Executive Summary of Instructional Space Task Force Report

Town Hall Meeting on Instructional Space

In May 2011, Provost Rodney Erickson charged the members of the Instructional Space Task Force to “develop and communicate a shared set of norms and expectations for scheduling classes” at Penn State. These norms and expectations should “serve students, meet the needs of faculty, and make effective use of our classroom facilities.”

The Task Force members have spent the past year gathering data on course and instructional space scheduling through a variety of means including town hall meetings, meetings with constituent groups of students, and meetings with staff, such as the campus registrars. In addition, we hosted a blog where people could share their questions, thoughts and experiences related to our current approach to scheduling in instructional spaces throughout Penn State. Through this process we learned that while scheduling works pretty well, there is a great deal of frustration at all levels: students find that the classes that they need to schedule are offered competing time slots since scheduling is decentralized, staff with scheduling responsibilities are often frustrated by demands that they cannot meet unless the circumvent procedures, some faculty have little flexibility over when they teach, and curricular innovation is hampered through the course schedule rollover.

From this broad, year-long discussion of the principles, values and priorities that ought to inform Penn State’s course scheduling policies, four priorities emerged namely that Penn State courses should be scheduled in a way that:

  1. Maximizes student success by enabling timely degree completion;
  2. Cultivates innovative pedagogical practices;
  3. Balances faculty teaching schedules with the pursuit of rigorous scholarly research;
  4. Ensures the transparent, fair and efficient use and allocation of space resources across colleges and campuses;

These four priorities reinforce Penn State’s core commitment to being, first and foremost, a research university that is focused on student success. In addition, these priorities are designed to further the values and goals articulated by Penn State’s strategic plan.

In alignment with these four priorities, the Task Force presents four recommendations. These are divided into both short- and long-term recommendations, recognizing that it may not be possible to implement the long-term recommendations until a new scheduling system is in place, which will be part of the new student information system.

Recommendation One: Currently, course scheduling is very decentralized as each academic unit schedules its own courses. While this works well to meet departmental and faculty needs and preferences, it can inadvertently penalize students by scheduling required courses at the same time. The Task Force therefore recommends that certain courses be centrally scheduled to minimize conflicts between these courses. The determination of these centrally scheduled courses would be made by an analysis of recommended academic plans for each major and by discussions with the departments and colleges involved. The long-term goal would be to move to software that can determine the curricular needs of our students in upcoming semesters in order to ensure that students have access to the courses they need to graduate.

Recommendation Two: Courses are now scheduled through the roll-over process, which duplicates the schedule of a previous semester. Department administrators then assign faculty to courses within this schedule. This process restricts the ability to schedule new courses and to engage in pedagogical and curricular innovations, even while it produces some efficiencies. The Task Force recommends that after meeting student needs, scheduling priority should be given to faculty actively engaged in the research and scholarship of pedagogy and who are committed to integrating new practices of teaching that encourage students to be collaborative participants in the educational process. Guidelines to recognize such innovation will need to be established.

Recommendation Three: Current standard scheduling periods require that faculty teach on either a Monday/Wednesday/Friday or a Tuesday/Thursday sequence. In order to meet research demands, many faculty opt to teach on the Tuesday/Thursday cycle, which leads to a bunching of courses on these days. Additionally, many faculty request additional irregularly scheduled course periods on Monday/Wednesday that cause difficulty for students since these classes stretch across two class periods. The Task Force recommends the adoption of additional standard scheduling periods (Appendix 4) that allow for more flexibility in teaching schedules, ensure that courses are more evenly distributed across the days of the week, and enable faculty to balance their teaching and research responsibilities.

Recommendation Four: In order to provide students and faculty with engaging learning environments it is vital that we continue to improve existing classroom spaces and to construct new spaces. The Task Force recommends that we continue to expand and improve our base framework of general purpose classrooms and focus on ensuring that the condition, learning environment, technology and availability of these spaces enhances the educational experiences for our faculty and students. A robust inventory of high quality classrooms will meet the pedagogical needs of our students and faculty and reduce the amount of “gaming” that currently exists in order to secure “good” classrooms. As noted above, the full implementation of these recommendations requires the adoption of a new scheduling system capable of anticipating student course offering needs, of enabling scheduling flexibility and innovation, and of managing complex scheduling periods. In addition, the above four recommendations require changes to current policies and procedures. The Task Force provides specific recommended changes to current policies and procedures that we believe will bring us closer to our four goals and will begin to effect the changes necessary to shift the culture of scheduling and develop new shared norms that place students at the heart of course scheduling (Appendix 5). However, we also recognize that longer term, after a new scheduling system is in place, policies and procedures will need to be created or revised to fully achieve the goals outlined in the ISTF Final Report.

Talking with Students

Over the past few weeks, the Instructional Space Task Force has sought substantive discussions with students on the issue of scheduling.  On March 14th, we met with UPUA and on March 24th, we met with CCSG.  The conversations in both cases were insightful, substantive and wide-ranging.

In order to summarize and facilitate a more general discussion, some of the main points that emerged with regard to our three questions will be highlighted below.

What Works about the Current Process for Course Scheduling

  • The staggered way in which those with more credits have priority
  • The watch list is great
  • Ged Ed classes with a lot of sections and options for times.

Challenges of the Current Process 

  • No way to plan far in advance for courses
  • Lack of communication with regard to changing pre-requisites
  • Better faculty training for how to use technology in the classroom
  • Availability of required courses at UP and on the campuses
  • Different populations of students have different needs regarding the best time to schedule courses (for example, different populations of adult learners have different preferred scheduling times.)
  • Low enrollment often leads to last minute cancellation of courses, which makes adjusting the schedule very difficult since many other classes are full at that time


  1. Ensure time to degree is not impacted by lack of course availability
  2. Maximize efficiency of scheduling: diversify the timing and logic of schedule
  3. Communication with Students
  4. Training for advisors
  5. Match instructional need with space

It would be great to hear from more students in the comments on this post about your experience scheduling courses at Penn State.

Town Hall at Berks

On March 12, 2012, the Berks campus held a town hall meeting on instructional space. There were 12 faculty and 5 staff present.  The student government association was invited to participate, but no students attended the meeting.

They focused on the question of what Penn State’s top priorities for scheduling should be:

  1. Maximize Student Ability to Schedule Courses and Make Progress toward Degree.
  2. Respond to Faculty Responsibilities and Enable Innovative Technologies
  3. Co-Curricular Needs

The discussion seems to have been wide ranging, focusing on the challenges of the calendar itself, the common hour, the pedagogical implications of back to back scheduling of courses and the costs of technology upgrades.

Thanks to Dave Bender for providing the notes on the meeting.

Some questions to consider:

We had a great conversation with UPUA students tonight that left me pondering questions such as:

  • When would be the “ideal” time(s) for us to offer classes? What would happen if we had some classes start at 10 p.m.? And, some start at 8:00 a.m.?
  • How do/should pedagogy, technology, and space intersect with each other?
  • How can we use technology and data to help us effectively plan how we schedule our courses?

I’m sure that there are lots of other questions that we can add so I look forward to others’ contributions.

Town Hall at Brandywine

In late February, 2012, the Brandywine campus held a town hall meeting on instructional space.

They responded to the three questions we have asked at each Town Hall meeting:

  1. What elements of the current model work?
  2. What challenges have you encountered with the current scheduling model?
  3. What should Penn State’s top 5 priorities be?

Brandywine is pleased with the ease of access students have to their recommended academic plans and with the good communication between faculty in the disciplines to avoid scheduling conflicts.  They have a standardized block scheduling system with flexibility for late day and evening times.

They articulated difficulties surrounding the conflict between student and faculty needs. Students need regular block times and they need majors to publish schedules in advance, while faculty have preferences for certain days and times.  Also, there is not enough flexibility for larger blocks of classes.  There also seems to be an issue with the billing date, because students know that if they schedule late, they will be billed later, but this causes a problem with low enrollments for classes, etc.

Here are the priorities they established:

  1. Determine which disciplines prefer which type of schedule (MWF or TR)
  2. Take into account audience for each course/discipline (day vs. evening, traditional vs. adult)
  3. Block classes: consider 8am start with longer class time, consider adjusting the Common Hour (is one a day required?)
  4. Accommodate different teaching styles (longer classes, web courses)
  5. Computer labs are often needed occasionally, not every class; could a rotation process work?

Thoughts and comments are welcome.

Thanks to Joanna McGowan, campus registrar, for providing notes from this meeting.

Town Hall at Beaver Campus

Penn State Beaver held an Instructional Space Town Hall meeting in late February.

They responded to the three questions we have asked at each Town Hall meeting:

  1. What elements of the current model work?
  2. What challenges have you encountered with the current scheduling model?
  3. What should Penn State’s top 5 priorities be?

At Beaver, a campus scheduler coordinates the schedule using “instructional groups” to facilitate the various faculty scheduling needs.  Faculty seem to be very involved in the scheduling process, to the benefit of the entire process.

There remain a lack of computer classrooms and it is difficult for faculty to obtain the classrooms they most need for their teaching.  There are some general issues with scheduling popular courses, like Spanish, in ways that don’t conflict with other courses.

The top scheduling priorities identified at Beaver were:

  1. To ensure that student needs for timely graduation are met
  2. Maximize classroom availability
  3. Athlete schedules
  4. Faculty needs to maximize pedagogical innovation
  5. More flexibility: utilize non-standard times more effectively
  6. Reconsider the “common hour” schedule block

Thanks to Gloria Descheler, for the notes on this town hall meeting.

Town Hall at Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend held Instructional Space Town Hall meetings on February 13 and 16th, with a total of 19 individual in attendance.

They responded to the three questions we have asked at each Town Hall meeting:

  1. What elements of the current model work?
  2. What challenges have you encountered with the current scheduling model?
  3. What should Penn State’s top 5 priorities be?

The four schools at Behrend work very well together and they make very good use of the General Purpose Classrooms (GPC).  The school of Engineering is growing and there are not enough GPCs or labs available to accommodate their growing needs.  More classroom spaces in general, and specifically rooms that hold 50-100 students, are required.

The top priorities indicated at Behrend were as follows:

  1. Student needs, including their ability to make satisfactory academic progress.
  2. Maximize use of instructional facilities
  3. Faculty research needs
  4. More creativity with scheduling part semester courses, first year seminars, etc.

In the general discussion, there was an emphasis on the fact that new hires expect to teach in technology classrooms.  There was also agreement that students should not have to pay extra money to take courses in the summer because there were not enough seats offered during the regular academic year.

Thanks to Mary Ellen Bayuk, College Registrar, for the notes on this town hall meeting.

Town Hall at York

On February 28, 2012, the York campus held a town hall meeting on instructional space.  There were about 20 faculty in attendance, the Chancellor, the Dean for Academic Affairs (DAA), Instructional Design Specialist, someone from DUS, the Director of Student Affairs, the Continuing Education Director and Registrar staff.  The meeting lasted one and a half hours.

They responded to two of the three questions we have asked at each Town Hall meeting:

  1. What elements of the current model work?
  2. What challenges have you encountered with the current scheduling model?

There was general agreement that the current model prioritizes students, which was recognized as a positive.  York does not use the semester rollover, but the schedule is built by the registrar’s office in close consultation with the DAA.  The scheduling needs of students is becoming more complex – graduate courses need to be scheduled, students often don’t follow the recommended sequence through their major, and there are increasing General Education needs that must be taken into consideration.  The existing scheduling system is not flexible enough to handle this complexity.

There was then a general discussion of future possibilities and other questions.  In that discussion, it was suggested that a new scheduling system should be able to more effectively use the weekend to good academic effect.  There was talk of establishing a Weekend College that would tie in with the Hanover public library and YMCA to provide childcare and activities for kids while their parents are taking classes.  There was concern that we take time to find out what students really want, rather than rely on impressions from informal polls faculty have taken in classes.  There was interest in planning more effectively for blended course offerings.

The main priority that emerged was making sure that we are attending to student needs (as opposed to their desires).

Finally, there was significant discussion about why there is a need to maintain a “locked-in” schedule with UP.  The non-traditional students at York might do better with a much different basic scheduling plan.

Thanks to Frank Miller, Registrar at York, for submitting the notes from this meeting.

Town Hall at Wilkes-Barre

On February 21, 2012, the Wilkes-Barre campus held a town hall meeting on instructional space.  There were four students, five faculty members and two staff members present.

They responded to the three questions we have asked at each Town Hall meeting:

  1. What elements of the current model work?
  2. What challenges have you encountered with the current scheduling model?
  3. What should Penn State’s top 5 priorities be?

The issue of advising seems to have been central to the discussion at Wilkes-Barre.  Students there mostly commute, so there are issues of scheduling associated with the need for students to juggle full-time class schedules and part-time job schedules.

Here are the priorities they established:

  1. Make advising more intrusive and more accessible. Students need to realize the importance of advising from day one because if they get out of sequence with course scheduling, this can extend their time in college.
  2. First-Year Seminar – students and faculty strongly support the FYS courses and feel they could address some of the advising issues and keep students on track with their academic progress.
  3. More creative scheduling –more hybrid or blended learning courses.
  4. Technology should be incorporated into every curriculum and used as a supplement for the traditional face-to-face course offerings.
  5. Cost-cutting should NOT be the driving force behind scheduling of classes. Offering a class two times/week as opposed to three times/week should be for pedagogical reasons, not convenience of faculty or finances of the commuter.
  6. We should collaborate with neighboring campuses to allow Wilkes-Barre students to travel to Worthington Scranton and vice versa, to get a needed course. Also, Polycom is a creative technology that can be used more.

Thoughts and comments are welcome.

Thanks to Margie Esopi for submitting the notes from this meeting.

UP Town Hall II

On February 15th, 2012, the Instructional Space Task Force held its second town hall meeting on instructional space. Eighty-three (83) members from across 18 Penn State units attended the event. There were 15 faculty, 56 staff members, 1 student and 11 administrators. It was our largest and most diverse town hall meeting to date.

This meeting, like the others, was framed by a presentation given by Careen Yarnal.  The group broke out into smaller groups of 8-10 for facilitated discussions of the three questions we have honed over the course of the semester:

  1. What elements of our current model of scheduling work?
  2. What challenges have you faced in the past?
  3. What should Penn State’s top 5 scheduling priorities be?

The feedback we received on the first two questions was consistent with our previous town hall meetings, January 31 and  November 1, 2011.  The slight shift in the formulation of the final question, however, generated a very interesting conversation and an insightful list of priorities.

Below is the list we established:

  1. Student needs for classes (not student preference, but student academic need)
  2. Pedagogical needs (more rooms like the Forum!, M and W 75 minute classes) (There was some support for swapping 1 and 2)
  3. Rollover should be more limited. There should be rollover for non-standard times. Labs and studios should be labeled as standard.
  4. Maximize space ( with a new system): flexibility for part semester courses; ghost classes should be prevented; hybrid courses accommodated
  5. Flexibility across/between units
  6. Efficiency standards, distribution of times mandated by the higher administration: times of classes, days of the week, etc.
  7. Non-credit, co-curricular activities (FTCAP, etc.)
  8. Total transparency of space; ability to look at space long term; open bulletin board to swap space
  9. Protecting staff caught between competing interests (faculty, policy, etc)

If you want to learn more about the event, we invite you to watch it in its entirety here:

We invite your thoughts, comments and suggestions in the comments below.