“Shopping period” course selection offers a superior model

Course selection is always a stressful period for U of T students. There’s a scramble to get into the courses you want and need. You have to map out multiple schedules to make sure that none of the courses or backups that you picked conflict — schedules which need to be constantly updated as the timetable is updated.  And then there’s always a chance that ROSI will crash. But does course selection have to be so frustrating?

Some schools in the U.S., namely Yale and Harvard, have an alternative — and in my opinion, superior — process for course selection. They have what is called a “shopping period” during which students can attend and participate in all the courses that interest them without officially enrolling in them right away. Students are still responsible for course work assigned during the shopping period so its not a waste of valuable class time.

This shopping period gives students many advantages that U of T’s current system lacks, and alleviates many of problems that ROSI causes.

One of the major advantages of a shopping period is that it allows students to truly sample a class before deciding if they want to continue with it. Under the current system, students only have the reviews in the anti-calendar and testimonials from friends or acquaintances to rely on when deciding whether a course is actually what they want. These reviews and testimonials, while somewhat helpful, cannot account for the unique ways in which students learn. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another.

One aspect of the class that reviews may not be able to account for at all is the professor. The same professor does not always teach classes year after year, so testimonials from past students may not be able to attest to the lecture or teaching methods of the professor that will be teaching the class in any given year.

Another issue that students sometimes have under the current system is finding themselves in a class that is accurate to the anti-calendar description, but is not the class they were expecting. Course descriptions in the calendar are usually restricted to a paragraph and do not always accurately describe the class. The wording of the calendar can be vague. Sometimes two courses are described so similarly, it’s difficult to decide which course is actually what you want. Course descriptions in the calendar also do not include reading lists.

Both of these issues — not knowing whether the professor’s teaching methods work with your way of learning, and not knowing what to expect from a class — can be solved by implementing the shopping period. This way students can actually attend the class before deciding on whether to take it, and can make more informed decisions about whether the course works for them personally.

Now under the current system, we have an add/drop period, which means that if you are in a class that isn’t what you expected or have a professor that you don’t work well with, you don’t have to be stuck in the class. But finding a new class that you like and isn’t already full is a daunting task.

There is also another problem with our current system that the add/drop period cannot solve in any way: the dreaded wait list. Shopping periods can help with this problem as well. Under this method of course selection, the number of students choosing a course determines the class size and not the other way around. Right now there are a certain number of spaces allotted to a class, and if more people sign up than there is space for, a waitlist begins. This leads to situations where some classes have waitlists that are three or four times the size of the class, while other classes have only about half of their allotted spaces filled up.

Under the shopping period method, there is no allotted number of spaces. The amount of people that decide to stick with the course is what decides the class size. Final classrooms are also assigned after the shopping period, once the final number of students has been ascertained.

Shopping period course selection also has some less considered advantages. It allow students to take more risks in the courses that they take. Given the barriers to switching courses that are inherent in the current system, many students hesitate in taking a course that might sound interesting to them but are not really sure what to expect from it. Many students end up taking the generic intro-style courses instead.

Shopping period would allow students to find courses that are more specifically tailored to their own interests — courses that they might not have taken otherwise for fear of not knowing what the course would be like. It would also give students the opportunity to try out courses that are outside their area of study without having to commit blindly.

We all know that our current system has serious deficiencies. It’s inefficient and often leaves us stuck in courses that we would not have taken if we knew what we were getting into. Shopping period is a clearly superior model that U of T should seriously consider. After all, it’s worked for Harvard and Yale.

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