The Limited Class Conundrum

The Limited Class Conundrum
Heather Pritchett, Assistant Dean, Costume College 2016
Michelle McAvoy, Programming Liaison, Students, Costume College 2016
[Heather] Hi everyone. My name is Heather Pritchett and today we’re going to talk about Limited Classes. I know people are concerned about them and they are a big deal. When I helped with Programming in the past we tried very hard to keep Limited Class placement as transparent and fair as possible. In the last three years we’ve made some changes that we hope have both opened up Limited Classes and made them more fair. Today we’re going to talk about one of the more recent changes, the shift to a lottery-style system for putting students into classes, and I’ve drafted Michelle McAvoy to help me explain the details.
[Michelle] Hello everyone.  I’m Michelle McAvoy, and I originally got involved in the Limited Classes programming three years ago because I was a disgruntled first-year student who didn’t understand why I only got one class–and my last choice at that.  I love working with data, and wanted to make the Limited Class process equitable.
[Heather] Thanks, Michelle! So, first, a little history on what’s been changing. Back in 2013 we rolled out this new thing called Late Registration. Before that, if you didn’t get into a Limited Class during the summer registration period you were done. You would have no other opportunities to take a Limited Class. The policy, at that time, was that we tried really hard to give you at least one of the classes you were asking for (you only got to pick four choices back then too). Late Registration really opened up opportunities for people to take more Limited Classes, and it was great for the teachers, because it put more student in classes, but it had a few downsides.
[Michelle] One of the downsides of making sure everyone got into at least one class was that if a student put down just one choice, they automatically got that one class–no matter what their priority number was.  This penalized the other students, who were working with the system, and putting down four choices.  If you’re only interested in one class, then you should only list one class–but that shouldn’t change anyone else’s chances of getting that class.  Here’s an example:
Imagine we are all going out for ice cream.  We all LOVE chocolate chunk. We totally want chocolate chunk.  We would kill someone for that chocolate chunk.  You, though, say, “If I can’t have chocolate chunk, I’m not having anything.”  I say, “I want chocolate chunk, but if I can’t have it, I’ll go for the vanilla dipped in chocolate, instead.”
I get to the counter, and I get the last scoop of chocolate chunk.  You get to the counter, and they’re out.  We don’t say–“Hey, Michelle–since you’d settle for vanilla, you give your chocolate chunk to Heather.”  Just because I’m willing to accept vanilla shouldn’t mean you get to take cuts and get that last scoop of chocolate chunk.  Just because I’m willing to have vanilla, it shouldn’t mean I never get chocolate chunk.
[Heather] I love that example. So back to the history lesson… Two years ago we moved to an online registration process for Limited Classes. This was also wildly successful, but we found it introduced similar problems that we had had with paper registration — everyone stressed out over getting their forms in. We needed a better solution. We had talked about the lottery for a few years — the move to an online form made implementing it much easier — but there were concerns. At the end of the day, I think we all agreed this was more equitable — no more stressing about when you got your form in.
However, the old “try to give everyone one class” still threw a monkey-wrench in things. To really make this impartial and to give everyone the same chance at chocolate chunk — that had to go. And, because we were giving students up to 10 choices AND Late Registration, we felt there was no longer a need to make sure everyone still got one class.
[Michelle] This year, when we sent out the class information, we explained how the new process would work.  We also explained that we were trying to give everyone their highest priority choice as their First Class.  If the class filled up before your turn to be scheduled, you would step aside while we continued to try to place other students into their first choice as their First Class.  When we got to the end of the line, we would go back to the front and take everyone who was not yet in a First Class and see if we could schedule them into their second choice as their First Class.  And so on, until everyone was in a First Class, or until they couldn’t be placed in any classes because all of their choices filled up before it was their turn to be scheduled.
This year, there were four students who wanted chocolate chunk or nothing, and the chocolate chunk ran out before they got to the counter.  We had one student who selected several choices, but chose all of the classes that everyone else wanted, too, and had the misfortune of being near the end of the line for the first round, so the classes were full before they could be placed.
[Heather] Let’s walk through an example that I hope better explain how the process actually works. I will use myself as a guinea pig. This year I picked four classes that I was interested in. There were actually more, but several were during tea or overlapping, and I tried to avoid a lot of that. Here were my four final choices, in order.
  1. Construction Techniques of Corsets
  2. Tips and Tricks Hands On
  3. Make a Worbla Tiara
  4. Rick Rack
At the time, I knew there was some overlap between the Rick Rack class and the Construction Techniques class, but I felt the first one would be very popular, so it seemed reasonable that I might get the Rick Rack class if I didn’t get that one. So please walk me through how the first round went for me.
[Michelle] First, let me explain about priority numbers. The priority number is your place in line to be scheduled for the class.  One of the concerns we had with a lottery was–what if you were at the end of the line?  Sure, someone has to be at the end of the line, but was there any way to take turns at the back?  We discussed it, and decided that we would assign new priority numbers for each round, so that after we had scheduled everyone we could into a First Class, we would jumble up the priority numbers and work on scheduling everyone we could into a Second Class.  And do it again for a Third Class.  That way, for each round, you would have another chance to be at the front of the line.
For the First Class round, your #1 choice was The Construction Techniques of Corsets.  That class had 25 seats available (which is a lot of seats for a Limited Attendance class).  There were 17 students who had that class as their #1 choice, so they all were able to be scheduled into it as their First Class.
[Heather] Wow. So it didn’t fill up on the first round? Which means everyone who asked for it as their first choice got it? I guess that means you repeated the lottery process for everyone who listed it as their second choice?
[Michelle] Not yet.  Before we look at anyone’s second choice, we keep trying to place all of the students into their first choice for their First Class.  After we reach the end of the line (and everyone is either in their first choice, or their first choice class was full before they could be placed), we go back through the line, in priority order, and see if there is room in their second choice class.  If there is, we schedule them into their second choice as their First Class.  If their second choice class is already full, we keep going through the line to try to place the other students who don’t yet have a First Class into their second choice.  When we reach the end of the line, we see if their third choice has any seats available, and so on.
[Heather] Oh, this makes much more sense. I’m so glad we make sure everyone has one class before we move to the next round. Also, thanks for clearing up how the priority numbers work. That’s really where the lottery aspect comes into play. In my head I was imagining randomly dropping people into classes, but what we’re really doing is randomly ordering them to decide who gets into which class first. The end result is about the same, but this method ensures as many people as possible get into their First Class before we re-randomize things.
So back to the example. Looking at my final classes,  I know I got my first choice (AWESOME!) but I also got my second choice, which surprised me. How lucky was I in the second round?
[Michelle] For the Second Class, we shuffled the priority numbers.  For the first round, you had a lucky draw of #39.  For the second round, you were further back, with #175 (which was towards the middle of the line–we had around 400 students who turned in requests for Limited Attendance classes.)
Your second choice was Tips and Tricks Hands On.  This class has 15 seats.  We had 5 students who listed it as their #1 choice.  We had 10 students who listed it as their #2 choice.  We had 25 students who listed it as their #3 through #10 choice.  That means the 5 students who had it as #1 and the 10 students who had it as #2 all got this class.  Then the class was full, so the students who had it as #3 through #10 were not able to be scheduled into a seat.
[Heather] Wow! Lucky me! What about the third round. I didn’t get into the Worbla Tiara class. Did I even stand a chance or was it full by then? What if I had swapped my #2 and #3 choices? Would that have impacted anything?
[Michelle] You’re cracking me up!  It’s a good thing I love to work with data, and can use the magic of Excel and Pivot Tables to pull this information up for you.  Hold on a second…go get a refill or something…
OK.  Next round, for a Third Class.  We shuffled the priority numbers around, and you are near the end of the line with #380.  Worbla Tiara had ten seats.  There were four seats filled by “first choice”, four seats filled by “second choice”, leaving two seats at the start of this Third Class round.  There were eight students who had it as “third choice”, and you were at the back of the line, so no Worbla for you.
If you had swapped your #2 and #3, you would have been in Worbla Tiara instead of Tips and Tricks.
[Heather] So my fourth choice would have been automatically invalidated, since it has an overlapping time with my first choice, which I got. But, let’s be hypothetical. I almost put down How to Make a Waterfall Bustle or The Boned Seams of Bodices. Would I have gotten either of those?
[Michelle] Those were among the most in-demand classes!  The Waterfall Bustle class had a only 8 seats and a whopping 81 students wanted this class (23 of them had it as choice #1).  You were near the front of the line in Round One (First Class), and your priority #39 would have just squeaked you into a seat if you had put this as your #1 choice.
The Boned Seams of Bodices was almost as in demand (with 10 seats), and it had 21 students having it as their #1 choice.  Again, because of your Round One (First Class) priority number, you would have just made it into one of those seats.
You can see how being closer to the front of the line makes it more likely you’ll be able to be scheduled into your #1 or #2 choice.  If you had been #380 in the first round, and if you had chosen the most popular classes, they would have been filled before it was your turn to be scheduled.
You can also see why we shuffle the priority numbers before each round–imagine being stuck with #380 for every round.
[Heather] Wow! So if you suspect a class is super popular, you should definitely list it first and hope for a high priority number. I guess it also helps to put down any class you’re interested in, even if they’re in conflict, since you might not get your first choice.
[Michelle] That’s right.  We do our best to make sure we don’t schedule you into overlapping classes, so you can put down everything you are interested in and not worry about being double booked.  If you are a teacher as well as a student, we even look at the times of the classes you are teaching so we can avoid double booking you.
Another new thing this year was letting the students tell us the maximum number of classes they wanted–that way, they could say, “I am interested in all of these classes, and I don’t want to be overscheduled, so at most, I want three of them.”
Speaking of how many classes people are scheduled into, the typical student is able to be scheduled into one, two, or three classes.  We made sure to say that when we sent out the class information, to remind students of what to expect.  Sadly, some students thought, “Ten choices?!  I’m going to get into TEN CLASSES!!!” and a few of them sent us emails expressing their anger at being scheduled into “only” three classes when they had given ten choices.  I wish I could think of a better way to help students understand that there simply aren’t enough seats for everyone to get into all of their choices, and that they will most likely be in one to three classes.
If you aren’t tired of numbers yet, this year, 88% of the students were scheduled into between one and three classes.  (The breakdown this year was 28% of students had one class, 37% had two classes, 24% had three classes, 11% had four classes, and an amazing two students each had five and six classes–which they managed by selecting classes that were less in demand by the other students.)
One last statistic–more than three-quarters of the students were able to be scheduled into their #1 choice class.
[Heather] That’s really amazing! Thanks for sharing that, Michelle! And thank you so much for all your hard work! Just so everyone knows, this is Michelle’s last year helping out with programming, so if any part of this article is really intriguing to you and you want to get hands down and dirty with spreadsheets next year, please drop me a line at I hope this helped give everyone a better understanding of how Limited Class registration works and why we got rid of that one class guarantee rule. At the end of the day, it’s still frustrating to not get the class you wanted and I understand that. But I hope knowing that we try very hard to make it equitable takes some of the sting out of not winning the lottery. Thanks for reading!

5 Comments on “The Limited Class Conundrum

  1. This is my first year at CoCo. When I read about the process for filling the limited classes, I was very impressed. This dialogue helped clarify some of the details. I think it sounds very equitable. Good job!

  2. This was a very clear explanation, amusing and fun. Thank you!

  3. It was my first year too and I got my first choice so I was more than pleased with how it turned out. I liked the lottery system. Just like a real lottery, we all want the big prize but we all don’t get it. But all ticket holders have an equal chance to win it. I think it was more than fair. There were plenty of unlimited classes that were beyond superb so I feel like I WAS the big winner! Thanks for all of your hard work ladies and gents!

  4. This explanation is fantastic and awesome! Each year, it seems, Programming gets more and more difficult. I never appreciated how challenging it could be! Thank you both for sticking with it for so many years!

    • Hi Tracey, I want to give up my class of” Carry it in Cowhide!’ Please let some one else take the class. The paperwork said to contact you here!

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