Monday, 7 February 2011

The waiting game

Learning a language takes a lot longer than ordering a McDonald's, but the two do share a common problem.

This problem is not McNuggets, or even 'Employee of the Month' posters; rather, it's the problem of managing expectations.

Generally speaking, you don't wait long at McDonald's to be served, but as you don't expect to wait long, any wait at all is a long one.

As the always-interesting David Maister points out, customer satisfaction bears little relation to reality and is, in fact, the perception of a service minus the expectation of one.

It is important to remember the disconnect with reality in this equation: if you expect a service to be quick and it takes two minutes to complete, that can either seem quick or slow despite the fact that it is objectively pretty fast.

Maister suggests several ways in which the customer's perception, and therefore his experience, of a service can be managed.

Occupied time, he avers with no fear of contradiction, feels shorter than unoccupied time.

In McDonald's, like most restaurants, customers can begin choosing from the menu while they wait, which also has the added advantage of making people feel like the process has started.

Maister further notes that anxiety makes time feel  longer, and that knowing , for example, that you have been noticed in a restaurant by a waiter dispels such anxiety.

In terms of BE, particularly in larger classes, acknowledging students when they finish an exercise, when they are waiting for your help, or when they are in a queue to ask a question, is a way to reduce their anxiety.

However, I wonder if Maister's insights aren't more useful when we look at the long term of a BE student, particularly those operating on a just-in-case basis.

For example, Maister points out that uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits.

But how many of us know how long it takes to move through the different levels of a language.

Do we really need 400 hours of instruction to get to CEF B1.2 as the Germans suggest you need for German?

And would furnishing our students with such a timeframe reduce their anxiety at the otherwise sublime task of language-learning?

I think it would.

Maister also suggests that  a solo wait is longer than a group wait.

In which case, this strengthens the case for  establishing the average hours needed for each level so we can benchmark our students' progress and they will feel like they are in a group, at least virtually.

Such small actions, then, would have the effect of ameliorating  students' experience of learning the English language, and thus ultimately make them do better.

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