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Timetabling exams and courses: a puzzle with a lot of pieces

In a new series of articles commissioned by University Director Arnold Boon, we highlight important operational tasks carried out in different corners of the administration. This time, the focus is on exam and course timetabling,which is performed several times a year across the university. We visited Nat-Tech Studies Admin, which is getting ready to start using a new AU-wide planning system.

2020.02.27 | Anders Hylander

[Translate to English:] Foto: Anders Trærup/AU Foto

Timetabling exams and courses is a puzzle with 38,000 pieces. As many bricks as there are students at AU. And administrators don’t just need to take students into consideration. Teaching staff is another essential piece of the puzzle put together by the studies administrations offices at AU’s four administrative centres.

Marie Oue Hansen, a project manager at Nat-Tech Studies Administration, explained some of the many details it’s necessary to take into account in the process:

“As planners, we have to take into account things like how much freedom students have in planning their degree programme and what subjects they can combine. We also look at when the teacher has research activities, and there have to be breaks between the individual student’s exams, and a lot of other things. Lots of them might sounds like minor details, but they actually mean a lot to the students and teachers, and they place demands on the timetabling process.”

The eight staff members at Nat-Tech Studies Administration who work on timetabling exams and courses are in the process of implementing Aarhus University’s new shared timetabling system. While also making sure that normal operations aren’t disrupted. The first concrete step in the transition will be taken at the end of March, and the system will be rolled out at Nat-Tech over the course of the spring.

“We’re very focused on ensuring reliable operations during the implementation phase. We’re doing that by phasing in the system gradually, so we’re not doing it all at once. We’re also constantly in dialogue so that we learn from each other’s experiences,” Hansen said. She emphasised that switching from the current system to the new AU-wide system is a big job.

“The new system is designed better for curriculum-based timetabling, which is what AU’s transitioning to from the current enrolment-based system. And a new AU-wide system will give us new opportunities for dialogue and knowledge-sharing across faculties – we’ll be working more closely together with timetabling as a specialisation to a higher degree than we’ve been able to up to now,” Hansen said.

She also emphasised that in the new system, all classrooms and exam rooms will be administered and coordinated in the same timetabling system. This means rooms will be used more efficiently.

The new timetabling system will make it possible to improve the services teachers and students receive, both in the near future and down the road. For example, how timetables are displayed can be more easily tailored to individual users, and students and teachers can download information to their phones and get automatic calendar updates.

The university director stresses how important personalised, accurate timetables are for students and teachers to be able to plan their lives – and for the university to get the most out of its classrooms.

“The planners deserve a lot of recognition for their success in putting together this puzzle every single semester. We’re transitioning to a shared university-wide system at AU very soon, and the vision behind that is to make sure that teachers and students get access to their timetables as quickly as possible in an up-to-date cross-university system. Hats off to the employees who are working hard to implement the new system, and for keeping their eye on what will serves the university best in future,” Arnold Boon said.

Read more about the roll-out of the new AU timetabling system:

What is curriculum-based timetabling?

Curriculum-based timetabling means that schedules for teaching and exams are based on known elements in the approved course catalogue integrated with predictions about how students will select and combine courses. 

Curriculum-based timetabling is already used to a wide extent in connection with a number of degree programmes at AU. This approach to timetabling is quite different to enrolment-based timetabling, which bases timetables on registration for courses and exams by students.

Administrative, Administration (Academic), All groups, All AU units, Aarhus University, Policy and strategy