Best Practices: Course Numbering Systems

I was contacted by a colleague and former co-worker of mine, Chris Vetter, a brilliant administrator and, by the way, also a product of Briercrest College (as am I). He’s the newly installed Registrar at Corban College in Oregon (soon to become a university – see the press release here), and after mentioning that their course numbering system is a mess asked if there is a best practices guide out there somewhere. I would expect Chris to discover a mess and clean it up – there aren’t many better at it than he.

I haven’t come across such a best practices guide and, surprisingly, this isn’t covered in The Registrar’s Guide, published by AACRAO. This may be the only thing missing from this excellent resource. If you don’t have a copy of it, buy one now.

I will take a bold step into this void and offer my own opinions. I think I’m qualified to do so because I’ve had the privilege of working with four different systems, three of them purchased and one I helped create. Also, I’m in the beginning stages of getting a new system at TWU. So, I humbly present to you my version of Best Practices on a course numbering system.

Basic Principles of a Course Numbering System

It’s important to think like a database when creating or revising course numbers. So, when we were creating an ERP at Briercrest College, which we called BEAM (still my all-time favourite ERP*), we made sure we broke the numbers down into parts:

  • Course prefix indicating the type of course or the department that offers it – e.g., ENGL, PSYC.
  • Course number – e.g., 101, 203, 382, 499. The first number usually indicates the level of the course, e.g., 100 = first year; 400 = fourth year.
  • And then any additional things like a section codes, cross-list codes, etc. These parts should all have separate fields. You might be able to get away with a single field for prefix and number, but there will be times you want them separated and it’s no harder to set up, so why not do it?

Remember that course codes should helpful without hedging you in too tightly. They should only hinder you from making a mistake. The easiest way to ensure this is to limit what the course numbers can and should be used to do. In my opinion, they should only be used to identify unique courses, including the type of course and the level of the course. Briercrest College and TWU used to number courses in such a way that they helped to build a class schedule. How? All odd numbered courses were supposed to be offered in Fall and all even numbered courses were supposed to be offered in Spring.

How can I say this gently…


Why not? I can speak from experience: it only works until it doesn’t J It stops working when we can’t offer MUSI 101 in Fall, but we can in Spring. Oops! We’ve asked the number to do too much and it has suddenly become an unhelpful barrier. And besides, we have separate and more robust processes for scheduling that have their own problems. We don’t need this problem added on top of them!

One hard and fast rule about course numbers: they shouldn’t be re-used for different courses.


Not if you want to run reports on them out of the database (which we all have to do all the time). I suppose if your database is structured in such a way as to allow it, you could break this rule. For example, if THEO 101 was Introduction to Theology 1 from 1984-2004, but you would like to reuse that number to make it THEO 101 The Theology of Karl Barth (as my friend and Barth scholar David Guretzki would probably like), the only way you could do that is if your database locks down the old course somehow and doesn’t allow it to be pulled into current reports. But you’ll probably want to run a report sometime that will indicate all the various iterations of that number and the database will need to allow that kind of report. Or you could just remember that the course number has been used for two different courses and cut it out of the reports when you don’t want it. That works – at least until you move to another school or retire or die and forget to pass the info along to the next Registrar (thanks a lot, jerk!). Here’s an idea: save the money, confusion and additional work created when you want to break a rule – don’t do it.

Finally, remember that course numbering systems are supposed to be helpful. And I mean helpful to you, but also to others outside of your institution. If you develop your own screwball course codes just remember they will show on your students’ transcripts. They will bring a transcript to my school when they transfer here and I’ll look at them and scratch my head and get on the phone and ask, “Larry, Larry, Larry, what does this mean???”

Here I’m going to take a playful poke at the CEGEP system in Quebec. Anyone outside of Quebec should be required to take a course in how to understand the 9 or 15 or whatever crazy amount of meaningless numbers they have in their course codes. In fact, I’ve phoned Registrars there and asked them to explain it but they couldn’t. I’m convinced that CEGEP students get screwed over if they try to transfer outside of Quebec (which may be Quebec’s point, come to think of it). Not particularly helpful.


*BEAM is the name of the ERP system created by Briercrest College’s Information Services team. It is far and away the best ERP system I’ve ever seen, including Banner, Datatel and Jenzabar. Now that I have you salivating, I’ll also note that it’s not for sale or available to you because Briercrest isn’t selling. The best you can hope for is to lure Stephane Poirier (creator of BEAM) away with a big fat salary package. If you want to try, get in line!


9 thoughts on “Best Practices: Course Numbering Systems

  1. Looks good! I would consider making course numbers 4 digits to add a bit more future proofing. There is a lot that could be said about the section identifiers that follow the course number but you don’t want to turn this post into a book.


    1. Stuart, I agree with you, although I think the fourth digit should be at the end of the number, so that rather than a first year course being identified as a one hundred number (e.g., PSYC 101), it could be identified as a one thousand number (e.g., PSYC 1001).
      Can you say at least a little bit about section identifiers?


      1. We are on the same page with the numbering, PSYC 101 becoming PSYC 1001. The point I was trying to make about section numbers was a shot at most ERP’s that I have seen out there and the lack of consistency they permit.

        Most ERP’s are flexible, very flexible, to the point you can really shoot yourself in the foot. A more structured database design could reduce some inconsistency. For example, at TWU, we have section A, B, C, D1, D2, T1, OL, FA ect. These codes are trying to denote many different things, sections, discussion groups, tutorials, online courses and in the last case, who is allowed to enroll in the course (freshman academy students). At some point people started using section codes to define more than distinctions in curriculum and they started defining other attributes about the course that should go somewhere else in a properly designed database.

        I would have to give a bit more thought to this before proposing the ideal solution. But simple things like “S1” for section 1 instead of “A” would make more sense to me. At TWU sections “OL” and “FA” are really just S# with additional attributes defined elsewhere. I think I’m repeating myself now, but you get the idea.


      2. Hmm, this is helpful, Stuart. Good thinking. I’m not sure an ERP system will be willing to help us out here, as they want to be flexible to meet multiple schools needs. I think we clearly need some best practices and strong definitions that are publicly available and easily explained and transmitted from Registrar to Registrar, and from IT professional to IT professional. You and I are clear on this, but who’s to say the next Registrar and SST Director will be?


  2. This is a great summary of what we have talked about. (thanks for the kind words – I will keep this in mind if I ever need reference)

    In coming to Corban I have been exposed to course numbering system that has reached its limits because of the growth of the university. An example of this is that the last digit in the three number code was to represent the number of credit hours of the course. For Corban this was not a bad idea at the time because they have courses offered for 1-4 credit hours very consistently. The problem now is that after years of growth and change in the curriculum it is no longer possible to hold to this principle and not reuse numbers.

    The current ERP allows for nine digit course numbers so the last of the nine digits is used for section numbers, indepent studies, etc. This has also allowed course numbers to be “reused” because the course number was still distinct in the database. The problem is that you need to read the course numbers very carefully.

    I really like the part about keeping the plan for your course numbers simple. I may have to repent of some of the things I was trying to do with the course numbering system at Briercrest.

    I also like the idea of knowing the principles that will govern your course numbering system – what do we expect from the numbering system. What is reasonable in terms of information that can be gleaned from a look at the number? Here are a few – repeating some of Grant’s and giving my input on some things I have seen:

    1. Course level (1-400) – this has to remain though I have yet to see a clear educational distinction made between a 1 &200 level.

    2. Term offered – that may work in some places but not at the schools I have been at.

    3. number of credit hours – I would recommend against it – this really limits what you can do with course numbers

    4. Has anyone ever seen a system in place where the middle numerical digit signified a branch of study within a discipline? I tried to set this up for one discipline at Briercrest – it worked inititally but not sure if it will work long term.

    5. Reusing numbers – not if it can be avoided. This seems to be less of an issue in the US (at least from what I have experienced to date) but I think part of that is becasue they have not developed the large databases that show course equivilencies like exist in Canada. Those systems will not work well if there are duplicate course numbers.

    The other factor in coursre numbering are the features/limitations of your ERP. Some systems such as BEAM has a separate field for the alpha prefix and another field for the numbers. Also, the number of characters the field can accomodate is a factor.

    At Corban we have been looking at a number of ERP’s becasue we are needing to get onto something new. My sense after looking at presentations from Datatel, Jenzabar, and Sunguard is that a good level of flexibility exists when it comes to handling course numbers. If and when we make the transition I am thinking that is the time to rework the whole course numbering scheme. I am wanting to get ahead of the curve on this one because it could be a dauting task.

    Thanks for starting this Grant – I did more looking on the web after we talked and have not been able to find much of anything. It seems like schools just do what works for them.


    1. Chris, Grant – if the two of you can get the likes of me through college, then a class numbering system should be a cake walk! The down side being that you have to more than likely work with a number of people and convince them all to agree, and not just one flippantly motivated ADD kid. It’s got to be like trying to herd cats.

      But if I know anything at all, I know Chris can have that place running like a Swiss transit drivers watch by the Fall semester, if people listen.

      Oregon is on my list of places to look for work, so if there is a position available for “Registrars Enforcer” then sign me up!


      1. Drew, I always enjoyed working with you. With your skills and ADD tendencies, you really should volunteer with Search & Rescue! And you’d be surprised how many job opportunities might come your way as a result.


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