A Radical -- and Practical -- Approach to Classroom Allocation and Scheduling

In early 1999, new to the world of academic facilities, I was approached by an associate vice president who asked me to help him locate new homes for some courses that were being displaced because of renovation. Unaware of the situation on our campus relative to quality, quantity, location, seating capacity and “ownership” of classroom facilities, I undertook the task with naïve enthusiasm and on expectation of a simple and easily implemented solution. What I discovered through the next 18 months was that nothing related to academic facilities is simple or easy and that the days of a university facilities planner/manager are filled with challenges resulting not only from the physical properties and characteristics of academic space but also from the political, territorial and possessive nature of the users of the space.

Our campus is probably typical of most in that facilities tend to be “owned” and scheduled initially by the principal occupant of the building in which the room is located. For example, the majority of business classes are held in the building where the dean and the faculty of the business college have their offices. Although this arrangement is conven- ient for both faculty and students, it leads to tremendous inefficiencies in room use because courses are scheduled in owned rooms, regardless of the course enrollment maximum and the room seating capacity.

With full-time enrolled students (FTES) increasing four to five percent annually and physical expansion constrained by the campus location, we found ourselves faced with the dilemma of accommodating consistent growth without a corresponding increase in facilities. Further compounding the problem were seismic retrofitting, renovation and deferred maintenance catch-up projects that removed classrooms, already in short supply, from circulation. Room assignment and room scheduling procedures became the targets for reassessment and possible revision as a means of accommodating the growth.

Facilities Audit

The first step undertaken was a complete facilities audit. During the previous decade, much remodeling had been done that affected the sizes, uses and classifications of rooms, but the facilities database had not been consistently updated to reflect those changes. As a result, we had no accurate accounting of the number, location, type, capacity or ownership of lecture rooms.

When the audit was complete, we discovered that several lecture rooms had been converted into computer or research labs. We also found that a number of lecture rooms had been misclassified as labs, resulting in their removal from the “schedulable” room pool (generally, labs are available only to the students of the college that equips the lab). Overall, we identified 14 lecture rooms that had not been identified as such and 16 rooms that were listed as lecture facilities but, in fact, were not, resulting in a net gain of 249 seats.

Assessing the Scheduling Process

The next step was assessing the effectiveness of the scheduling process itself. Five years of enrollment history were analyzed, segregating the fall semesters from the spring semesters (enrollment patterns and course offerings are different). One of the enrollment measures was a first demand count that reflected the specific course sections into which students initially tried to enroll. A second measure was the section enrollment maximum, which was specified by the individual departments. The actual enrollment figure was as of census date, usually four weeks after the first day of class.

The initial analysis showed large differences between the section maximum enrollment and the room capacity. It also revealed that many course sections with high demand were scheduled in rooms with seating capacities much below what they should have been in order to accommodate the demand. We further identified departments that were setting artificially high maximum enrollments in order to reserve time in the favored large rooms.

After student course demand was identified, each of the departments was approached and asked if they could (and would) legitimately increase their enrollment maximums if they had access to larger rooms. With the exception of the departments responsible for remedial instruction, most of the others indicated a willingness to increase enrollment maximums.

In order to facilitate more specific assignments, it was necessary to remove control of the large room (60+ seats) scheduling from the individual colleges and to provide it centrally so that all who had the need also had the access to what was available. The proposal to “repossess” lecture rooms or reclassify them as belonging to the university community rather than to an individual college met with tremendous resistance, particularly from those who had had almost exclusive use of the large rooms.

By assigning time slots in the large rooms based (in order) on student demand, availability of faculty willing to teach large sections and proximity to the home school, we were able to provide slots to all the departments who wanted them. Furthermore, we were able to increase efficiency in those rooms during the prime times (MWF 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., TR 8:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.) from 65.7 percent to 85.2 percent (efficiency was measured as a percentage of the available seats occupied).

Assessing Small Room Allocation

The final step was assessing the allocation of the smaller rooms (fewer than 60 seats per room). Our university, like many, had undergone substantial changes in program demand. Some majors that were popular in previous years had suffered declining enrollments; others had experienced double-digit growth. However, neither office nor instructional space had ever been reallocated based on increased or reduced need.

The second analysis of the enrollment data provided guidelines as to how many lecture rooms of which sizes were needed by the individual schools in order to accommodate the courses they offered. (It was at this time we discovered that we had a shortage of rooms in the 35-seat to 49-seat range and a surplus of rooms with seating capacities of 70 to 99.) Again, the resistance to the repossession and reallocation of rooms based on need instead of historical ownership or location was immense.

The rooms were reassigned to the colleges based (in order) on

- number of course sections of specific sizes,

- proximity to specialized equipment or supplies,

- needs of disabled instructors and

- proximity to the home building.

Studying Scheduling and Foot Traffic Patterns

To fine-tune the reassignments, student scheduling and foot traffic patterns were studied. We discovered that most students tend to schedule a maximum of two classes back-to-back (with breaks of 50 minutes or more between the other classes). Since our campus occupies a fairly small footprint, the majority of the instructional buildings are located a matter of minutes from each other, with the two most distant facilities separated by approximately 15 minutes of walking time. The most heavily used buildings surround a central quad and are only five to seven walking minutes from each other. Use of specific rooms for specific classes seemed to be a function more of instructor preference and habit than of the students’ unwillingness to walk from one building to another (a common assertion from a number of departments was that students were unwilling to take classes if they were scheduled in other than the department’s home building).

The smaller room reallocation shifted some student traffic from overused buildings in the south and center of the campus to less-well-used buildings on the north side, reduced the number of rooms controlled by less-demanded majors and increased the number of rooms available to the departments with growing enrollments. It also increased overall efficiency from 46.6 percent to 61.6 percent, still below our goal of 66 percent, but a substantial improvement, nonetheless. If converted to monetary terms, approximately $675,000 per year that might have been spent leasing additional instructional space could now be used otherwise as a result of scheduling existing facilities more efficiently.

In the short term, we will be monitoring these changes closely and making revisions where necessary. Through the next two years, we hope to develop and implement a room scheduling expert system, which will analyze course enrollment data to predict demand, make room recommendations to the schedulers and provide a Web-based interface to the users of the scheduling system. We also expect the new system to assist us with long-term planning for new instructional facilities in terms of number and sizes of classrooms.

Pat Ames is director of Academic Facilities in the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs at California State University- Fullerton. She can be reached at .

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