Oct 28 2009

Illusory Gain or Loss

One of the hottest topics that piano teachers talk about when they get together is make-up lesson policy.  The classic conflict arises when a student insists that they are paying for the teacher’s time, while the teacher insists the student is paying for the time slot (tuition), so if that time slot is missed, the lesson is considered missed.  Teachers feel personally disrespected when students disregard their “tuition” policy, and these students (or parents) feel gypped when they “pay for a lesson they don’t get.”

I participated in this tug-of-war myself for many years, and finally I realized that my studio would always have people who signed my policy but who ignore all the parts of my policy they disliked.  I made a conscious decision that it would be easier on my own health and sanity just to give people what they want even when I disagree with the thinking behind it, especially since it’s never more than 10% of my studio. So, for the past several years, I have been very flexible and generous about giving make-up lessons to students when they miss their normally-scheduled lesson.  However, the one “catch” is that if the make-up lesson creates two lessons in one week, students must do extra practice between those two lessons to make the second lesson worthwhile. More importantly, this policy serves as an investment in my students since it encourages more practicing each year, and it also makes students and parents think twice about whether they really need the make-up lesson. This policy has kept both my students and myself very happy.

Without this policy, many students would actually show up to the second lesson during the week even when it would be of far greater benefit to them to stay home and use that time to practice. Deep down, they know this. And yet they would still show up to their second lesson that week not fully prepared, because they cannot get past the illusion that gain on my part (an empty time slot that allows me time to practice the piano or manage my studio) must automatically translate to loss on their part. This is an example of Illusory Gain or Loss. It is the illusion that gain and loss are working contrary to each other when they really aren’t. In the case of students obsessed with getting every nanosecond of time they paid for, both teacher and student lose in serving the student’s illusory gain.

When I was a college student paying for my own piano lessons at the university with my own money (a $300/semester fee on top of regular tuition since it involved so much one-on-one time with the instructor), I was the first to cancel lessons during weeks I didn’t practice due to excessive homework/tests/projects or sickness. I didn’t reschedule lessons. I canceled them. I didn’t think twice about it or think negatively about how my professor was “getting paid to do nothing;” I was happy to give my instructor much-needed time to practice while benefiting myself in getting time to catch up with the craziness of my life. The tuition was water under the bridge and therefore irrelevant to my decision making process, and it was a win-win decision. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks their decisions through with such objective clarity. Psychologically, a certain minority of people cannot disassociate the gain their teacher experiences (“being paid to do nothing”) with loss on their own part.

Employers might succumb to this when an employee requests to work from home in a computer-related job. While the employee very well may be more productive working from home since they no longer have to waste time commuting (which gives them more time and energy to work), the employer may still require the employee to drive to work because of a false perception of gain: the employee is working harder for the company by driving to work each day, so it must therefore be of benefit to the company.

There is an interesting article having to do with this concept of illusory gain/loss on the American Psychological Association website (apa.org), pointing out that people will eat bigger portions of food when given to them regardless of how full they are (link: www.apa.org/monitor/jan04/family.html). I’m certainly not the first person to observe this phenomenon – but as far as I know, I’m the first one to name it!  These things need names!

(c) 2009 Read Twedt (originally published on Cerebroom)


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    • Christine Barden on February 4, 2012 at 9:18 pm
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    Very good stuff, Chad!

      • Chad on February 4, 2012 at 10:06 pm
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    • Kathleen Legere on February 6, 2012 at 6:21 pm
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    In the past few years I have also become more liberal with make-up lessons. And for the same reason – my sanity. I have found that the few students who re-schedule lessons, abuse it. They have even tried to re-schedule make-up lessons. I have to tell them that I do not make up ‘make-up’ lessons.
    It is a good idea to ask the student to do double the practice. What do you do when the student shows up and has not only not practiced double, but has not practiced at all?

      • Chad on February 6, 2012 at 8:31 pm
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      Most of the time when students have two lessons in the same week, we spend time looking at the things we didn’t have time to look at in the previous lesson. I forgot to mention in this article that, especially with my intermediate and advanced students, we commonly don’t get to all the pieces every week, and I think that’s common among all students (extreme example: very advanced students majoring in music working on 90 minutes of repertoire might be lucky to go over one particular prelude 5 times during the entire year with their professor because it takes several lessons to get through all of the repertoire). So, as it turns out, I’ve only had to enforce the double practice rule on very rare occasions, and those times I did, the students did practice enough to make the lessons worthwhile.

      However, if we covered everything in the first lesson of the week, and the student didn’t practice enough to justify the second lesson, I would just send them home and tell the parent a piano lesson won’t do any good without practicing to support it.

      • Chad on February 6, 2012 at 8:34 pm
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      I should note though that even when this policy only needs enforcement on rare occasions, I think just having the policy in the first place makes people think a little more before they schedule make-up lessons. It makes them realize there needs to be some function and reason involved in the lesson, and not just a matter of “getting the teacher’s time”.

  1. I completely agree and can relate to this dilemma described in your post as a fellow private music teacher and I have found that I have a breaking point of frustration when manipulated and downplayed by a certain type of parent as well as the students that are influenced by this type of parent. Eventually, they undermine their own success and with a lot of prayer and soul-searching on the worth of keeping this type of family in my studio, they either disappear or find another teacher to manipulate and disrespect. And miraculously, a new and better student and family comes along who values working together for the good of everyone involved. The grace is in being flexible and honest and giving inconsiderate people like that the option to find another teacher because your own waiting list is getting longer. Attaching a positive value to everything helps so much in deciding how much abuse one can take! Thank you Chad! This discussion needs to take place and all feedback needs to be encouraged to understand what good ways might be out there to handle these kinds of dilemmas within a studio so the learning can continue!

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