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Maximizing classroom space

Boosting the classroom occupancy rate is one way some universities are dealing with increasing student populations.

by Daniel Drolet

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Illustrations by Ben Weeks.

About a decade ago, before the double cohort of high school graduates hit Ontario’s postsecondary education system, Carleton University took a look around and wondered where they were going to put all the extra students. One potential solution stood out: boost the classroom occupancy rate. Back then, a study pegged Carleton’s rate at 46 percent – meaning the classrooms were in use less than half the time during university hours, well below the 70 percent that is generally considered to be best practice in the field.

Last fall, thanks to years of concerted effort that included new scheduling software, a new scheduling policy and a considerable amount of attention paid to faculty buy-in, the classroom occupancy rate at Carleton reached 91 percent.

“Over the last 10 years we have added 57 percent more students, but only 27 percent more classrooms,” says Duncan Watt, Carleton’s vice-president, finance and administration, and one of the people responsible for implementing the change. He estimates the university would have had to build one full extra building to accommodate the extra students if it hadn’t embarked on the drive to use classroom space more efficiently.

University and college classrooms are rarely used as much as they could be. Some time slots, for example, have always been more popular than others. “Judging from the conversations I have had with colleagues at Canadian and American universities, we have the same challenges of the 10-to-2 syndrome,” says Cheryl Sedgewick, the University of Saskatchewan’s manager of room scheduling. “At 3:30 on a Friday afternoon you could shoot a cannon in most universities and it wouldn’t be a problem.”

The reason is that most scheduling systems are based on faculty preference. That’s not an efficient way to manage space, suggests Carleton’s Nicholas Rowe, an associate professor of economics (and popular blogger at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative). It’s always costly to let classrooms sit empty, but it was the arrival of the double cohort that brought the timetable problem into focus for Carleton.

One of Dr. Rowe’s jobs at the time was to make sure that students who wanted seats in classrooms found them. It was, he recalls, very difficult, because even if the department and professor were willing to add more students to a class, they often couldn’t find a classroom available in their preferred time slot. Yet when Dr. Rowe went looking for space, he found a lot of empty classrooms at other times.

Carleton’s VP finance, Mr. Watt, says the first thing the university did when it decided to make a concerted effort to boost occupancy rates was buy class timetabling software from Infosilem, a Montreal-area company that dubs itself “The Scheduling People.”  The initial cost was about $400,000, plus set-up.

To optimize the software, the university made a radical move: it changed the length of its class periods. Previously, class periods were 60 minutes long on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and 90 minutes long on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now, while class periods vary in length from one to three hours, start times are coordinated to allow more flexibility and choice for the students. It was easier to make timetabling changes in faculties with few electives, says Mr. Watt, but harder when students had more choice.

Another piece of the puzzle involved filling unpopular timeslots. To make sure the change would be accepted, Carleton did two things. First, it created a scheduling policy that shifted the emphasis of timetabling from faculty preference to student need. And secondly, it struck a committee to let faculty voice their concerns and to get faculty buy-in.

“The big thing is to change the culture,” says Dr. Rowe. “Professors, especially the senior professors, used to be able to lean on the department to get their way. It wasn’t that they were being totally selfish. It’s just that they didn’t see what problems their preferences were creating for someone else.”

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Katherine Graham is a professor of public policy and administration at Carleton who served as dean of the faculty of public affairs from 2003 to 2009. In that role, she co-chaired the steering committee on coordinated timetabling. Creating a timetabling policy was, she says, a critical part of the process. A committee met twice a month to develop policies about the length of the teaching day, permissible teaching loads and how scheduling would accommodate teaching preferences.

The result was a tiered preference system for faculty. At the top tier were things that had to be accommodated, such as disabilities or childcare responsibilities. The next tier included things like research, where every effort would be made to accommodate individual preferences. The bottom tier was individual preference, which would be accommodated only if possible.

Professor Graham says that in some cases, professors had to accept that their timetables might have to change because their circumstances had changed. For example, 20 years ago certain professors might have been given teaching hours that respected their childcare responsibilities and allowed them to be done by, say, 4 p.m. Out of simple inertia, their hours hadn’t changed even after their children grew up. Those professors, she explains, had to accept that their teaching hours should reflect their evolved circumstances.

The existence of the committee, and its willingness to consult widely, were key to its eventual success, according to Professor Graham. “My co-chair and I spent a lot of time going around to faculty and meeting with anyone who wanted to talk about coordinated timetabling. We took a few hits, but generally it was an important thing to do. And it did inform us of faculty’s perceptions of what was going on.”

A number of factors are driving a desire to change class scheduling at universities in Canada today. These include:

  • increasing enrolments;
  • limited budgets, thus a desire for efficiency;
  • changing pedagogical methods, thus a need for different kinds of classrooms; and
  • new technologies, thus a need for classrooms with certain attributes.

“If you don’t use your space optimally,” says David Collins, vice-provost, academic planning and programs, at the University of Manitoba, “you are faced with significant costs for building new space.”

Besides the desire for cost efficiency, changing norms in pedagogy are also leading his university to explore options for classroom rescheduling. “The days of large lecture deliveries have changed,” says Dr. Collins, adding that the university now needs a larger number of smaller spaces and classrooms with technological capabilities.

“We, and many universities in Canada, are being slow to get on the bandwagon and incorporate technology in scheduling,” he admits. “It’s not an insignificant amount of money that’s involved, but it’s something we should invest in.”

As Carleton’s experience showed, it’s not easy to change established behaviour.

“In almost all universities, once the timetable is developed, it’s basically just rolled over from one year to the next unless a disruptive force come along,” says David Graham, provost and vice-president, academic affairs, at Concordia University. Moreover, at many universities, each unit, department, school or faculty schedules its own classes – making it difficult to accomplish significant change.

And even appropriate software can’t resolve every situation. The University of Saskatchewan, for example, uses a program called Schedule 25, says Ms. Sedgewick, the room scheduling manager. But since two-thirds of the classes have pre-assigned rooms, the software can’t make optimum use of the space on campus.

Ms. Sedgewick has been responsible for scheduling at the university for a long time – long enough to recall how things were done before computers. She is, in fact, a bit nostalgic for the old days. “It was great!” she says. “Back in the day, we had far fewer special events on campus and the scheduling could easily be handled by one person. We used to have these big drafting boards, and you could just see at a glance how your space was used in different time slots.

“We used to do it with paper and pencil. It took time, but the person doing the schedule – me – had a very good understanding of how space was being used. When changes were necessary, you could tell where you were going to find your answers because you had worked on it.

“I don’t think it took any more time to do it manually, because when you use a computer program, all the data you enter has to be 100-percent correct before you can run the program.”

Nostalgic or not, with the size of today’s enrolments just about everyone recognizes the need for a computerized scheduling system. But as any university going through the process will discover, there are other things to consider as well. “Not every room is created equal,” notes Ms. Sedgewick. And it’s hard to schedule classes in rooms that don’t meet current needs.

At Carleton, “we had a lot of not-great classrooms and we felt that was probably affecting utilization,” says Anne Richards, the university’s assistant director, space management and capital planning. For example, Carleton had five rooms with up-to-date electronics in 1999. As a result of a concerted investment program, she says, “we now have 106.” A number of classrooms were renovated and furnished with new desks or improved accessibility to make them more desirable.

Configuration and maintenance issues are particularly problematic for older campuses. “We have a good percentage of our buildings that are over 40 years old,” says Karen Menard, associate vice-president, institutional research and analysis, at McMaster University. “Old buildings are square and don’t allow for flexibility. We want to ensure that classroom space is flexible enough to meet the needs of modern pedagogy.”

But there’s also a downside to increased utilization of classroom space: extra wear and tear. “In Ontario we’ve seen our money for deferred maintenance shrink over the past few years,” she says. “How do we find the money to upgrade our classrooms and keep them current?”

In the end, no one-size-fits-all solution exists for scheduling, since a university’s individual situation affects its needs. Concordia, for example, has identified uneven use of time slots as an issue – but with a twist. Because Concordia is an urban university with a high proportion of working students who live off-campus, there is a fairly high demand for courses in late afternoon and evening, and low demand on Mondays and Fridays.

“Wednesday early evening is when we find our facilities are really stretched,” says the provost, Dr. Graham. On the plus side, as a downtown university, it has the option of renting extra space rather than building it, he adds.

A second challenge for Concordia is that over the years, several departments have taken to scheduling courses outside the university’s official time slots. For example, even though a class may officially start on the hour, some departments schedule classes that start on the half-hour. When that happens, the computer software registers a two-hour class as a three-hour one, because it’s effectively taking up three hours of scheduling time.

For now, Concordia is taking a “soft approach” to change, says Dr. Graham. It started by making faculty aware of the difficulties created by non-standard class times.

A committee has been formed to make recommendations for what are likely to be mandatory measures. In managing the process, Concordia “is trying to take a leaf out of Carleton’s book,” he says. “Asking around, we found Carleton has done a good job of handling space management.”

Improving classroom scheduling takes time and perseverance as well as collaboration. “We still have a lot of challenges around scheduling of labs in some faculties,” says Professor Graham at Carleton. But no university should be put off for fear of failure. It’s never going to be easy, she says. “But it can be done.”

Daniel Drolet is an Ottawa-based writer.

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Comments on this Article

@Jeff Cohen: Thank you very much for your comment regarding lecture lengths at Carleton. We have spoken with the university and have updated the article with the following information: "Now, while class periods vary in length from one to three hours, start times are coordinated to allow more flexibility and choice for the students."

Posted by Tara Siebarth, UA web editor, Apr 11, 2012 10:15 AM

I have been a supporter of Carleton's efforts to improve the occupancy of our installed classroom capacity by re-assessment of timetabling priorities. Sometimes this has resulted in demanding and "challenging" schedules for me but I have learned to deal with these.

However, I still find myself teaching in half-empty classrooms, albeit with the right number of seats, and this is due to a high rate of student absenteeism.

I have complete and detailed attendance records for all my classes, going back several years, and can state with confidence, that more than 50% of the students in my courses miss more than 50% of the lectures.

I wonder if, in addition to the constrains already considered for the efficient allocation of classroom space, we could perhaps take a closer look at the factors affecting student attendance. I am sure there are a number of attitudinal, demographic, social, financial, cultural, etc. conditions influencing students' absenteeism.

I firmly believe that knowing and understating these conditions would help me improve our students' learning experience and hope our colleagues in Sociology, Psychology and Education would comment.


Juan Salinas
Dept. of Civil & Env. Eng.
Prof. Emeritus

Posted by Juan Salinas, Apr 5, 2012 8:57 AM

Once you're over 30 (as 99.9% of profs are), you notice big swings in energy in your day. Some times are peak times to teach: other times you feel like you want to crawl into bed and getting in front of a classroom just drags the energy down of the whole class.
Teaching is largely a performance, and forcing profs to perform when they aren't up to it will affect the student experience.

Posted by Mat Joe, Apr 5, 2012 8:21 AM

I think there was a misunderstanding regarding the change of lecture time. In fact the opposite happened, a strong push was made to deliver 2X90min lectures instead of 3X1hr or 1X3hr, this was for pedagogical reasons as well as scheduling. Although we still have many 1X3hr and a few 3X1hr classes at Carleton.

Posted by Jeff Cohen, Apr 4, 2012 3:59 PM

Thanks for this fascinating discussion of a topic about which I have thought and blogged for some time. I, too, have seen the "10-to-2 syndrome," and I agree that both instructors and students must take responsibility. I offered an 8am class last semester, and one student came up after the first lecture to ask where the course material would be made available: she couldn't believe that I actually expected students to attend.

Another common drag on classroom inventory is caused by classes booking "conventional" space for unconventional delivery and then actually using that space for only a couple of weeks of the semester.

I do have some observations about off-peak teaching. Some places that rotate afternoon slots have had success -- a class might meet at 5pm on Monday, but the Wednesday meeting is at 2pm -- sharing the "pain." We have also experimented with 75-minute slots on Monday and Wednesday afternoons: while a MWF class meets from 9-10am, another class meets 4-5:30pm on MW and avoids Friday afternoon. I read recently about an experiment in tuition discounts for enroling in off-peak slots!

We used to rely on morning people and night-owls sorting this out amongst themselves. Clearly, as the article outlines, we all need to be more deliberate and systematic as investing in teaching space is seen as decidedly "unsexy."

Posted by Craig Monk, Apr 4, 2012 3:23 PM

It's not just about professor preferences: students, for various reasons, will often not come to classes scheduled outside of the 10-2 'prime time.' I know of more than one instance when a very popular course was moved from 'prime time' to 8am and the enrollment dropped by more than 50%. Students also have busy schedules and conflicting demands and scheduling issues are not necessarily about "comfortable profs who don't want to change."

Posted by Sandra Hoenle, Apr 2, 2012 4:47 PM

Hi Debbie,

Though not at Carleton, I have been scheduling for about the past 10 years. They most likely moved from two 90 minute lectures per week to three one-hour lectures per week. This would allow for better utilization of rooms on all days of the week.

Posted by Tom Nault, Apr 2, 2012 4:03 PM

I'm not clear on how Carleton was able to change their Tuesday / Thursday course offerings to one hour and still be able to offer the same credit hour for the class. Could you explain the process?

Posted by Debbie Greve, Apr 2, 2012 12:54 PM


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