Planning Ahead with Elective Lines
Anticipating Elective Line Problems
Satisfying student choice and staffing needs alone does not necessarily make good lines for all students, or for timetabling. Some other considerations include:
In NSW, it is common to run extension classes offline, meaning out of regular school hours. This timetable structure may influence student choice who may not request them because they have other outside school activities. By placing extension courses online, and ensuring students have adequate additional one unit options to give them enough units, you can change the culture over time, drive student interest in these courses, and better cater to the workload and educational experience of students who do take these courses.
It is usual to think that all students must be able to access extension courses – unlike any other they choose. But if these are run online, providing better learning timeslots, and a small number of students appear to miss out, they still have a choice.
Schools in other states like Victoria very rarely ever run classes ‘outside of school hours’. Be aware you have the power to change legacy practices by trialling this practice.
Check adequate curriculum diversity in lines, with academic and less academic subjects on each line, allowing all types of students a realistic outcome.
Size of lines
Also consider the balance in lines from the aspect of the number of classes on them. A ‘short’ line will mean full classes. This will become a problem for catering for new students, and for students who want to change a subject in that line.
The opposite problem is having a line with too many classes. While this provides great choice of subjects, there are often questions on the future viability of these classes due to the smaller starting numbers. And when this line is scheduled to a grid, it may well be a problem, by requiring a lot more teachers and rooms on these periods.
Students can be given assurances about subject allocations without needing to know the actual lines, or their actual classes until much later on in the process.
Planning to Collapse Courses
Where schools predict students will leave or drop a subject, they may structure elective lines by planning to collapse classes at some point without any real disruption. They do this by choosing to run two classes of the same subject on the same line, and this is administratively efficient.
It is important to identify the opportunity cost of linking two classes of a subject together, as there are alternative ways to collapse classes, even where they run across multiple lines. This is by moving students between these classes using other pathway courses (courses that run on more than one line), or when students are free on a line. Because these options are not always possible, schools prefer the confidence that this planning gives them.
But a change of thinking aided by technology advances opens up new possibilities. Two-year courses in NSW do not need to have the same set of elective lines in Year 12 as Year 11, and there is an emerging trend in schools, using more advanced timetabling software like Edval, to reprocess the Year 12 lines.
By converting the existing class lists into course requests, a new set of elective lines can be generated, due to student movement that has occurred during the year since the lines were originally produced. Creating new, more efficient lines may allow classes to be collapsed, class sizes to be balanced, and new subjects, such as extensions and Senior Science, to be introduced. Try it in your school!
Timetabling the Lines
Schools often look at elective lines as an entirely separate process to timetabling. In many cases, there will be separate people assigned the task of generating lines, which are done in isolation from other areas of the timetable. Lines are generally done in term three, but timetabling of these lines occurs in term four.
And while these elective lines may be satisfying all the students and can be easily staffed individually, when they are showing them the full draft lines. You can eventually get to a point where you can allocate 100 per cent of students to courses, without ever (yet) showing them the specific lines, or giving them final confirmation of allocations.
Even students requesting changes are better managed as elective preferences. Changing in already determined class lists mean that those interviewed first will be advantaged over later ones, as classes fill up. If, instead of sequential class list management, you simply modify all students’ subject preferences, you can let timetabling algorithms generate an educationally preferable solution… in seconds.
Placement of new students via their preferences, despite the fact lines may have already been internally finalised, may show that a marginal subject which did not ‘get up’ originally, may well become viable, but this outcome would not have been possible if they were choosing from publicised lines.
Students can be given assurances about subject allocations without needing to know the actual lines, or their actual classes until much later on in the process. By separating the finalising of lines from the finalising of the elective class list allocations, there are both administrative and educational benefits.
Multi-year Electives / Timetabling Around
It is more common to generate elective lines for each year independently, and then later combine these into a grid. Where some elective courses run over two years and lines are carried forward, a slightly more advanced approach is to generate electives for one year ‘around’ the other. This ensures the staffing is viable, as the (say) new Year 11 lines are generated around the Year 12 lines for next year. This is one way of verifying the new lines will work against the old, and can also alert you to potential problems
An even more complex approach is to generate elective lines for multiple years simultaneously. An example in Victoria is the VCE lines, which may include Years 10, 11 and 12 all in one big elective line group
timetabled later on to a grid it may become apparent there are problems
Best practice is to have the same timetabling team manage the lines as well as the timetable, and (also) to not sign off on lines until they are happy with a 100 per cent complete draft timetable using these lines. It should all be one process, with one team. There is no need to know all the staffing requests for next year in order to do a complete draft timetable. A building is not constructed before proving all the plans work together
– just checking a few (elective) floors is not good enough to ensure everything works well in concert!
If the thought of doing a complete draft timetable before signing off on the lines is daunting, you probably need to upgrade your timetabling software. An advanced system should enable you to generate an entire draft timetable in an hour or less.
Telling the Students
The most common, traditional approach schools adopt, is that once the elective lines have been set, they publicise these and immediately tell students what subjects they got. Next, they proceed to contact students who missed out on courses, asking them to reselect from these publicised lines.
This is really not an effective approach. Best practice is very different, with a focus on telling students which subjects they “may not be able to get”, instead of which subjects they have actually been given. We should not finalise the process without a 100 per cent solution. There is much benefit in delaying advising students their specific subject assignments, otherwise it is again like signing off on partial building plans… without effective oversight of the complete, overall site plan.
Advising students what they have been granted draws a line in the sand – as it is then difficult to change anything later. Lines might be finalised for resource planning, but should be kept from students while the finer details are worked out, to maintain flexibility. Ask students who missed out on subjects to nominate additional preferences, without actually that is processed together. There are some South Australian and Queensland schools which have fixed line blocks running across all years. These schools never change their timetable as the lines have been fixed to periods for many years. What changes are the classes which run in each line. Effectively, they run a ‘whole school’ elective line process.
Some South Australian elective lines are semesterised, such that there may be four separate ‘term’ electives running together with full year electives, but this requires advanced software.
The Cycle of Timetabling
Timetabling is a large and circular business process which needs constant maintenance. Proper elective line management is the start of that process, as outlined below:
- Subject review: what can be offered to students, based on staffing availability and skills, and which ones are wanted to be promoted.
- Subject selection by students.
- Line generation that best suits student choices.
- Line checking for staffing and rooming constraints.
- Construction of draft timetable as proof the lines work overall.
- Signing off of the lines by the Executive
- Finalizing elective class lists.
- Publishing elective allocation results to students.
- Construction of full timetabling