By Kelly Haugh
The Penn State scheduling system is flawed. You’re effectively flying blind, expected to choose the right courses on little more than a wing and a prayer, or in this case a course name and time. Half the courses listed for the Fall don’t even have a professor yet. All you can do is hope that the math class you picked won’t be completely over your head and the professor won’t be confusing or completely worthless.
Scheduling shouldn’t be a crap shoot. Especially with all the technology, you’d think there’d be a better way to give students a realistic idea of what they can expect in each class. The “more” link that’s given on each course listing rarely gives any useful information no matter how long or detailed the description is, in part because it has absolutely nothing to do with the specific class you’ll be taking here at Penn State New Kensington.
Take, for example, the description of PHIL 103: Introduction to Ethics for Fall 2010 which states, “Students will be graded on quizzes, re-writing and expanding quizzes, a collaborative project, and a comprehensive final exam.” From that description it’s no wonder some students were unprepared and surprised by how writing-intensive Dr. Irene Wolf’s class was last semester. There were no collaborative projects or quizzes, at least in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, most of the grades came from papers, take-home essay tests, and a speech on an ethical issue. As a writer, I personally preferred that setup to being quizzed on memorizing terms, theories, and concepts, which is what some of the science-minded people clearly had expected.
This is the problem with Penn State’s system. Every campus runs classes their own way, uses different books and content, and offers classes at different times, but the registrars office only provides information that applies to main campus. That information doesn’t really help us and is, in fact, misleading. Besides the fact that the basis for grades and course content may be completely different, there might also be huge discrepancies in when the course is offered, which could lead to major scheduling problems if you’re unlucky. Imagine that two courses you need are offered at the same time. The information provided says that Course A is offered once a year and Course B is offered every semester, so you decide to take Course A and pick up Course B next semester. What you don’t know is that Course B is only offered once every two years at PSNK. Because you trusted the official site, you may have just screwed yourself.
I know you’re probably thinking that this is what advisors are for but, let’s face it, we don’t always check with them every semester. And yes, I’m aware that Penn State has placed that nifty little disclaimer near the bottom of the informational page that says, “Note: Class size, frequency of offering, and evaluation methods will vary by location and instructor. For these details check the specific course syllabus.”
My question is: What syllabus? The one we can’t access until the first week of classes after we’re already enrolled in the course? Because that doesn’t do me a whole lot of good in March when I’m scheduling for the fall semester. And if they acknowledge that all the information they provide is wrong and varies between campuses, then why bother putting it up in the first place?
Most of us probably don’t look at that kind of information too closely when we’re dealing with major requirements, because it’s not like you have a choice in the matter anyway. The real problem comes with the plethora of classes we need to be considered good liberal arts students. We’re all required to step outside of our majors, and our comfort zones, and take a certain amount of credits in different disciplines, but how can you possibly know which general education classes are right for you?
You tick that little box for GH or GS and twenty classes pop up. You may not be familiar with the subject matter, and you don’t know the professors or how they operate their classes. Are they good at teaching science to non-majors or do they spout technical jargon and expect you to understand? Is the math used in that physics class too complex for someone who hasn’t taken math in three years? There’s no way of knowing that under the current scheduling system until it’s too late.
Let’s say you’re someone who doesn’t test well, and you absolutely stink at math. One statistics class bases everything on tests while another derives a portion of your grade from weekly homework assignments. Wouldn’t that be nice information to have?
The Nittany Pride says yes, which is why we’ve started a project in the hopes of filling the current informational void by giving students the chance to review their classes and professors. We’re asking students to help out their fellow classmates by passing on anything they wish they’d known before they took a class, and we’re promising complete anonymity to encourage everyone to be brutally honest and to protect them from any possible professorial payback. Whether it’s good, bad, or ugly, we want to hear about it…as long as it’s the truth.
Our hope is to provide students with a real picture of as many classes as possible so they can make informed decisions and find the classes that are right for them. Never again will we be forced to sit through a class where the professor spends the first twenty minutes of every class trying to hook up his computer (and yes, I’m speaking from experience). Just think of the friends you can save by adding your experiences and all the pain you may avoid thanks to others who’ve endured boring or impossible classes and strict or know-nothing professors.
We also want to provide students with a place to air their criticisms and concerns. Too often an entire class of students will commiserate about not understanding the material, or they’ll complain about the professor being ineffectual, unintelligible, or completely confusing. You can even talk to past students who’ve taken that class and they’ll say the same thing, yet no one usually risks going to the professor. That lack of communication is understandable because you never know how a professor will take criticism. Will he try to learn from it or lash out and say you are the problem? Since this program is anonymous, you won’t have to worry about that. Students can be free to make their voices heard and maybe, just maybe, if that professor sees enough comments he’ll try a little harder to explain things next class.
Hey, it’s worth a shot. What have you got to lose?
Send your reviews, comments, criticisms, and gems of knowledge to: firstname.lastname@example.org
We also invite students and professors to send us their thoughts on Penn State’s scheduling system. Think you have an idea to make it more effective? Let us know!