Flow: Expediting Peak Registration Using the Classroom Instructional Model and Workshop Checklists
June 2012, Volume 25, Number 6
By D. Brent Barnard
During peak registration, long lines form as students vie for the attention of overworked staff members. Frustration builds as they jockey for the help of seasoned advisors and other student-service representatives. The dilemma for administrators is the need to hire and retain masses of knowledgeable staff members in a time of shrinking budgets and the inevitable drop in demand for such personnel during the semester. What is an administrator to do?
Below is a description of Flow, a system developed by El Centro College’s West Campus that helps resolve this perennial tension, smoothing the registration process for students while eliminating long lines, leveraging underutilized online resources, giving staff members periodic relief throughout the day, and providing an ideal forum for measuring student learning outcomes. At the West Campus, this system has accommodated double-digit growth (63 percent from fall 2010 to fall 2011) at a time when student-service personnel was reduced by one third, garnering staff members the college’s Innovation of the Year Award.
Conceptual Models: Tutoring versus Classroom Instruction
In higher education, students are taught both in classrooms and with one-on-one tutoring. Naturally, tutoring offers the ideal teacher-to-student ratio, but it would be prohibitively expensive to completely replace classroom instruction with armies of tutors.
Student services such as admissions, financial aid, and advising are typically patterned after the tutoring model. One by one, staff members explain to students the documents required for admissions, the process of securing financial aid, and the developmental education course sequence. However, during peak registration, institutions simply cannot hire the requisite number of student-service employees. It is at these times that the classroom model, in which staff members present information to students in groups, must be embraced.
Streamlining. The initial phase of Flow consists of examining the intake process and identifying repetitive tasks that can be ameliorated by the classroom model. For example, if financial aid representatives explain the FAFSA to students individually, hundreds of times per day, there is an instance of repetition that would lend itself to the classroom approach; a single staff member could present the same information to an entire classroom of students simultaneously. The West Campus staff has found that virtually all intake tasks are repetitive in nature and can be accommodated by this approach. Note that Flow classes should probably be called workshops or information sessions to distinguish them from true credit classes, although the instructional model is the same.
The Role of Technology. Administrators determining which student-service workshops to offer will also want to ask whether there are underutilized online resources that can be introduced to students in groups. For example, if the college’s application for admission is online, it does not make sense to ask students to fill out a paper application by default. Instead, these students can be ushered into computer classrooms and introduced to the application corporately. Similarly, students may be able to address their financial-aid needs online; for example, FAFSA is online, as are college degree plans and residency requirements. Using Flow, students are introduced to these resources as a group, and then freed to interact with them. Normally, when long lines form, students must make decisions quickly. With Flow, students can take their time and make decisions at their leisure while staff members walk the aisles, answering questions as they go.
Because most student-service workshops need to be held in computer labs, administrators may not be able to implement Flow until labs are available in the winter and summer, outside the busy long semesters. Colleges with vast computer labs generally available to students can requisition them without the need to negotiate for classroom space; however, if computer labs are limited or other departments continue to lay claim to these classrooms, administrators should do all they can to impress upon the college how imperative the demand truly is.
Workshop Creation. After identifying points of repetition and obtaining necessary space, administrators will want to create an ad hoc list of workshops the college can offer. These will vary depending on the staff available, but at a minimum there will be a workshop for admissions, financial aid, and advising/registration. If online registration is available, it may be advantageous to divide advising and registration into separate workshops. The goal of the advising workshop is to help students identify the classes they need, with instructors typically discussing the developmental sequence and degree plans. The objective of the registration workshop is (1) to teach students who have selected their classes how to create tentative course schedules based on credit-class availability, and (2) to navigate the online registration process.
Some students already know what they need but are either ineligible to self-register or do not know how. With the implementation of Flow, they simply attend the registration workshop, where after putting together a class schedule, they can register either online or with the help of a staff member. Students who are eligible to register online may choose to do so at home without ever attending the registration workshop; the advising workshop may be all they need. This class is also ideal for potential students who are checking out the college, trying to identify whether it offers degree plans that will help them reach their goals and dreams. At the West Campus, two different types of advising workshops are available: a longer and more in-depth version for new students, and an abbreviated version for current students.
Workshop Checklists. Once administrators have determined what workshops they would like to offer, it makes sense to group them into registration plans or checklists. Checklists will differ by student, depending on their individual circumstances and needs. For instance, new students might be given a checklist that begins with an admissions workshop followed by assessment, financial aid, and advising workshops, while current students would be given a checklist without the admissions component. In the spring, students who are already receiving financial assistance may be able to skip the financial aid workshop, although it could be offered to them as an option.
Workshop Registration. All students beginning the Flow process are directed to a central triage location where staff members determine which checklist each student needs. While there, students sign up for each workshop they wish to attend. This process helps staff members know when a workshop at a particular time is full, and having a process in place for capping workshops is helpful. For example, if the registration workshop is originally scheduled to last 90 minutes but only half the students are registered by the time it ends, administrators may want to lower the cap of the class immediately or increase the allotted time.
Another, greater advantage to having students register for workshops is that workshop instructors can use registrant information such as degree plans to better understand the types of students they will be serving and customize their presentation accordingly. For example, if the instructor for an advising workshop knows that most students in a section are interested in health occupations, greater emphasis can be placed on describing the various health-related degrees. Workshop registration also helps instructors identify students who may have registered for the wrong workshop, as when an instructor sees that a student requesting the admissions workshop has already been admitted.
Finally, workshop registration can help instructors divide class time intelligently. For instance, it helps an instructor to know that some students in the next registration workshop have already created a class schedule but are ineligible to register themselves online, and that the rest are eligible to register online but do not know how. The instructor begins this workshop by handing out registration forms to the first group. While they are completing the forms, the second group is introduced to the process of creating a tentative class schedule based on course availability and familiarized with the process of online registration. Following this presentation, the instructor registers the first group while the rest create a list of the class sections they desire and self-register online. Transfer students, a third group, also benefit from the presentation and have an opportunity to submit transcripts at the end of class.
Administrators creating workshop schedules should give instructors at least 30 minutes of preparation time between each session. This allows instructors to process any paperwork remaining from a previous session and review registrants for the upcoming session. Additionally, if a workshop lasts longer than the time allotted to it, this overage can be absorbed by the instructors’ preparation time. Instructors may find that they need to print out student records so that they can effectively advise students while answering individual questions as they walk the aisles toward the end of their workshop.
Prerequisites. Great efficiencies can be gained by insisting on workshop prerequisites. For example, students who indicate to triage personnel that they will be relying on financial assistance should be required to attend the financial aid workshop before proceeding to the advising and registration workshops. Often students labor under the mistaken impression that their financial aid is in place merely because they have cleared financial aid hurdles like the FAFSA. These individuals spend hours registering for classes from which they will ultimately be dropped. They and the staff members who assist them can be spared this futility by having financial aid staff members vet all financial aid-dependent students wanting to move forward with advising and registration. In Flow, students who are considered ready for registration are given a pass—which the West Campus whimsically calls a golden ticket—and directed to sign up for the next phase in the process.
FERPA. Obviously, staff members must be particularly vigilant to comply with FERPA when assisting students in groups. This is not difficult during classroom presentations, but once instructors begin helping students individually, especially during the advising workshop, it becomes problematic. West Campus personnel prefer to use privacy screens, especially at the computers they adopt as their own. When the classroom presentation ends and individual assistance begins, instructors play light music overhead to both lighten the often tense registration mood and keep conversations from being overheard. However, in the end, advisors must speak cryptically to safeguard student privacy. While pointing to various data on an advising report, an instructor might say to a student “Because of this, you’ll need to take this.” This could mean something as innocuous as “Because of the degree plan you’re pursuing, you’ll need to take Biology for science majors.” Or it could mean, “Because of this failing grade, you’ll need to take this human-development class.” Sometimes, if the situation is particularly complex, West Campus staff will step outside the classroom with students so that a freer discussion is possible. A range of issues prompts such a step so that there is no stigma involved. Staff members should discuss FERPA issues regularly to ensure full compliance.
Implementation. Flow is more efficient than more cumbersome tutoring models of student services by several orders of magnitude and a win-win situation for everyone concerned. However, it is a complex process that requires the coordinated efforts of several departments. Colleges that would like to implement a similar system should begin the process months before it is put into effect, soliciting the input of everyone concerned. Weekly meetings should be held to prepare for it, and naturally, there should be kaizen meetings afterwards to refine it. The West Campus has found that it is certainly worth the effort. Critical information that students need is delivered to them in a timely fashion, and the overall registration experience becomes more fulfilling for the college as a whole.
D. Brent Barnard is an Enrollment Specialist at El Centro College-West Campus, Dallas County Community College District, in Dallas, Texas.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.