For various reasons, I’ve found myself this semester talking with colleagues about the migration of students through our curriculum: the courses where they busily cluster, the lonely cobwebbed courses, the majors and courses that follow regular oscillating cycles of interest. We’ve been trying to figure out which classes are interchangeable and which are not from a student perspective, about what our students see when they look at the curriculum.
I don’t think that any of us really know what kinds of decision rules students are consciously and unconsciously employing. Each department and each individual faculty or staff member has his or her own folkloric narrative that explains some or all of the patterns in enrollment. Sometimes that’s based on a smidgen of hard data: real enrollment numbers over a five or ten-year period, some kind of assessment data or evaluation from students, frank conversations with a handful of perceptive students. Some faculty and staff work in contexts where they get more insight into these questions, and others (such as the education faculty) have special expertise that’s relevant for thinking about the problem. But I honestly don’t think anyone has a really systematic handle on the issue at any scale, whether it’s guessing about the total movement of students across the entire curriculum or about their presence or lack of presence in any individual class.
There are reasons why it’s a hard problem to investigate. It’s not uncommon for faculty to misperceive (in either direction) their own enrollments in relationship to the overall distributions, even when they have good data to consult. In part, that’s because the workload involved in teaching doesn’t necessarily scale to the number of students nor is it the same across departments or even between any two individual faculty members. And at least one of the reasons why students flock to some classes and avoid others has to do with their perceptions (and perhaps sometimes misperceptions) of faculty quality and that is a subject that’s nearly impossible to talk about openly in any official context without quickly descending into cruelty and recriminations.
But there’s also no way to completely avoid trying to figure out some of what’s going on. If students are pounding down the doors of a single professor’s courses but not of department colleagues or faculty teaching similar subjects, it might be safe to mark that off as a case of pedagogical charisma, which has no further institutional implications (save that you want to figure out how it’s done and build some of that into a vision of best practices). If an entire program is getting hammered by enrollments, or a single course is constantly over-enrolled regardless of who teaches it, then it’s imperative to figure out why that is. On the flip side, if a course or program is in relative terms under-enrolled (not because of a requirement of small class sizes), it’s important to figure out if that’s because there is a consistent movement of students away from the subject matter, because the course or program is doing a poor job of labelling or framing the subject matter, or because of student antipathy to a particular faculty member. In all of those cases, there are big implications for long-term planning–and big risks to just accepting whatever explanatory mythology comes most readily to mind. When all of that information is put into the structures of a real curriculum with all of its moving parts, the possible explanations for enrollment patterns quickly multiply into near-incomprehensibility. General education requirements and major requirements, various subtle and gross devices that departments and divisions put into place in order to manage, route, repel or capture enrollments (and all their unintended effects), leave cycles and temporary faculty, new courses that are poorly promoted and old courses that are abruptly cancelled, and so on, all exert serious influence over what students take and avoid.
I accept, therefore, that there’s going to be a pretty hard limit to any model that accounts for (and tries to predict) student interest in courses and majors over a five or ten-year period. But what I’d love to be able to do is speak with a bit more confidence, based on a robust mix of qualitative and quantitative data (especially quantitative data that tracks the most common patterns of total enrollment over four years, rather than data about isolated courses or departments), about the relative weight of the following factors:
1) What students (and their parents) believe about the match between particular subjects or disciplines and particular careers or the likely job market at the time of graduation.
2) What students believe the content of particular disciplines or courses is before they begin their studies and how those beliefs change over four years of study.
3) How much of a role the titles, descriptions and “marketing” of particular courses plays in the decision to sign up for a course.
4) How much students are driven by strategies that respond to “traffic management” within the curriculum (trying to secure places in desirable mid-level courses by pursuing entry to an undesirable entry-level required course, for example). Equally, how often curricular barriers such as requirements prevent students from taking courses that they believe they would like to take.
5) How often students believe their enrollment decisions to be driven by a strong attraction to a particular topic, idea, methodology, discipline that they have developed after beginning their studies at the college. (Especially when this represents a change from the initial perceptions relevant to 1 and 2.)
6) How often reputation of individual faculty members (quality, difficulty of grading, etc.) plays a major role in the decision to enroll.
7) What courses students consider to be interchangeable. (E.g., if a student is lotteried out of a course, what courses will they regard as reasonable substitutions and why?)
Having at least an approximate model covering these factors isn’t just for planning. It’s also required for persuading students that the vision of liberal arts on offer to them in a curriculum is one that they should accept and embrace. If we don’t know how our students see the curriculum, we can’t really talk with them about what we believe they should be seeing, let alone what they might consider choosing. And this swings both ways, potentially: we might find out that what we think the curriculum contains or says is palpably not what students experience in their actual coursework, or that students are seeking a plausibly and wholly legitimate different curriculum that’s still completely commensurable with the spirit of the liberal arts, and it’s the faculty that should be persuaded to nudge or move the emphasis of their teaching in some new directions.