Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

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Biology Department Elective Poll

Why it Exists, How it Works

Why the Poll Exists

The bottom line: the elective poll exists because we sometimes are not able to offer enough small, elective courses each semester for every student to take every course he or she wants or needs, particularly lab courses.

Why is this? The answer lies in a combination of numbers, our philosophy about how best to teach you, and the breadth (or narrowness) of your interests in biology. Our situation is not unique; Biology departments in most liberal arts colleges like F&M face the same issues.

Here are the factors that contribute to the situation at F&M, plus some background about each of them:

Number of Majors

The number of majors served by our department has increased substantially over the last 15 years. This is in part due to the introduction of new interdisciplinary majors, including BFB, BMB, Public Health, Environmental Science (ESc) and Environmental Studies (ES). A new major in Bioinformatics is also in development. All signs point to increasing numbers of departmental and interdepartmental majors served by Biology, and, thus, to increasing pressure on our electives.

Number of Faculty

We have 14 tenure-track faculty positions in Biology. This is a healthy size for a Biology Department in a college like F&M. The Biology department has increased in size by two full-time positions in the last decade. Nonetheless, the ratio of majors to faculty (and thus majors to number of electives that can be offered) has increased.

Number of Electives Required

We have required 9 biology courses (plus Biostatistics) for the Biology major for over 20 years. The majors curriculum was modified in 1992 to become the 4 core/5 elective system you know. Prior to then, 5 core courses and 4 electives were required, and students did not begin the major until the fall of the sophomore year. The new curriculum starts a semester earlier and provides more flexibility in elective choices for majors. Nearly all Biology departments in colleges like ours require at least 8 biology courses (plus additional courses in chemistry, physics, and math), and constrain elective choices in some way – e.g., by requiring every student to take at least one course each in categories like “Cell & Molecular Biology,” “Organismal Biology,” and “Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.” The Biology faculty believe that requiring 5 electives is important for all Biology majors, particularly since 2 of the 5 electives may be taken in the form of Independent Study (Bio 390, 490), Directed Readings (Bio 391), or a combination of these specialized, one-on-one courses. We do not constrain elective choices in any way other than the requirement that 4 of them be lab courses (next point) and that one of them be a Biology Writing course (BWR).

Lab vs. Seminar Electives

We strongly believe you learn biology best (and enjoy it most) in the lab and field, where hands-on, experimental, investigative work with living organisms (or parts thereof…) and advanced instrumentation develops your practical skills as scientists and prepares you well for graduate school, professional school, or the job market. Traditionally, all electives for the Biology major were lab courses. The Bio faculty decided in 2001 to allow one of the 5 electives to be a non-lab seminar. The reason for this was two-fold: (1) some advanced courses we wanted to teach were better-suited to a seminar format, and (2) it was important for us to offer more general education courses, particularly Connections and Natural Science in Perspective (NSP) courses. Offering some seminar electives made it possible for us to offer more general education courses. Most colleges like us allow both lab and non-lab electives to count toward the biology major, so our policy of allowing one seminar elective is not unusual.

Elective Course Enrollments

We strongly believe that advanced courses should not be large. The reason is simple: you learn better in smaller courses, particularly courses with intensive laboratory and field components. Most of you expected to be able to take smaller classes and interact extensively with your professors when you decided to attend a liberal arts college like F&M. For many years, we have set elective enrollment caps at 16 students. Our experience is that this is the maximum size for effective teaching in the lab and field, particularly for investigative, experimental work. (Note: We allow labs in the core courses to exceed 16 for pragmatic reasons. The demand for these courses is higher than for most electives, and it is important to accommodate students who wish to enroll in the core courses, particularly in Bio 110 and Bio 220, as they explore their interests in Biology, complete requirements for other majors or PHA, etc.).

Fall/Spring Asymmetry in Number of Electives and Elective Disciplines

The nature of our core has two impacts on elective pressures in fall versus spring. First, the core ends with a fall course (Bio 305, Genetics) that you need to take as a junior or senior. Consequently, there are fewer open slots in most of your schedules for fall electives than for spring electives (which is why we try to provide more electives in spring each year – at least 7 in fall and 8 in spring). Second, the core’s disciplinary breakdown causes an asymmetry in elective topics in fall versus spring. Because our ecological/evolutionary faculty teach in Bio 110, most of the ecological/evolutionary electives are offered in fall. Similarly, the organismal (Bio 220) and molecular (Bio 305) faculty who teach in fall offer their electives in spring.

Student Interest in Biological Disciplines and Taxa

You know how popular some electives are and how difficult it is to get into them because of their popularity. An important reason for this is that many students have interests in specific areas of biology. You are generally more interested in animals (and especially vertebrates) than any other kingdom, and there is a strong interest in human biology. Across the biological hierarchy, more of you are interested in cellular and molecular biology than in disciplines like ecology and evolution.

Some of the frustration students express about getting into electives stems from these skewed interests. We understand where your taxonomic and disciplinary interests come from (we like human biology, too!). However, every semester, some electives are filled to overflowing while others attract fewer students. We believe it is essential to your perspective as a biologist and your maturation as a practicing scientist (basic or applied) that you appreciate and enjoy learning about all kinds of organisms and life processes. Whatever your career goals, our hope is that you will strive to be a broadly knowledgeable biologist with no biases in what you regard as important and worth studying in biology. The broader your interests, the more the diversity of our electives will appeal to you.

Our Philosophy about the Majors Curriculum and Preparation for Careers

We believe it is our responsibility – especially at the undergraduate level, and particularly in a liberal arts college – to offer a broad majors curriculum that covers all the fundamental disciplines of biology. Of course, biology has exploded over the last several decades into a huge field with numerous new subdisciplines and interfaces with other sciences. A variety of biological disciplines and courses that used to be taught routinely in liberal arts colleges are no longer offered. Increasingly specialized training at the graduate level has made it even more important for undergraduates to be broadly educated in biology, since this is the last time most of you will have an opportunity to sample so many biological fields, taxa, and processes in your coursework and see how they are all connected.

This philosophy – plus our hope that you will appreciate and enjoy all kinds of biology – means we will not narrow our elective offerings to match dominant student interests, particularly for specialized career preparation. We do take student interests, including career goals, into account to a certain extent when we decide which electives we can and should offer across the years. But our commitment to a broad curriculum for everyone, including majors whose taxonomic, disciplinary, and career interests are in the minority, has to be balanced against serving the dominant career interests. All of our electives are relevant to all biological careers in one way or another. They all develop your knowledge and skills and help you become a broadly educated person and informed professional.


Put all these factors together, and you can see why the elective poll is important. Since we cannot provide enough elective course slots for every student to take every course he or she wants, the only fair way to maximize the match-up between students and desired electives is to ask you what you want/need every semester and then allocate elective course slots through a rational system of priorities. The alternatives – a randomized lottery system, or a first-come, first-served priority system – are poor options. Our elective poll is not a perfect system, but it is the best way we have found to get you into the courses you want under the constraints and philosophies described above.

How the Elective Poll Works

Poll Form Distribution and Collection

Elective poll forms are prepared and made available through Google on-line forms in advance of the college-wide, two-week Advisement/Pre-Registration period every semester.

All first-years, sophomores, juniors (and seniors in the Fall) are invited each semester through the Biology Department Office to submit a poll via Google forms.   Majors studying abroad are contacted through e-mail by the Biology department academic coordinator so they can take part in the poll if they wish.

Students have about one week to complete the poll, including several days after the Advisement/Pre-Registration process begins.

The deadline for submission is clearly noted in all communications.  It is the student’s responsibility to meet the deadline.

No poll forms are processed until the submission deadline has been reached, and no priority is given for forms turned in early (i.e., it is not a first-come, first-served process).  However, poll forms submitted after the deadline are marked “late” and are processed only after all other students who submitted forms on time have been placed in electives. Therefore, it is crucial that you submit your poll form (electronically only) by the deadline.

Development of Tentative and Final Admission Lists

The academic department coordinator collects all submitted data (via Google on-line forms) and produces a master spreadsheet for the department chair that includes the following information for each student: (1) student name; (2) graduation year; (3) major; (4) how many electives are requested for the following term; (5) how many electives have been taken already; and (6) elective choices (1-5).

The department chair develops tentative admission and wait lists for all elective courses in consultation with the faculty, using all information provided on the poll forms.

Tentative admission and wait lists are posted outside the Biology Office before the deadline for campus-wide, on-line registration [date and time are specified in the poll instructions].

Students must initial these posted lists if they still wish to be in the course, or add their name to their desired wait list. If a student moves up on the wait list, the course instructor will contact them.  This must be done by the date and time specified on the poll instructions – usually a few days after the tentative lists are posted.

After the initialing period is over, the department chair works with faculty to finalize course admission lists.  Once enrollment permission lists are confirmed, professors will enroll students in permission-only courses during the registration period.

Priorities for Admission to Electives

The following general priorities apply in placing students into electives:

  1. Seniors have priority over juniors, and juniors have priority over sophomores, under most circumstances.
  2. Majors have priority over non-majors. Students majoring in Biology, BFB, BMB, Public Health, ESc, and ES have priority over students majoring in other departments or programs. Double majors, joint majors, and Special Studies majors involving Biology have the same priority as regular Biology, BFB, BMB, Public Health, ES and ESc majors.
  3. Students who have already completed all the required electives for the major have lower priority than students who still need one or more elective(s).
  4. In situations where students have equal priority based on the priority criteria above, and more students want a course than there are slots available, special considerations are used to determine placement in electives, based on comments provided by students on the poll forms. Examples of such situations are as follows:
  • Special course requirements for professional school (e.g., veterinary school requires microbiology)
  • Students who need to meet distribution requirements in interdepartmental majors (e.g., BFB or BMB)
  • Unavoidable scheduling conflicts, particularly with other courses required for the major (e.g., physics)
  • Students who must have a lab elective to graduate are given priority over students who could take either a lab or seminar elective
  • Students who need a Biology Writing (W) course are given priority over students who have already fulfilled the requirement
  • Concrete plans for study abroad that constrain opportunities for taking desired electives at F&M in a given semester

The decision on which students are admitted to an elective when the number requesting the course exceeds course capacity is based first on the priorities and then on the special considerations described above. After this, if there are still more students who want a course than the number of slots available, and they have equal priority and special considerations, then admission is determined by a random draw.

Steps for Placing Students into Electives

The following sequence is used by the department chair to allocate elective course slots to students:

  1. Seniors are given their first choice if possible. Seniors who do not receive their first choice are placed in their second choice.
  2. Once a first course has been allocated to seniors, seniors needing a minimum number of courses for graduation have priority over seniors who want additional electives but don’t need them to graduate. All graduation needs are met first.
  3. All juniors are then placed in courses until they have at least one elective, if possible.
  4. Sophomores who are eligible for an elective are then placed in a course if any slots are available, particularly if they are planning to declare a specific major, such as BFB, that requires certain courses (e.g., Bio 240, Neuroscience).
  5. Seniors who want an additional course beyond that required to graduate may be placed in a second elective.

Every attempt is made to get students into one of their top choices. But this is usually not possible for everyone, given the number and kinds of electives being offered, student demand for some electives and not others, and the priorities and considerations described above.