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…
DON’T DO THIS!
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!