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March 18, 2008

PRS Strategery: Steep Learning Curves, Relatively Easy Fixes

By Rebecca Oyama and Charlie Clinch

In the previous issue, the RG set out to explain the basics of Michigan Law’s Priority Registration System (“PRS”). Our brief survey indicated that PRS may offer some advantages over systems used at our peer schools; however, a few common concerns suggest that simple modifications could do much to improve our system’s efficiency and transparency.

Say What?

Some students find the learning curve a bit too steep to master the mechanics of the system on their first or second attempt. Though the Registrar’s Office provides mandatory information sessions and detailed written instructions, when it comes time to use PRS, many students are still unclear about the process. One 1L fall starter complained about the time-consuming process of learning the entire PRS procedure only to choose a single elective. This is a particularly significant concern as the timing of PRS coincides with the approach of a 1L fall-starter’s first finals period. Some aspects of the system take longer to master. Said a 2L, “I wasn’t aware that Round One only allows you a maximum of one seminar. I might have changed the order of my preferences had I known that PRS would stop processing my request if I got the first seminar listed.” (Note: During Round One, PRS can assign students to a maximum of one seminar, one practice/simulation course, and one clinic. See “Clinical Care” box for details on this process).

Professors also question if there are ways that the system could be made more straightforward. “I just find the whole process mystifying. Simplicity and transparency would be my plea,” said Professor Larsen, who currently teaches a seminar on presidential power. According to Professor Reimann, who led a comparative law seminar to Turkey over spring break, “At least in the ‘prof-pick’-mode, the current seminar enrollment system is quite problematic. One big problem is that the deadlines for the students to sign up and for the professors to [review] their statements of interest or complete an interview … coincide. If a student can still sign up on Friday 4:59 pm… how can I, as a professor, still interview that student?” Adds Reimann, “To be sure, none of this is the personal fault of any of the administrators involved, [who were] as accommodating as they could be given what the system is.”

Fortunately, the Administration recognizes the system as a work in process. Assistant Dean for Student Affairs David Baum agreed that: “Prof Pick seminars are, by nature, a bit more complicated... Professor Reimann does have a good point that the coincidence of the student sign up deadline and interview deadline can create challenges. We will try to find ways to solve this problem in the future.”

In an interview with the RG, Dean Baum and Amy Bishop were open to improving problematic areas wherever feasible. Dean Baum stated, “We’re always willing to listen to constructive criticism and consider things we can do to make the system work better for students.” Such a receptive attitude could be crucial in fostering a back-and-forth exchange between the administration . However, Dean Baum stressed that such changes take time to implement and cannot be expected overnight.

The Roots of Uncertainty

So what is it about this system that is so complicated that it ‘mystifies’ not only students but one of the nation’s most formidable constitutional scholars?” Specifically, the PRS system and the Prof Pick designation effectively transform the act of course registration into a game of strategy. Generally, the more informed the student, the better she or he will fare in the process.

One source of PRS ambiguity, we believe, is the Registrar’s use of footnotes to inform students about course restrictions and requirements. While the footnotes contain many helpful details, numbering up to 107 this Winter semester, the use of footnotes has become excessive. Yet some crucial information is mysteriously absent. The number of seats available in the course, for example, is not always disclosed. Nor is there any way of knowing whether one is likely to need to use a priority to enroll.

Another complaint is that professors are free to increase the class size after the priority system has run. This has resulted in some students spending a priority, only to discover plenty of seats available on the first day of class. (Note: during the pre-registration period, the administration will often switch a class to a larger room if the initial round of bids reveals a significantly higher demand than anticipated. Thoughtful changes like this should be an understandable exception.)

Also complicating matters is the posting of special sign up procedures, like the Prof Pick designation. Last semester, the Prof Pick requirement was not posted for some courses until PRS had already opened. While students had time to adjust their course selections, those who created their lists even a few days beforehand may not have seen the changes or were forced to rearrange their lists at the last minute.

Finally, the fear of not getting into a seminar compels some students to select as many courses as possible in order to get into “something.” This causes some students to hold on to classes they are not happy with because they cannot gauge their chances of admission into a more preferable course that has a long waitlist. At the end of the day, this has the danger of creating a stalemate situation where everyone is waiting for someone else to move.

Not-So-Extreme Makeover

While the diverse demands of selecting law courses may mean that the school’s PRS system is not going anywhere, there is room for improvement. A few ways we might start:

1. More information, and earlier. The timely uploading of class schedules, special sign up procedures, and course descriptions would greatly lessen student registration worries. If Prof Pick designations and course descriptions were made available well in advance of the registration period, students who map out their courses early would not have to fear last-minute revisions. This would also allow students to prepare their courses well in advance so that the process does not coincide with the busy period approaching finals.
2. Clearer instructions. Less is more. Presenting students with a more user-friendly guide—either a very basic version of the original 30-page instructions or improved index navigation online might make the system easier to follow. Unearthing buried footnotes by displaying them next to a course once it is selected in PRS, or including permanent or critical footnote text in the actual course description, would make course selection more straightforward. Information like prerequisites, limited grade option, and special requirements that the course fulfills (writing requirement, professional responsibility) would always be available, leaving footnotes to address time sensitive or irregular course restrictions. If that proves too complicated, perhaps a chart of classes and relevant footnotes in one place could suffice.

3. (A little) Hand-holding. For 1L fall starters with limited choices in the winter (read: a schedule-permitting, “first-years allowed” elective with no prerequisites), sifting through the entire course schedule is a draining process. A system or document that filters out courses that conflicts with first-year required classes or has prerequisites that 1Ls clearly lack wouldn’t be difficult to generate and would make the choice much easier to manage.

4. Waitlist management. The Round Two request process could be modified to enable students to give up their seat in one seminar for a more desirable one without fear of winding up empty-handed. For example, several other schools’ online registration systems include a feature called “conditional add/drop,” which allows students to automatically drop a class only on the condition that they have been able to add a certain course. Such an option would be useful when entering the second round of PRS requests and would encourage more movement on and off stagnant waitlists.

5. More automation. One reason that contributes to the length of the registration process from start to finish is the amount of human data management that is required to transfer the law school’s customized PRS results from Round One and Two into the university-wide Wolverine system before Add/Drop* may begin. Perhaps a programmer or other staff member could assist in reducing the clean-up necessary for the PRS/Wolverine hand-off, freeing up administrative staff to tend to other issues that arise. A similar programming fix might reduce some of the time necessary for the all-important waitlist “clean-up,” when unresponsive students are removed from the waitlist. Currently, the process is email-based, but it might be much faster if the students could reconfirm their own commitment to a waitlist online.

6. Doing our part. Lastly, there’s a lot more that we can do as students to lessen each others’ registration woes. The spirit of our wonderfully resourceful LawOpen listserv could be garnered to help spread information about classes. Georgetown Law and Fordham Law, for example, maintain sections on their student government websites that have surveys about different professors and classes and how difficult it is to get into specific classes. In fact, until about five years ago, a similar Zagat-like publication existed at Michigan titled “Notes from the Underground.” It contained full-page evaluations of specific courses that included sections on content, the professor’s teaching style, and short quotes, all collected from student surveys. Though the publication fizzled out due to diminishing number of willing writers, several similar ideas have been floated around the school to start an open, self-governing (or minimally moderated) class-related forum. APALSA has already started one among its membership, and there are murmurs of a school wiki-site that might include one as well. An effort to centralize such an effort, whether through the LSSS or the RG, would generate obvious returns. Of course, a downside could be even longer waitlists for the lesser-known secret “gem” courses, but as the court in Lee Optical once said: one step at a time, friends.

*not “Round Three” as referred to in the previous RG article.

Correction: Clinical Care - In the previous article, the RG neglected to explain the special process instituted last semester for clinic selection, which now occurs prior to Round One registration. Students who want to take a clinic must fill out a clinic application and submit it approximately 10 days prior to Round One registration. Students are then notified prior to Round One registration whether they have been accepted into a clinic. If a student is admitted, no priority is spent. Further, when the student begins Round One registration, the screen will reflect enrollment in a clinic.