The ability to communicate effectively is essential for all aviation instructors. However, communication does not occur automatically even though the instructor has a high level of technical knowledge in a particular subject area. The beginning instructor must understand the complex process involved in communication, and become aware of the common barriers to effective communication. Mere awareness of these factors is not enough. The new instructor must also develop a comfortable style of communication that meets the goal of conveying information to students.

Basic Elements

Communication takes place when one person transmits ideas or feelings to another person or group of people. Its effectiveness is measured by the similarity between the idea transmitted and the idea received.

The process of communication is composed of three elements: the source (sender, speaker, transmitter, or instructor), the symbols used in composing and transmitting the message (words or signs), and the receiver (listener, reader, or student). The three elements are dynamically interrelated since each element is dependent on the others for effective communication to take place. The relationship between instructor and student also is dynamic and depends on the two-way flow of symbols between the instructor and student. The instructor depends on feedback from the student to properly tailor the communication to the situation. The instructor also provides feedback to the student to reinforce the desired student responses.


As indicated, the source in communication is the sender, speaker, transmitter, or instructor. The instructor's effectiveness as a communicator is related to at least three basic factors. First, an ability to select and use language is essential for transmitting symbols which are meaningful to listeners and readers. Second, an instructor consciously or unconsciously reveals his or her attitudes toward themselves as a communicator, toward the ideas being communicated, and toward the students. Third, an instructor is more likely to communicate effectively if material is accurate, up-to-date, and stimulating.

An instructor should exercise great care that ideas and feelings are meaningful to the students. A speaker or a writer may depend on a highly technical or professional background with its associated vocabulary that is meaningful only to others with a similar background. It is the responsibility of the instructor, as the source of communication, to realize that the effectiveness of the communication is dependent on the student's understanding of the symbols or words being used. For instance, if an instructor were to use any of the many aviation acronyms, slang, and abbreviations with a new student, effective communication would be difficult if not impossible. Terms like SIGMET, taildragger, FBO, IO-540 do not carry the same meaning to a beginning student. Use of technical language will always be necessary, but the student must be taught the language first.

In addition to using the correct symbols to communicate effectively, the instructor must reveal a positive attitude while delivering a message. The presentation should show that the instructor is confident in the information. It should also show that the message is important and that the student has a need to know the information.

An instructor must constantly strive to have the most current and interesting information possible. In this way, the student's interest can be held. Out-of-date information causes the instructor to lose credibility in the eyes of the student. Use of boring or uninteresting information runs the risk of losing the student's attention.


At its basic level, communication is achieved through symbols which are simple oral and visual codes. The words in the vocabulary constitute a basic code. Common gestures and facial expressions form another, but words and gestures alone do not communicate ideas. They should be combined into units (sentences, paragraphs, lectures, or chapters) that mean something to the student. When symbols are combined into these units, each portion becomes important to effective communication.

The parts of the total idea should be analyzed to deter- mine which are most suited to starting or ending the communication, and which are best for the purpose of explaining, clarifying, or emphasizing. All of these functions are required for effective transmission of ideas. The process finally culminates in the determination of the medium best suited for their transmission. Most frequently, communicators select the channels of hearing and seeing. For motor skills, the sense of touch, or kinesthetic learning, is added as the student practices the skill.

The instructor will be more successful in gaining and retaining the student's attention by using a variety of channels. As an example, instead of telling students to adjust the trim, the instructor can move the trim wheel while the student tries to maintain a given aircraft attitude. The student will experience, by feel, that the trim wheel affects the amount of control wheel pressure needed to maintain the attitude. At the same time, the instructor can explain to the student that what is felt is forward or back pressure on the control wheel. After that, the student will begin to understand the correct meaning of control pressure and trim, and when told to adjust the trim to relieve control pressured the student will respond in the manner desired by the instructor.

The feedback an instructor is getting from a student needs to be constantly monitored in order to modify the symbols, as required, to optimize communication. In figure 3-1, the instructor realizes from the response of the student that stall has been interpreted by the student to have something to do with the engine quitting. Recognizing that the student has misunderstood, the instructor is able to clarify the information and help the student to obtain the desired outcome.

In addition to feedback received by the instructor from the students, students need feedback from the instructor on how they are doing. The feedback not only informs the students of their performance, but also can serve as a valuable source of motivation. An instructor's praise builds the student's ego and reinforces favorable behavior. On the other hand, negative feedback must be used carefully. To avoid embarrassing a student, use negative feedback only in private. This information should be delivered as a description of actual performance and given in a non-judgmental manner. For example, it would be appropriate to tell a maintenance student that a safety wire installation is not satisfactory. But to refer to the work as careless would not be good and could do harm to the student's feeling of self-worth.


Remember, the receiver is the listener, reader, or student. Instructors should always keep in mind that communication succeeds only in relation to the reaction of their students. When students react with understanding and change their behavior according to the intent of the instructor, effective communication has taken place.

In order for an instructor to change the behavior of students, some of the students' abilities, attitudes, and experiences need to be understood. First, students come to aviation training with a wide variety of abilities. Some may be familiar with aviation in some form while others barely know what an airplane looks like. Some students arrive with highly developed motor skills, and others have not had opportunities to develop these skills. The instructor needs to determine the abilities of the students and to understand the students in order to properly communicate. The process is complicated by differences in gender, age, cultural background, and level of education. For instance, the instructor would want to tailor a presentation differently for a teenage student than for an older student. Likewise, a student with a strong technical background would require a different level of communication than one with no such background.

The instructor also must understand that the viewpoint and background of people may differ significantly because of cultural differences. However, this consciousness of the differences between people should not be overdone. The instructor should be aware of possible differences, but not overreact or assume certain values because of these differences. For example, just because a student is a college graduate does not guarantee rapid advancement in aviation training. A student's education will certainly affect the instructor's style of presentation, but that style should be based on the evaluation of the student's knowledge of the aviation subject being taught.

Second, the attitudes students exhibit may indicate resistance, willingness, or passive neutrality. To gain and hold the students' attention, attitudes should be molded into forms that promote reception of information. A varied communicative approach will succeed best in reaching most students since they all have different attitudes.

Third, the student's experience, background, and educational level will determine the approach an instructor will take. What the student knows, along with the student's abilities and attitudes, will guide the instructor in communicating. It is essential to understand the dynamics of communication, but the instructor also needs to be aware of several barriers to communication that can inhibit learning.

Barriers to Effective Communication

The nature of language and the way it is used often lead to misunderstandings. An example might be a maintenance instructor telling a student to time the magnetos. A student new to the maintenance field might think a stopwatch or clock would be necessary to do the requested task. Instruction would be necessary for the student to understand that the procedure has nothing to do with the usual concept of time. This is an example of a lack of common experience, one of four barriers to effective communication.

Lack of Common Experience

Lack of common experience between instructor and student is probably the greatest single barrier to effective communication. Many people seem to believe that words transport meanings from speaker to listener in the same way that a truck carries bricks from one location to another. Words, however, rarely carry precisely the same meaning from the mind of the instructor to the mind of the student. In fact, words, in themselves, do not transfer meanings at all. Whether spoken or written, they are merely stimuli used to arouse a response in the student. The student's past experience with the words and the things to which they refer determines how the student responds to what the instructor says. A communicator's words cannot communicate the desired meaning to another person unless the listener or reader has had some experience with the objects or concepts to which these words refer. Since it is the students' experience that forms vocabulary, it is also essential that instructors speak the same language as the students. If the instructor's terminology is necessary to convey the idea, some time needs to be spent making certain the students understand that terminology.

The English language abounds in words that mean different things to different people. To a farmer, the word tractor means the machine that pulls the implements to cultivate the soil; to a trucker, it is the vehicle used to pull a semitrailer; in aviation, a tractor propeller is the opposite of a pusher propeller. Each technical field has its own vocabulary. Technical words might mean some- thing entirely different to a person outside that field, or perhaps, mean nothing at all. In order for communication to be effective, the students' understanding of the meaning of the words needs to be the same as the instructor's understanding.

Confusion Between the Symbol and the Symbolized Object

Languages abound with words that mean different things to different people. Confusion between the symbol and the symbolized object results when a word is confused with what it is meant to represent.

Although it is obvious that words and the connotations they carry can be different, people sometimes fail to make the distinction. An aviation maintenance technician (AMT) might be introduced as a mechanic. To many people, the term mechanic conjures up images of a person laboring over an automobile. Being referred to as an aircraft mechanic might be an improvement in some people's minds, but neither really portrays the training and skill of the trained AMT. Words and symbols do not always represent the same thing to every person. To communicate effectively, speakers and writers should be aware of these differences. Words and symbols can then be carefully chosen to represent exactly what the speaker or writer intends.

Overuse of Abstractions

Abstractions are words that are general rather than specific. Concrete words or terms refer to objects that people can relate directly to their experiences. They specify an idea that can be perceived or a thing that can be visualized. Abstract words, on the other hand, stand for ideas that cannot be directly experienced, things that do not call forth mental images in the minds of the students. The word aircraft is an abstract word. It does not call to mind a specific aircraft in the imaginations of various students. One student may visualize an airplane, another student might visualize a helicopter, and still another student might visualize an airship. Although the word airplane is more specific, various students might envision anything from a Boeing 777 to a Piper Cub.

Another example of abstractions would be if an instructor referred to aircraft engines. Some students might think of jet engines, while others would think of reciprocating engines. Even reciprocating engine is too abstract since it could be a radial engine, an inline engine, a V-type engine, or an opposed type engine. Use of the technical language of engines, as in Lycoming IO-360, would narrow the engine type, but would only be understood by students who have learned the terminology particular to aircraft engines.

Abstractions should be avoided in most cases, but there are times when abstractions are necessary and useful. Aerodynamics is applicable to all aircraft and is an example of an abstraction that can lead to understanding aircraft flight characteristics. The danger of abstractions is that they will not evoke the same specific items of experience in the minds of the students that the instructor intends. When such terms are used, they should be linked with specific experiences through examples and illustrations. For instance, when an approach to landing is going badly, telling a student to take appropriate measures might not result in the desired action. It would be better to tell the student to conduct a go-around since this is an action that has the same meaning to both student and instructor. When maintenance students are being taught to torque the bolts on an engine, it would be better to tell them to torque the bolts in accordance with the maintenance manual for that engine rather than simply to torque the bolts to the proper values. Whenever possible, the level of abstraction should be reduced by using concrete, specific terms. This better defines and gains control of images produced in the minds of the students.


Barriers to effective communication are usually under the direct control of the instructor. However, interference is made up of factors that are outside the direct control of the instructor: physiological, environmental, and psychological interference. To communicate effectively, the instructor should consider the effects of these factors.

Psychological interference is any biological problem that may inhibit symbol reception, such as hearing loss, injury or physical illness. These, and other physiological factors, can inhibit communication because the student is not comfortable. The instructor must adapt the presentation to allow the student to feel better about the situation and be more receptive to new ideas. Adaptation could be as simple as putting off a lesson until the student is over an illness. Another accommodation could be the use of a seat cushion to allow a student to sit properly in the airplane.

Environmental interference is caused by external physical conditions. One example of this is the noise level found in many light aircraft. Noise not only impairs the communication process, but also can result in long- term damage to hearing. One solution to this problem is the use of headphones and an intercom system. If an intercom system is not available, a good solution is the use of earplugs. It has been shown that in addition to protecting hearing, use of earplugs actually clarifies speaker output.

Psychological interference is a product of how the instructor and student feel at the time the communication process is occurring. If either instructor or student is not committed to the communication process, communication is impaired. Fear of the situation or mistrust between the instructor and student could severely inhibit the flow of information.

Developing Communication Skills

Communication skills must be developed; they do not occur automatically. The ability to effectively communicate stems from experience. The experience of instrucional communication begins with role playing during the training to be an instructor, continues during the actual instruction and is enhanced by additional training.

Role Playing

Experience in instructional communication comes from actually doing it. This is learned in the beginning by way of role playing during the instructor's initial training. A new instructor can try out different instructional techniques with an assigned instructor in the case of a flight instructor applicant, or with a mentor or supervisor in the case of a maintenance instructor. A new instructor is more likely to find a comfortable style of communication in an environment that is not threatening. For a prospective flight instructor, this might take the form of conducting a practice ground training session. The new instructor is naturally most concerned about developing flight instruction skills. But it also is essential that he or she develop good ground instructional skills to prepare students for what is to transpire in the air. Likewise, the maintenance instructor must develop skills in the classroom to prepare the maintenance student for the practical, hands-on tasks. In both cases, effective communication will be necessary to reinforce the skills that have been attempted and to assess or critique the results. This development continues as an instructor progresses; nothing remains static. What worked early on might be refined or replaced by some other technique as the instructor gains more experience.

Instructional Communication

Instruction has taken place when the instructor has explained a particular procedure and subsequently determined that the desired student response has occurred. The instructor can improve communication by adhering to several techniques of good communication. One of the basic principles used in public speaking courses is to encourage students to talk about something they understand. It would not be good if an instructor without a maintenance background tried to teach a course for aviation maintenance. Instructors will perform better when speaking of something that they know very well and for which they have a high level of confidence.

The instructor should not be afraid to use examples of past experiences to illustrate particular points. When teaching the procedures to be used for transitioning from instrument meteorological conditions to visual cues during an approach, it would be helpful to be able to tell the student about encountering these same conditions. An instructor's personal experiences make instruction more valuable than reading the same information in a textbook.

Communication has not occurred unless desired results of the communication have taken place. The instructor needs some way of determining results, and the method used should be related to the expected outcome. In the case of flight training, the instructor can judge the actual performance of a maneuver. For a maintenance student, the instructor can judge the level of accomplishment of a maintenance procedure. In both cases, the instructor must determine whether the student has actually received and retained the knowledge or if acceptable performance was a one-time event.

The aviation student should know how and why some- thing should be done. For example, a maintenance student may know how to tighten a particular fastener to a specified torque, but it is more important for the student to know that the security and integrity of any fastener depends on proper torque. In this way, the student would be more likely to torque all fasteners properly in the future. For a flight student, simply knowing the different airspeeds for takeoffs and landings is not enough. It is essential to know the reasons for different airspeeds in specific situations to fully understand the importance of proper airspeed control. Normally, the instructor must determine the level of understanding by use of some sort of evaluation.

Written examinations are sometimes appropriate. Well constructed written exams can indicate whether the student has absorbed the desired information or not. Since written examinations also provide a permanent record, training programs usually require them. Another testing technique is to have the student explain a procedure. This works well because it allows the student to put the information in his or her own words. The instructor can then judge whether or not the information received by the student matches with what the instructor intended.


Instructors must know something about their students in order to communicate effectively. As discussed earlier, an instructor needs to determine the abilities of the students and understand the students to properly communicate. One way of becoming better acquainted with students is to be a good listener. Instructors can use a number of techniques to become better at listening. It is important to realize that in order to master the art of listening, an attitude of wanting to listen must be developed.

Just as it is important for instructors to want to listen in order to be effective listeners, it is necessary for students to want to listen. Wanting to listen is just one of several techniques which allow a student to listen effectively. Instructors can improve the percentage of information transfer by teaching students how to listen.

Listening is more than hearing. As mentioned earlier, it is important for students to be able to hear the radio and the instructor. But simply hearing is not enough. An example of hearing that is not listening would be a pilot acknowledging instructions from the tower, but then having no idea what the tower operator said. When calling back to the tower to get the information, the pilot will want to hear what is being said and will be more inclined to do a better job of listening. This time the pilot must be ready to listen and be responsible for listening. Otherwise, communication will fail again.

Students also need to be reminded that emotions play a large part in determining how much information is retained. One emotional area to concentrate on is listening to understand rather than refute. An example is the instrument student pilot who anticipates drastic changes in requested routing and is already upset. With this frame of mind, it will be very difficult for the student to listen to the routing instructions and then retain very much. In addition, instructors must ensure that students are aware of their emotions concerning certain subjects. If certain areas arouse emotion in a student, the student should be aware of this and take extra measures to listen carefully. For example, if a student who is terrified of the prospect of spins is listening to a lesson on spins, the emotions felt by the student might overwhelm the attempt to listen. If the student, aware of this possibility, made a conscious effort to put that fear aside, listening would probably be more successful.

Another listening technique that can be taught to students is that of listening for the main ideas. This is primarily a technique for listening to a lecture or formal lesson presentation, but is sometimes applicable to hands-on situations as well. People who concentrate on remembering or recording facts might very well miss the message because they have not picked up on the big picture. A listener must always ask, what is the purpose of what I am listening to? By doing this, the listener can relate the words to the overall concept.

The instructor must ensure that the student is aware of the danger of daydreaming. Most people can listen much faster than even the fastest talker can speak. This leaves room for the mind to get off onto some other subject. The listener who is aware of this problem can concentrate on repeating, paraphrasing, or summarizing the speaker's words. Doing so will use the extra time to reinforce the speaker's words, allowing the student to retain more of the information.

Nobody can remember everything. Teaching a student to take notes allows the student to use an organized system to reconstruct what was said during the lesson. Every student will have a slightly different system, but no attempt to record the lecture verbatim should be made. In most cases a shorthand or abbreviated system of the student's choosing should be encouraged. Note taking is merely a method of allowing the student to recreate the lecture so that it can be studied. The same note taking skills can be used outside the classroom any time information needs to be retained. An example of this would be copying an instrument clearance. It is very difficult to copy an instrument clearance word for word. By knowing the format of a typical clearance, student instrument pilots can develop their own system of abbreviations. This allows them to copy the clearance in a useful form for readback and for flying of the clearance. By incorporating all or some of these techniques, students will retain more information. Instructors can vastly improve their students' retention of information by making certain their students have the best possible listening skills.


Good questioning can determine how well the student understands. It also shows the student that the instructor is paying attention. And it shows that the instructor is interested in the student's response. An instructor should ask both open-ended and focused questions. Open-ended questions allow the student to explain more fully, Focused questions allow the instructor to concentrate on desired areas. An instructor may ask for additional details, examples, and impressions from the student. This allows the instructor to ask further questions if necessary. The presentation can then be modified to fit the understanding of the student.

Two ways of confirming that the student and instructor understand things in the same way are the use of paraphrasing and perception checking. The instructor can use paraphrasing to show what the student's statement meant to the instructor. In this way, the student can then make any corrections or expansions on the statement in order to clarify. Perception checking gets to the feelings of the student, again by stating what perceptions the instructor has of the student's behavior and the student can then clarify as necessary.

Since it is important that the instructor understand as much as possible about the students, instructors can be much more effective by using improved listening skills and effective questions to help in putting themselves in the place of the students. Knowledge of the subject material and skill at instructional communication are necessary to be an instructor. Increasing the depth of knowledge in either area will make the instructor more effective.

Instructional Enhancement

The deeper the knowledge of a particular area, the better the instructor is at conveying that information. For example, a maintenance instructor teaching basic electricity might be able to teach at a minimally satisfactory level if the instructor had only the same training level as that being taught. If asked a question that exceeded the instructor's knowledge, the instructor could research the answer and get back to the student. It would be much better if the instructor, through experience or additional training, was prepared to answer the question initially. Additional knowledge and training would also bolster the instructor's confidence and give the instructional presentation more depth. Advanced courses in the instructional area and on instructional techniques are widely available. These are discussed in Chapter 11. The instructor must be careful to put adequate information into the presentation without providing excessive information. Otherwise, the essential elements could get lost in a depth of presentation more suited to an advanced course on the subject.

An awareness of the three basic elements of the communicative process (the source, the symbols, and the receiver) indicates the beginning of the understanding required for the successful communicator. Recognizing the various barriers to communication further enhances the flow of ideas between an instructor and the student. The instructor must develop communication skills in order to convey desired information to the students and must recognize that communication is a two-way process. In the end, the true test of whether successful communication has taken place is to determine if the desired results have been achieved.

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Page Last Updated on: Nov-11-2003