive requests that they will have to presume matches up with the actual requirements when in reality – i.e. once the timetable has been released or teaching starts – teaching activities have unknowingly been timetabled into inappropriate rooms due to data inaccuracy.
Communication of expectations and their importance is therefore critical to improving timetable data accuracy and the rate at which the activities are matched against suitable teaching rooms. Throughout the year, talking about this process, what is required and why, with department/college/school administrative and key academic staff (who are willing to disseminate this information to the other academic staff) will help to ensure everyone begins to understand and takes responsibility for their timetable requests. This isn’t to say that communication will result in a 100% success rate as there will still be mistakes made, however as the timetabling team/person has already made this effort to resolve this issue and communication channels have formed, when these problems arise both parties can work together quickly to resolve for the current and future years. Shared responsibility over the timetable goes a long way to create a timetable that meets the teaching activity requirements. For further info on timetable communication check out this previous article.
5) Timetable Class Size vs Room Size Check
I recommend that throughout the timetabling process class size checks are made for all timetabled activities, as this will help to ensure that the room size reflects the class size and overcrowding or underutilisation doesn’t occur. An automated system would be very beneficial, however if this isn’t possible then a check of activities at three critical stages would certainly help, once when the timetable data collection stage has been completed (before the timetable has begun to be created), again once the timetable has been produced and finally once clearing has been completed.
Without an automated system, a person or persons should also be responsible for monitoring movement between modules and their activities especially just before and during the first few weeks of teaching as this is when a lot of movement between modules occurs and therefore there is the highest potential for overcrowding. This ongoing class size check can then highlight overcrowding issues and enable the timetable team/person to negotiate room changes where needed to prevent overcrowding.
Having the students in the timetable software and linked to enrolment will help with this class size vs room size check and can be set-up to highlight movement, however be sure to investigate if there are limitations to this set-up. For example, is there a delay between students confirming they are changing modules and this being processed? Are students able to go to another modules timetabled activities without having changed their module selection with enrolment?, these will delay the timetabling team/person knowing about the issue and potentially enable overcrowding to occur in the mean time.
I highly recommend this option, as it can significantly increase the number of timeslots each teaching room is available therefore enabling more classes to be assigned to the types of rooms they have requested. A teaching room utilisation survey of all teaching rooms over a period of at least a week will provide a data set that can then be compared against the timetabled activities for that week. All differences, can then be highlighted and discussed with the responsible persons removing booking inaccuracies from the timetable. I have touched on this in a previous article in further detail that is definitely worth a look, however the bottom line is that this can release 100’s of hours worth of teaching space back into the timetable, without reducing the number of teaching activities taking place or increasing the amount of teaching space!
This increased availability will help to ensure the timetable team/person can timetable a much higher percentage of the requested activities into rooms that match all the teaching room requirements, ensuring those requesting teaching rooms get what the type of room they have requested. This helps to build confidence in the system and the timetabling team as well as providing the learning and student experience benefits that having classes in the right type and size teaching spaces brings.
These 6 methods not only show that matching the right rooms to the right class is a lot more complicated than it seems! But also hopefully provide some useful advice on how to improve the rate at which timetabled activities are assigned to rooms that match the teaching requirements. If you have any other methods, tips or suggestions please let others know by adding them to the comments field at the bottom of the article.
All the best