Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Is time-tabling for the benefit of staff or students?

Bill Scott
Division of Environmental Science
Murdoch University


  1. Background Material
  2. Perceptions
  3. Workable Timetables
  4. The future without 'proper' timetabling
(The outline differs from the text. The dilemma requires audience input.)

I have long been aware that classes, teaching and learning cannot proceed without adequate time-tabling. Of course, this happens on an individual level, whenever there is a task to be done and even external students face personal and assignment time-tabling (scheduling) problems. Here another side of time-tabling is considered, at the university where the hours, places, sizes of classes as well as conditions of classes are set, mostly to suit administrative and academic mores.

Murdoch has a particularly poor system in most regards. It never seems to have any real structure; it changes with nearly every unit, type of instruction, time, programme, and school as well as the leave scheduling of leave for staff. Maybe this should be so; but I doubt it.

The literature in this subject may be large but it has evaded my efforts. The problem is mostly linked with the concept of Modular Programmes (Bocock and Watson, 1994). If all students did the same units in a prescribed way, without choice, there would be little difficulty. It appears that the more flexibility (with modular units) the problem quickly becomes intractable. It may be a sort of sharing; sharing (so that all parties are happy with the outcome) is easy with two individuals: one simply cuts the cake, the other takes the first piece. With three, approximately seven operations are required ; with 4, between 20 and 31 operations. With 30 students, a few staff members, room size and quality requirements, personal preferences, as well as limited times of access and other requirements; the mathematical problem is intractable.

The usual way of coping is to make rules and stick with them. Many universities simply require that certain types of contact be offered at certain times of the day, or on certain days of the week. For example, laboratories may be offered only on Tuesdays and Thursdays; lectures, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tutorials might only be offered in the mornings, when students are 'awake'. There may be a positive advantage for a student to have lectures for a specific unit at the same time of the day or, say, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

I had an experience this year with the offering of a new course which included present learning principles; it was self-directed and included group learning and transfer skills. Then, I found that contact times could not be time-tabled. I had purposely organised the unit for small numbers of students to avoid start-up difficulties and I could not get any priority to allow the necessary contact. The 'transfer' part of the unit was disallowed, the time spent in tutorials was minimal, formal contact between tutor and student was limited to one hour and there could be no lectures.


  1. No real structure
  2. Structured, as mentioned above
  3. One day, one class
  4. One unit at a time
  5. No contact
  6. Any time
Whatever scheme is used it should grow from the experience of one year to the next and ever continue to 'improve' the environment for learning. It should have a deep commitment to find out how students and staff are affected by time-tabling and try to maximise learning.

All of these schemes allow modularity in the offering, with varying degrees. It seems Rockingham will use the One day, one class idea 3, at least in a limited way. This means that there will be some incompatibility with our present class arrangements. Rose-Hulman Engineering College ('the second best private engineering school in the US') uses the intensive class concept 4; this scheme is likely to need cooperation of the whole university. The structured concept 2 seems to disallow that lectures, say, be different than 1 hour in length, much as we do already. Perhaps with the attention span of students, lectures would be better half an hour long. With electronic/internet access, perhaps the No contact 5 scheme should be more common. UWA (Nathan Scott, personal communication, see Devenish et al, 1996) certainly has had success in using email for near-to-personal contact and the use of 24-hour laboratories allows anytime contact 6. The experience is that some friendly words from the mouth of the tutor, some eye contact, and/or some gestures are a necessary part of the learning process. They create enthusiasm and, without enthusiasm -- as presented by, say, a good lecturer -- the student might not take on broad-based learning.

Things being as they are now, however, both politically and economically, it seems time-tabling will not have the high priority it deserves; it will continue to limit learning.


Bocock, J. and D. Watson (1994). Managing the University Curriculum: Making a Cause. The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, p108.

Devenish, D., Entwistle, R., Scott, N. and Stone, B. (1996). Lessons Learned from Open-ended, Un-supervised Laboratory Work in First Year Engineering Dynamics. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p47-52. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/devenish.html

Stewart, I. (1995). Fair Shares for All. New Scientist, 17 June 1995, 42-46.

Please cite as: Scott, W. (1997). Is time-tabling for the benefit of staff or students? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p294-295. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/scott2.html

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