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New course matching process for registration causes student frustration

Dean of the College Rashid Zia reflects on pre-registration matching process, failures, future improvements

When Cici Osias ’23 opened Courses@Brown on Aug. 16, she was confused and worried. She found that she hadn’t been registered for any of the courses in her primary cart, despite the fact that some of the capped courses she had selected were still listing available seats. 

Osias said that while she had thought that the idea for the new pre-registration system was good, the matching process caused “additional anxiety that didn’t need to happen.”

With a new tri-semester calendar being implemented for the upcoming academic year, the University announced that registration would not operate on a first-come-first-serve basis as it had in previous years. Instead, Dean Rashid Zia '01 announced in a July 28 email that pre-registration for Fall 2020 would use a “New Two-Stage Pre-registration Process,” consisting of an initial matching process followed by an add/drop period.

Ultimately, the rollout of the new preregistration led to delays and frustration, but hope for the possibility for a more streamlined process in the future, according to interviews with students and Zia.

The new system

Zia told The Herald that he had been considering redesigning the system long before plans for the academic year were restructured. When Zia spoke to the Undergraduate Council of Students last November about redesigning pre-registration, he said there “was no goal of fixing it for this year,” but instead expressed the hope of sparking conversation surrounding the design of the system throughout the coming academic year.

After the COVID-19 pandemic postponed pre-registration twice, the old system was no longer a viable option, Zia said. The new pre-registration process was designed to limit problems that are usually caused by factors outside students’ control. Relying on the same first-come-first-served basis would have depended unfairly on “on where you were, if you had free time, if you had a good internet connection,” Zia explained, factors that were especially difficult with students living off-campus and around the world.

The new matching process sought to help students secure the courses they wanted without having to depend on who had the conditions to push “the button faster,” Zia said.

The matching process was designed so that after students put courses in their cart, an algorithm would match them to courses over a one-week period. It would also include an add/drop period beginning with seniors Aug. 17 and lasting until the end of shopping period Sept. 22. The period was extended to a more convenient time with the hope that students could adjust their preferences after the matching process.

To choose which students would be paired with which courses, the algorithm gave priority based on semester levels and concentration requirements, Zia said.

Trial run

Several students told The Herald that they found the new system stressful.

Arturo Ortiz ’23 said that the algorithm used to match students was overall “really bad,” since he was ultimately registered for only one class, instead of the three he had expected. 

Tommy Bellaire ’23 said he believes the computer did not do its job in getting students the courses that they most wanted; he preferred choosing courses himself during the add/drop period that followed pre-registration. 

Bellaire had also hoped the system would give him more in-person classes since the University had announced in an email about preregistration that they would prioritize giving at least one hybrid class to each student. Instead, the only hybrid course he got was an all-online course with a hybrid section — an outcome which “played a huge part” in motivating his decision to change his mode of study to remote.

While students described difficulties navigating the fall pre-registration system, some professors, like Dmitri Feldman, professor of physics, felt their role did not change noticeably from years prior. Feldman, who will be teaching PHYS 0790: “Physics of Matter” this fall, wrote that "everything went smoothly so far” in an email to The Herald. “At this point I do not see much difference from my previous experience,” he added. 

Howard P. Chudacoff, George L. Littlefield professor of American history and professor of history, will be teaching HIST 0656A: “History of Intercollegiate Athletics.” Chudacoff’s class, a sophomore seminar, filled through Courses@Brown registration, he wrote in an email to The Herald. Chudacoff’s registration period will likewise follow a process similar to previous years — with some difficulties caused by remote learning. “I have a waitlist and consequently only give override (codes) to people whom I admit, in order of their contacting me, off the waitlist if spots in the course open up,” Chudacoff wrote.

Not perfect

Behind the scenes, things were not so smooth. 

Since the system had to be developed in a short period of time while conforming with tools already in place — C@B and Canvas — it had many constraints, Zia said. Still, the goal of the system was to give students initially “some matches” so they could secure classes early on that they were going to take, allowing registration and shopping period to be less stressful, Zia said. 

While running the matches, there was “a big simplification” that administrators did not anticipate having to make, Zia noted. Many students put a large number of courses in their carts, with some students even selecting 50 to 200 courses. This increased size of the computation and the time it took to process all the matches more than initially expected. 

The difficulties in the new preregistration led the University to delay revealing students' course matches two separate times, pushing the date they were revealed back from the intended Aug. 14 to Aug. 16.

That’s why rather than looking at all courses in students’ carts, the system only looked at courses where “the number of students who wanted the course exceeded the number of students” allowed in the course, Zia explained. The most common reason students like Osias did not get paired with any classes was because the courses in their cart — even if they were capped — did not have a demand that exceeded capacity.

“Could we have done this process better? Yes,” Zia said. “We tried our best given the constraints. We had to try to make a system that worked well for students knowing that the way we did things could not be mapped onto the summer,” he added.

“I wish I had helped to communicate the process a little bit better,” Zia said. “I wish we could have matched students to those courses that were not enrollment-restricted because I believe that created a lot of unnecessary confusion, and I am sorry for that,” he said.

While Zia is not sure what registration will look like in the spring, he said the registration process this summer was helpful for informing future improvements. 

“We will still have a lot of the same issues, we are still going to have students dispersed around the world,” Zia said. In the future, the University will be “looking for the best way that is fair, equitable and easy to understand” for registration, he said, adding, “I hope that we are able to communicate the system much better.”


Jack Walker

Jack Walker served as senior editor of multimedia, social media and post- magazine for The Herald’s 132nd Editorial Board. Jack is an archaeology and literary arts concentrator from Thurmont, Maryland who previously covered the Grad School and staff and student labor beats.

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