11 November 2019

Allocating students: the second year

Last year it turned into the worst week of the year! I was expected to do the allocation of dissertation topics, and concomitant supervisors, to the 3rd year students. My predecessor had told me it was a horrible job but not quite explained why. I was soon to find out.

The student give their top 4 choices out of a list of quite a lot (187 topics this year, I think). And there are 133 students. So you end up with a 187 x 133 matrix with preferences. And then you have to sort that into a neat list of students, titles and supervisors. And that's not easy. The previous years I had done it as my predecessor had done it, but that had been vetoed by the Head of School, and it had been a right pain to do it again. (And again.) But that was last year.

This year I knew in advance what he wanted: he had imposed strict rules on how many student I could give staff with various contracts. So that was clear! It also meant things would be very tight. We had a lot of biology students for not quite enough biology staff! So how to manage that?

When students choose the same topic, the one with the highest mark in our Science Communication module gets priority. Why? Well we needed a criterion. It had to be manageable and objective and make some sort of sense. That year, when I did it for the first time, the students complained, but when I said that that were my criteria, and that I would be happy if they thought of something better, they quickly withdrew the complaint.

Giving the students with the really high grades a topic is a doddle. But certain types of topic (and this certain members of staff) are very popular, so after a while, these are full. So the first four members of staff are booked full pretty soon. And then you end up with the issue of all the students with lower grades who have only chosen topics from these same four people.

One thing I do is ask all staff which topics from other staff members they are willing to supervise. Sometimes someone offers a topic of which you think 'I wish I had thought of that!' Or maybe just 'I could do that'. So when the popular people are full I have to use other people doing their topics. And with a bit of luck, that works. Note that this year, the students only see the topic, not the supervisor, so they don't know who they'll get. That gives me a bit of flexibility!

In the end it was tight. We have enough staff members for all the students, but not enough biologists for all the biology students! So some have to be supervised by non-biologists. Luckily, the essence of a dissertation is the same, no matter what the topic is, so that's generally OK. And we can always touch base with the biologist who proposed the topic if we need help with things like finding data.

So in the end I just made it work! I did another check and pulled out some editing errors, and then published it to the staff. Did this look good to them? When it did, I published it to the students. And then there was silence. I naively thought that meant all was well.

The way I published the list to the students was through the teaching website. And the site doesn’t send announcements immediately! So the silence just meant the students hadn’t found out yet. And then, in the evening, the emails started coming. Oh dear.

The emails fell into a few categories; the biggest one was students mailing me saying ‘I have been assigned a topic I didn’t choose’. And most were right! I must have made some errors copying things across. I should automate that really; that’s the sort of stuff computers are good at. But these queries were easily sorted out; just check again, and then just copy the correct title across. The supervisor was always correct so nothing went really wrong!

Then there were some students who had that query but who were wrong; they turned out to have mid-clicked when submitting their choices. And that can be a problem! I had two biologists who had accidentally chosen physical topics. But all biologists were full! This was solved by one choosing a rather biological topic offered by a non-biologist member of staff instead, and the other one by a biologist offering to take on one more student than the official limit. Well, if they volunteer, I won’t say no!

Then there were the students who were disappointed they had only been given their third or fourth choice. And they tended to get the response that I understood their disappointment, but that that was the best I could do. Some were very savvy and had checked if their first choice had been taken. If not, they assumed this topic was available, and wanted to have it. To these I explained it wasn’t the topics that were the bottleneck, but the numbers of students per member of staff, and that the topic they would have wanted to have was offered by an already fully booked staff member.

There was one case where a student complained the topic he had been given was wholly inappropriate given that it fell entirely outside his degree programme. But he also admitted he had chosen it! This bloke has some cheek. I’m sure he’ll get far in life!

By the time I write this the emails seem to have stopped. Good! As it is time I get back to working on my first semester modules. The dissertation module doesn’t officially start until the second semester! But it sure does eat time and energy in the first semester too...

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