To learn is to acquire knowledge or skill. Learning also may involve a change in attitude or behavior. Children learn to identify objects at an early age; teenagers may learn to improve study habits; and adults can learn to solve complex problems. Pilots and aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) need to acquire the higher levels of knowledge and skill, including the ability to exercise judgment and solve problems. The challenge for the aviation instructor is to understand how people learn, and more importantly, to be able to apply that knowledge to the learning environment. This handbook is designed as a basic guide to educational psychology. This chapter addresses that branch of psychology directly concerned with how people learn.

Learning Theory

Learning theory may be described as a body of principles advocated by psychologists and educators to explain how people acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes. Various branches of learning theory are used in formal training programs to improve and accelerate the learning process. Key concepts such as desired learning outcomes, objectives of the training, and depth of training also apply. When properly integrated, learning principles, derived from theories, can be useful to aviation instructors and developers of instructional programs for both pilots and maintenance technicians.

Over the years, many theories have attempted to explain how people learn. Even though psychologists and educators are not in complete agreement, most do agree that learning may be explained by a combination of two basic approaches: behaviorism and the cognitive theories.


Behaviorists believe that animals, including humans, learn in about the same way. Behaviorism stresses the importance of having a particular form of behavior reinforced by someone, other than the student, to shape or control what is learned. In aviation training, the instructor provides the reinforcement. Frequent, positive reinforcement and rewards accelerate learning. This theory provides the instructor with ways to manipulate students with stimuli, induce the desired behavior or response, and reinforce the behavior with appropriate rewards. In general, the behaviorist theory emphasizes positive reinforcement rather than no reinforcement or punishment. Other features of behaviorism are considerably more complex than this simple explanation. Instructors who need more details should refer to psychology texts for a better understanding of behaviorism. As an instructor, it is important to keep in mind that behaviorism is still widely used today, because controlling learning experiences helps direct students toward specific learning outcomes.

Cognative Theory

Much of the recent psychological thinking and experimentation in education includes some facets of the cognitive theory. This is true in basic as well as more advanced training programs. Unlike behaviorism, the cognitive theory focuses on what is going on inside the student's mind. Learning is not just a change in behavior; it is a change in the way a student thinks, understands, or feels.

There are several branches of cognitive theory. Two of the major theories may broadly be classified as the information processing model and the social interaction model. The first says that the student's brain has internal structures which select and process incoming material, store and retrieve it, use it to produce behavior, and receive and process feedback on the results.

This involves a number of cognitive processes, including executive functions of recognizing expectancies, planning and monitoring performance, encoding and chunking information, and producing internal and external responses.

The social interaction theories gained prominence in the 1980s. They stress that learning and subsequent changes in behavior take place as a result of interaction between the student and the environment. Behavior is modeled either by people or symbolically. Cultural influences, peer pressure, group dynamics, and film and television are some of the significant factors. Thus, the social environment to which the student is exposed demonstrates or models behaviors, and the student cognitively processes the observed behaviors and consequences. The cognitive processes include attention, retention, motor responses, and motivation. Techniques for learning include direct modeling and verbal instruction. Behavior, personal factors, and environmental events all work together to produce learning.

Both models of the cognitive theory have common principles. For example, they both acknowledge the importance of reinforcing behavior and measuring changes. Positive reinforcement is important, particularly with cognitive concepts such as knowledge and understanding. The need to evaluate and measure behavior remains because it is the only way to get a clue about what the student understands. Evaluation is often limited to the kinds of knowledge or behavior that can be measured by a paper-and-pencil exam or a performance test. Although psychologists agree that there often are errors in evaluation, some means of measuring student knowledge, performance, and behavior is necessary.

Combined Approach

Both the behavioristic and the cognitive approaches are useful learning theories. A reasonable way to plan, manage, and conduct aviation training is to include the best features of each major theory. This provides a way to measure behavioral outcomes and promote cognitive learning. The combined approach is not simple, but neither is learning.

Definition of Learning

The ability to learn is one of the most outstanding human characteristics. Learning occurs continuously throughout a person's lifetime. To define learning, it is necessary to analyze what happens to the individual. For example, an individual's way of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and doing may change as a result of a learning experience. Thus, learning can be defined as a change in behavior as a result of experience. This can be physical and overt, or it may involve complex intellectual or attitudinal changes which affect behavior in more subtle ways. In spite of numerous theories and contrasting views, psychologists generally agree on many common characteristics of learning.

Characteristics of Learning

Aviation instructors need a good understanding of the general characteristics of learning in order to apply them in a learning situation. lf learning is a change in behavior as a result of experience, then instruction must include a careful and systematic creation of those experiences that promote learning. This process can be quite complex because, among other things, an individual's background strongly influences the way that person learns. To be effective, the learning situation also should be purposeful, based on experience, multifaceted, and involve an active process.

Learning is Purposeful

Each student sees a learning situation from a different viewpoint. Each student is a unique individual whose past experiences affect readiness to learn and understanding of the requirements involved. For example, an instructor may give two aviation maintenance students the assignment of learning certain inspection procedures. One student may learn quickly and be able to competently present the assigned material. The combination of an aviation background and future goals may enable that student to realize the need and value of learning the procedures. A second student's goal may only be to comply with the instructor's assignment, and may result in only minimum preparation. The responses differ because each student ads in accordance with what he or she sees in the situation.

Most people have fairly definate ideas about what they want to do and achieve. Their goals sometimes are short term, involving a matter of days or weeks. On the other hand, their goals may be carefully planned for a career or a lifetime. Each student has specific intentions and goals. Some may be shared by other students. Students learn from any activity that tends to further their goals. Their individual needs and attitudes may determine what they learn as much as what the instruc- tor is trying to get them to learn. In the process of learning, the student's goals are of paramount significance. To be effective, aviation instructors need to find ways to relate new learning to the student's goals.

Learning is a Result of Experience

Since learning is an individual process, the instructor cannot do it for the student. The student can learn only from personal experiences; therefore, learning and knowledge cannot exist apart from a person. A person's knowledge is a result of experience, and no two people have had identical experiences. Even when observing the same event, two people react differently; they learn different things from it, according to the manner in which the situation affects their individual needs. Previous experience conditions a person to respond to some things and to ignore others.

All learning is by experience, but learning takes place in different forms and in varying degrees of richness and depth. For instance, some experiences involve the whole person while others may be based only on hearing and memory. Aviation instructors are faced with the problem of providing learning experiences that are meaningful, varied, and appropriate. As an example, students can learn to say a list of words through repeated drill, or they can learn to recite certain principles of flight by rote. However, they can make them meaningful only if they understand them well enough to apply them correctly to real situations. If an experience challenges the students, requires involvement with feelings, thoughts, memory of past experiences, and physical activity, it is more effective than a learning experience in which all the students have to do is commit something to memory.

It seems clear enough that the learning of a physical skill requires actual experience in performing that skill. Student pilots learn to fly aircraft only if their experiences include flying them; student aviation maintenance technicians learn to overhaul powerplants only by actually performing that task. Mental habits are also learned through practice. If students are to use sound judgment and develop decision-making skills, they need learning experiences that involve knowledge of general principles and require the use of judgment in salving realistic problems.

Learning is Multifaceted

If instructors see their objective as being only to train their students' memory and muscles, they are underestimating the potential of the teaching situation. Students may learn much more than expected if they fully exercise their minds and feelings. The fact that these items were not included in the instructor's plan does not prevent them from influencing the learning situation.

Psychologists sometimes classify learning by types, such as verbal, conceptual, perceptual, motor, problem solving, and emotional. Other classifications refer to intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, and attitudinal changes, along with descriptive terms like surface or deep learning. However useful these divisions may be, they are somewhat artificial. For example, a class learning to apply the scientific method of problem solving may learn the method by trying to solve real problems. But in doing so, the class also engages in verbal learning and sensory perception at the same time. Each student approaches the task with preconceived ideas and feelings, and for many students, these ideas change as a result of experience. Therefore, the learning process may include verbal elements, conceptual elements, perceptual elements, emotional elements, and problem solving elements all taking place at once. This aspect of learning will become more evident later in this handbook when lesson planning is discussed.

Learning is multifaceted in still another way. While learning the subject at hand, students may be learning other things as well. They may be developing attitudes about aviation-good or bad-depending on what they experience. Under a skillful instructor, they may learn self-reliance. The list is seemingly endless. This type of learning is sometimes referred to as incidental, but it may have a great impact on the total development of the student.

Learning is an Active Process

Students do not soak up knowledge like a sponge absorbs water. The instructor cannot assume that students remember something just because they were in the classroom, shop, or airplane when the instructor presented the material. Neither can the instructor assume that the students can apply what they know because they can quote the correct answer verbatim. For students to learn, they need to react and respond, perhaps outwardly, perhaps only inwardly, emotionally, or intellectually. But if learning is a process of changing behavior, clearly that process must be an active one.

Learning Styles

Although characteristics of learning and learning styles are related, there are distinctions between the two. Learning style is a concept that can play an important role in improving instruction and student success. It is concerned with student preferences and orientation at several levels. For example, a student's information processing technique, personality, social interaction tendencies and the instructional methods used are all significant factors which apply to how individual students learn. In addition, today's culturally diverse society, including international students, must be considered.

The key point is that all students are different, and training programs should be sensitive to the differences. Some students are fast learners and others have difficulties; and, as already mentioned, motivation, experience, and previous training affect learning style. Any number of adjectives may be used to describe learning styles. Some common examples include:

Right/left brain

Theories abound concerning right- or left-brain dominance. In general, those with right-brain dominance are characterized as being spatially oriented, creative, intuitive, and emotional. Those with left-brain dominance are more verbal, analytical, and objective. However, the separate hemispheres of the brain do not function independently. For example, the right hemisphere may recognize a face, while the left associates a name to go with the face. The term dominance is probably misleading when applied to brain hemispheres; specialization would be a more appropriate word.

Learning style differences certainly depend on how students process information. Some rely heavily on visual references while others depend more on auditory presentations. For example, visual students learn readily through reading and graphic displays, and auditory students have more success if they hear the subject matter described. Another difference is that some learn more easily when an idea is presented in a mathematical equation, while others may prefer a verbal explanation of the same idea. In addition, where hands-on activities are involved, students also learn by feel. This is sometimes called kinesthetic learning.

Information processing theories contain several other useful classifications. As an example, in the holistic/serialist theory, the holist strategy is a top-down concept where students have a big picture, global perspective. These students seek overall comprehension, especially through the use of analogies. In contrast, the serialist student focuses more narrowly and needs well-defined, sequential steps where the overall picture is developed slowly, thoroughly, and logically. This is a bottom-up strategy.

Two additional information processing classifications describe deep-elaborative and the shallow-reiterative learners. Testing practices which demand comprehension, rather than a regurgitation of facts, obviously encourage students to adopt a deep-elaborative learning style. Detailed information on testing procedures, as well as curriculum design and instructor techniques, is included later in this handbook.

As indicated, personality also affects how students learn. Dependent students require a lot of guidance, direction, and external stimulation. These students tend to focus on the instructor. The more independent students require only a minimum amount of guidance and external stimulation. They are not overly concerned with how the lesson is presented.

Students with a reflective-type personality may be described as tentative. They tend to be uncertain in problem-solving exercises. The opposite applies to impulsive students. Typically, they dive right in with enthusiasm and are prone to make quick, and sometimes faulty, decisions.

The social interaction concept contains further classifications of student learning styles. Like most of the other information on learning styles, these classifications are derived from research on tendencies of undergraduate students.

Some generalizations about these classifications indicate that compliant students are typically task oriented, and anxious-dependent students usually score lower than others on standardized tests. Discouraged students often have depressed feelings about the future, and independent students tend to be older, intelligent, secure, and comfortable with the academic environment. Attention seekers have a strong social orientation and are frequently involved in joking, showing off, and bragging. In contrast, silent students usually are characterized by helplessness, vulnerability, and other disconcerting behaviorisms.

Other studies identify more categories that are easily recognized. Among these are collaborative, sharing students who enjoy working with others, and competitive students who are grade conscious and feel they must do better than their peers. Participant students normally have a desire to learn and enjoy attending class, and avoidant students do not take part in class activities and have little interest in learning.

The existing learning environment also influences learning style. In real life, most students find it necessary to adapt to a traditional style learning environment provided by a school, university, or other educational/training establishment. Thus, the student's learning style may or may not be compatible.

Instructors who can recognize student learning style differences and associated problems will be much more effective than those who do not understand this concept. Also, these instructors will be prepared to develop appropriate lesson plans and provide guidance, counseling, or other advisory services, as required.

Principles of Learning

Over the years, educational psychologists have identitied several principles which seem generally applicable to the learning process. They provide additional insight into what makes people learn most effectively.


Individuals learn best when they are ready to learn, and they do not learn well if they see no reason for learning. Getting students ready to learn is usually the instructor's responsibility. If students have a strong purpose, a clear objective, and a definite reason for learning something, they make more progress than if they lack motivation. Readiness implies a degree of single-mindedness and eagerness. When students are ready to learn, they meet the instructor at least halfway, and this simplifies the instructor's job.

Under certain circumstances, the instructor can do little, if anything, to inspire in students a readiness to learn. If outside responsibilities, interests, or worries weigh too heavily on their minds, if their schedules are overcrowded, or if their personal problems seem insoluble, students may have little interest in learning.


The principle of exercise states that those things most often repeated are best remembered. It is the basis of drill and practice. The human memory is fallible. The mind can rarely retain, evaluate, and apply new concepts or practices after a single exposure. Students do not learn to weld during one shop period or to perform crosswise landings during one instructional flight. They learn by applying what they have been told and shown. Every time practice occurs, learning continues. The instructor must provide opportunities for students to practice and, at the same time, make sure that this process is directed toward a goal.


The principle of effect is based on the emotional reaction of the student. It states that learning is strengthened when accompanied by a pleasant or satisfying feeling, and that learning is weakened when associated with an unpleasant feeling. Experiences that produce feelings of defeat, frustration, anger, confusion, or futility are unpleasant for the student. If, for example, an instructor attempts to teach landings during the first flight, the student is likely to feel inferior and be frustrated.

Instructors should be cautious. Impressing students with the difficulty of an aircraft maintenance problem, flight maneuver or flight crew duty can make the teaching task difficult. Usually it is better to tell students that a problem or maneuver, although difficult, is within their capability to understand or perform. Whatever the learning situation, it should contain elements that affect the students positively and give them a feeling of satisfaction.


Primacy, the state of being first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable, impression. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time. For the student, it means that learning must be right. Unteaching is more difficult than teaching. If, for example, a maintenance student learns a faulty riveting technique, the instructor will have a difficult task correcting bad habits and reteaching correct ones. Every student should be started right. The first experience should be positive, functional, and lay the foundation for all that is to follow.


A vivid, dramatic, or exciting learning experience teaches more than a routine or boring experience. A student is likely to gain greater understanding of slow flight and stalls by performing them rather than merely reading about them. The principle of intensity implies that a student will learn more from the real thing than from a substitute. In contrast to flight instruction and shop instruction, the classroom imposes limitations on the amount of realism that can be brought into teaching. The aviation instructor should use imagination in approaching reality as closely as possible. Today, classroom instruction can benefit from a wide variety of instructional aids to improve realism, motivate learning, and challenge students. Chapter 7, Instructional Aids and Training Technologies, explores the wide range of teaching tools available for classroom use.


The principle of recency states that things most recently learned are best remembered. Conversely, the further a student is removed time-wise from a new fact or understanding, the more difficult it is to remember. It is easy, for example, for a student to recall a torque value used a few minutes earlier, but it is usually impossible to remember an unfamiliar one used a week earlier. Instructors recognize the principle of recency when they carefully plan a summary for a ground school lesson, a shop period, or a postflight critique. The instructor repeats, restates, or reemphasizes important points at the end of a lesson to help the student remember them. The principle of recency often determines the sequence of lectures within a course of instruction.

How People Learn

Initially, all learning comes from perceptions which are directed to the brain by one or more of the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Psychologists have also found that learning occurs most rapidly when information is received through more than one sense.


Perceiving involves more than the reception of stimuli from the five senses. Perceptions result when a person gives meaning to sensations. People base their actions on the way they believe things to be. The experienced aviation maintenance technician, for example, perceives an engine malfunction quite differently than does an inexperienced student. Real meaning comes only from within a person, even though the perceptions which evoke these meanings result from external stimuli. The meanings which are derived from perceptions are influenced not only by the individual's experience, but also by many other factors. Knowledge of the factors which affect the perceptual process is very important to the aviation instructor because perceptions are the basis of all learning.

Factors Which Affect Perception

There are several factors that affect an individual's ability to perceive. Some are internal to each person and some are external.

Physical organism
Basic need
Goals and values
Time and opportunity
Element of threat

Physical Organism

The physical organism provides individuals with the perceptual apparatus for sensing the world around them. Pilots, for example, must be able to see, hear, feel, and respond adequately while they are in the air. A person whose perceptual apparatus distorts reality is denied the right to fly at the time of the first medical examination.

Basic Need

A person's basic need is to maintain and enhance the organized self. The self is a person's past, present, and future combined; it is both physical and psychological. A person's most fundamental, pressing need is to preserve and perpetuate the self. All perceptions are affected by this need.

Just as the food one eats and the air one breathes become part of the physical self, so do the sights one sees and the sounds one hears become part of the psychological self. Psychologically, we are what we perceive. A person has physical barriers which keep out those things that would be damaging to the physical being, such as blinking at an arc weld or flinching from a hot iron. Likewise, a person has perceptual barriers that block those sights, sounds, and feelings which pose a psychological threat.

Helping people learn requires finding ways to aid them in developing better perceptions in spite of their defense mechanisms. Since a person's basic need is to maintain and enhance the self, the instructor must recognize that anything that is asked of the student which may be interpreted by the student as imperiling the self will be resisted or denied. To teach effectively, it is necessary to work with this life force.

Goals and Values

Perceptions depend on one's goals and values. Every experience and sensation which is funneled into one's central nervous system is colored by the individual's own beliefs and value structures. Spectators at a ball game may see an infraction or foul differently depending on which team they support. The precise kinds of commitments and philosophical outlooks which the student holds are important for the instructor to know, since this knowledge will assist in predicting how the student will interpret experiences and instructions.

Goals are also a product of one's value structure. Those things which are more highly valued and cherished are pursued; those which are accorded less value and importance are not sought after.


Self-concept is a powerful determinant in learning. A student's self-image, described in such terms as confident and insecure, has a great influence on the total perceptual process. lf a student's experiences tend to support a favorable self-image, the student tends to remain receptive to subsequent experiences. lf a student has negative experiences which tend to contradict self-concept, there is a tendency to reject additional training.

A negative self-concept inhibits the perceptual processes by introducing psychological barriers which tend to keep the student from perceiving. They may also inhibit the ability to properly implement that which is perceived. That is, self-concept affects the ability to actually perform or do things unfavorable. Students who view themselves positively, on the other hand, are less defensive and more receptive to new experiences, instructions, and demonstrations.

Time and Opportunity

It takes time and opportunity to perceive. Learning some things depends on other perceptions which have preceded these learnings, and on the availability of time to sense and relate these new things to the earlier perceptions. Thus, sequence and time are necessary.

A student could probably stall an airplane on the first attempt, regardless of previous experience. Stalls cannot really be learned, however, unless some experience in normal flight has been acquired. Even with such experience, time and practice are needed to relate the new sensations and experiences associated with stalls in order to develop a perception of the stall. In general, lengthening an experience and increasing its frequency are the most obvious ways to speed up learning, although this is not always effective. Many factors, in addition to the length and frequency of training periods, affect the rate of learning. The effectiveness of the use of a properly planned training syllabus is proportional to the consideration it gives to the time and opportunity factor in perception.

Element of Threat

The element of threat does not promote effective learning. In fact, fear adversely affects perception by narrowing the perceptual field. Confronted with threat, students tend to limit their attention to the threatening object or condition. The field of vision is reduced, for example, when an individual is frightened and all the perceptual faculties are focused on the thing that has generated fear.

Flight instruction provides many clear examples of this. During the initial practice of steep turns, a student pilot may focus attention on the altimeter and completely disregard outside visual references. Anything an instructor does that is interpreted as threatening makes the student less able to accept the experience the instructor is trying to provide. It adversely affects all the student's physical, emotional, and mental faculties.

Learning is a psychological process, not necessarily a logical one. Trying to frighten a student through threats of unsatisfactory reports or reprisals may seem logical, but is not effective psychologically. The effective instructor can organize teaching to fit the psychological needs of the student. If a situation seems overwhelming, the student feels unable to handle all of the factors involved, and a threat exists. So long as the student feels capable of coping with a situation, each new experience is viewed as a challenge.

A good instructor realizes that behavior is directly influenced by the way a student perceives, and perception is affected by all of these factors. Therefore, it is important for the instructor to facilitate the learning process by avoiding any actions which may inhibit or prevent the attainment of teaching goals. Teaching is consistently effective only when those factors which influence perceptions are recognized and taken into account.


Insight involves the grouping of perceptions into meaningful wholes. Creating insight is one of the instructor's major responsibilities. To ensure that this does occur, it is essential to keep each student constantly receptive to new experiences and to help the student realize the way each piece relates to all other pieces of the total pattern of the task to be learned.

As an example, during straight-and-level flight in an airplane with a fixed-pitch propeller, the RPM will increase when the throttle is opened and decrease when it is closed. On the other hand, RPM changes can also result from changes in airplane pitch attitude without changes in power setting. Obviously, engine speed, power setting, airspeed, and airplane attitude are all related.

True learning requires an understanding of how each of these factors may affect all of the others and, at the same time, knowledge of how a change in any one of them may affect all of the others. This mental relating and grouping of associated perceptions is called insight.

Insight will almost always occur eventually, whether or not instruction is provided. For this reason, it is possible for a person to become an electrician by trial and error, just as one may become a lawyer by reading law. Instruction, however, speeds this learning process by teaching the relationship of perceptions as they occur, thus promoting the development of the student's insight.

As perceptions increase in number and are assembled by the student into larger blocks of learning, they develop insight. As a result, learning becomes more meaningful and more permanent. Forgetting is less of a problem when there are more anchor points for tying insights together. It is a major responsibility of the instructor to organize demonstrations and explanations, and to direct practice, so that the student has better opportunities to understand the interrelationship of the many kinds of experiences that have been perceived. Pointing out the relationships as they occur, providing a secure and nonthreatening environment in which to learn, and helping the student acquire and maintain a favorable self-concept are key steps in fostering the development of insight.


Motivation is probably the dominant force which governs the student's progress and ability to learn. Motivation may be negative or positive, tangible or intangible, subtle and difficult to identify, or it may be obvious.

Negative motivation may engender fear, and be perceived by the student as a threat. While negative motivation may be useful in certain situations, characteristically it is not as effective in promoting efficient learning as positive motivation.

Positive motivation is provided by the promise or achievement of rewards. These rewards may be personal or social; they may involve financial gain, satisfaction of the self-concept, or public recognition. Motivation which can be used to advantage by the instructor includes the desire for personal gain, the desire for personal comfort or security, the desire for group approval, and the achievement of a favorable self-image.

The desire for personal gain, either the acquisition of possessions or status, is a basic motivational factor for all human endeavor. An individual may be motivated to dig a ditch or to design a supersonic airplane solely by the desire for financial gain.

Students are like typical employees in wanting a tangible return for their efforts. For motivation to be effective, students must believe that their efforts will be suitably rewarded. These rewards must be constantly apparent to the student during instruction, whether they are to be financial, self-esteem, or public recognition.

Lessons often have objectives which are not obvious at first. Although these lessons will pay dividends during later instruction, the student may not appreciate this fact. It is important for the instructor to make the student aware of those applications which are not immediately apparent. Likewise, the devotion of too much time and effort to drill and practice on operations which do not directly contribute to competent performance should be avoided. The desire for personal comfort and security is a form of motivation which instructors often forget. All students want secure, pleasant conditions and a safe environment. If they recognize that what they are learning may promote these objectives, their attention is easier to attract and hold. Insecure and unpleasant training situations inhibit learning.

Everyone wants to avoid pain and injury. Students normally are eager to learn operations or procedures which help prevent injury or loss of life. This is especially true when the student knows that the ability to make timely decisions, or to act correctly in an emergency, is based on sound principles.

The attractive features of the activity to be learned also can be a strong motivational factor. Students are anxious to learn skills which may be used to their advantage. If they understand that each task will be useful in preparing for future activities, they will be more willing to pursue it.

Another strong motivating force is group approval. Every person wants the approval of peers and superiors. Interest can be stimulated and maintained by building on this natural desire. Most students enjoy the feeling of belonging to a group and are interested in accomplishment which will give them prestige among their fellow students.

Every person seeks to establish a favorable self-image. In certain instances, this self-image may be submerged in feelings of insecurity or despondency. Fortunately, most people engaged in a task believe that success is possible under the right combination of circumstances and good fortune. This belief can be a powerful motivating force for students. An instructor can effectively foster this motivation by the introduction of perceptions which are solidly based on previously learned factual information that is easily recognized by the student. Each additional block of learning should help formulate insight which contributes to the ultimate training goals. This promotes student confidence in the overall training program and, at the same time, helps the student develop a favorable self-image. As this confirmation progresses and confidence increases, advances will be more rapid and motivation will be strengthened.

Positive motivation is essential to true learning. Negative motivation in the form of reproofs or threats should be avoided with all but the most overconfident and impulsive students. Slumps in learning are often due to declining motivation. Motivation does not remain at a uniformly high level. It may be affected by outside influences, such as physical or mental disturbances or inadequate instruction. The instructor should strive to maintain motivation at the highest possible level. In addition, the instructor should be alert to detect and counter any lapses in motivation.

Levels of Learning

Levels of learning may be classified in any number of ways. Four basic levels have traditionally been included in aviation instructor training. The lowest level is the ability to repeat something which one has been taught, without understanding or being able to apply what has been learned. This is referred to as rote learning. Progressively higher levels of learning are understanding what has been taught, achieving the skill for application of what has been learned, and correlation of what has been learned with other things previously learned or subsequently encountered. Figure 1-3

For example, a flight instructor may explain to a beginning student the procedure for entering a level, left turn. The procedure may include several steps such as: (1) visually clear the area, (2) add a slight amount of power to maintain airspeed, (3) apply aileron control pressure to the left, (4) add sufficient rudder pressure in the direction of the turn to avoid slipping and skidding, and (5) increase back pressure to maintain altitude. A student who can verbally repeat this instruction has learned the procedure by rote. This will not be very useful to the student if there is never an opportunity to make a turn in flight, or if the student has no knowledge of the function of airplane controls.

With proper instruction on the effect and use of the flight controls, and experience in controlling the airplane during straight-and-level flight, the student can consolidate these old and new perceptions into an insight on how to make a turn. At this point, the student has developed an understanding of the procedure for turning the airplane in flight. This understanding is basic to effective learning, but may not necessarily enable the student to make a correct turn on the first attempt.

When the student understands the procedure for entering a turn, has had turns demonstrated, and has practiced turn entries until consistency has been achieved, the student has developed the skill to apply what has been learned. This is a major level of learning, and one at which the instructor is too often willing to stop. Discontinuing instruction on turn entries at this point and directing subsequent instruction exclusively to other elements of piloting performance is characteristic of piecemeal instruction, which is usually inefficient. It violates the building block concept of instruction by failing to apply what has been learned to future learning tasks. The building block concept will be covered later in more detail.

The correlation level of learning, which should be the objective of aviation instruction, is that level at which the student becomes able to associate an element which has been learned with other segments or blocks of learning. The other segments may be items or skills previously learned, or new learning tasks to be undertaken in the future. The student who has achieved this level of learning in turn entries, for example, has developed the ability to correlate the elements of turn entries with the performance of chandelier and lazy eights.

Domains of Learning

Besides the four basic levels of learning, educational psychologists have developed several additional levels. These classifications consider what is to be learned. Is it knowledge only, a change in attitude, a physical skill, or a combination of knowledge and skill? One of the more useful categorizations of learning objectives includes three domains: cognitive domain (knowledge), affective domain (attitudes, beliefs, and values), and psychomotor domain (physical skills). Each of the domains has a hierarchy of educational objectives.

The listing of the hierarchy of objectives is often called a taxonomy. A taxonomy of educational objectives is a systematic classification scheme for sorting learning outcomes into the three broad categories (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor) and ranking the desired outcomes in a developmental hierarchy from least complex to most complex.

Cognative Domain

The cognitive domain, described by Dr. Benjamin Bloom, is one of the best known educational domains. It contains additional levels of knowledge and understanding and is commonly referred to as Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives.

In aviation, educational objectives in the cognitive domain refer to knowledge which might be gained as the result of attending a ground school, reading about aircraft systems, listening to a preflight briefing, reviewing meteorological reports, or taking part in computer-based training. The highest educational objective level in this domain may also be illustrated by learning to correctly evaluate a flight maneuver, repair an airplane engine, or review a training syllabus for depth and completeness of training.

Affective Domain

The affective domain may be the least understood, and in many ways, the most important of the learning domains. A similar system for specifying attitudinal objectives has been developed by D.R. Krathwohl. Like the Bloom taxonomy, Krathwohl's hierarchy attempts to arrange these objectives in an order of difficulty.

Since the affective domain is concerned with a student's attitudes, personal beliefs, and values, measuring educational objectives in this domain is not easy. For example, how is a positive attitude toward safety evaluated? Observable safety-related behavior indicates a positive attitude, but this is not like a simple pass/fail test that can be used to evaluate cognitive educational objective levels. Although a number of techniques are available for evaluation of achievement in the affective domain, most rely on indirect inferences.

Psychomotor Domain

There are several taxonomies which deal with the psychomotor domain (physical skills), but none are as popularly recognized as the Bloom and Krathwohl taxonomies. However, the taxonomy developed by E.J. Simpson also is generally acceptable.

Psychomotor or physical skills always have been important in aviation. Typical activities involving these skills include learning to fly a precision instrument approach procedure, programming a GPS receiver, or using sophisticated maintenance equipment. As physical tasks and equipment become more complex, the requirement for integration of cognitive and physical skills increases.

Practical Application of Learning Objectives

The additional levels of learning definitely apply to aviation flight and maintenance training. A comparatively high level of knowledge and skill is required. The student also needs to have a well-developed, positive attitude. Thus, all three domains of learning, cognitive, affective, and psychomotor, are pertinent.

These additional levels of learning are the basis of the knowledge, attitude, and skill learning objectives commonly used in advanced qualification programs for airline training. They also can be tied to the practical test standards to show the level of knowledge or skill required for a particular task. A list of action verbs for the three domains shows appropriate behavioral objectives at each level. Figure 1-7

Instructors who are familiar with curricula development will recognize that the action verbs are examples of performance-based objectives. Expanded coverage of the concept of performance-based objectives is included in Chapter 4 of this handbook.

Learning Physical Skills

Even though the process of learning is profound, the main objective or purpose of most instruction typically is teaching a concept, a generalization, an attitude, or a skill. The process of learning a psychomotor or physical skill is much the same, in many ways, as cognitive learning. To provide a real illustration of physical skill learning, try the following exercise:

On a separate sheet of paper, write the word "learning" 15 times with your left hand or with your right hand, if you are left handed. Try to improve the speed and quality of your writing as you go along.

Physical Skills Involve More Than Muscles

The above exercise contains a practical example of the multifaceted character of learning. It should be obvious that, while a muscular sequence was being learned, other things were happening as well. The perception changed as the sequence became easier. Concepts of how to perform the skill were developed and attitudes were changed.

Desire to Learn

Thinking back over their past experiences in learning to perform certain skills, students might be surprised at how much more readily they learned those skills that appealed to their own needs (principle of readiness). Shorter initial learning time and more rapid progress in improving the skill normally occurred. Conversely, where the desire to learn or improve was missing, little progress was made. A person may read dozens of books a year, but the reading rate will not increase unless there is a deliberate intent to increase it. In the preceding learning exercise, it is unlikely that any improvement occurred unless there was a clear intention to improve. To improve, one must not only recognize mistakes, but also make an effort to correct them. The person who lacks the desire to improve is not likely to make the effort and consequently will continue to practice errors. The skillful instructor relates the lesson objective to the student's intentions and needs and, in so doing, builds on the student's natural enthusiasm.

Patterns to Follow

Logically, the point has been emphasized that the best way to prepare the student to perform a task is to provide a clear, step-by-step example. Having a model to follow permits students to get a clear picture of each step in the sequence so they understand what is required and how to do it. In flight or maintenance training, the instructor provides the demonstration, emphasizing the steps and techniques. During classroom instruction, an outside expert may be used, either in person or in a video presentation. In any case, students need to have a clear impression of what they are to do.

Perform the Skill

After experiencing writing a word with the wrong hand, consider how difficult it would be to tell someone else how to do it. Even demonstrating how to do it would not result in that person learning the skill. Obviously, practice is necessary. The student needs coordination between muscles and visual and tactile senses. Learning to perform various aircraft maintenance skills or flight maneuvers requires this sort of practice. There is another benefit of practice. As the student gains proficiency in a skill, verbal instructions mean more. Whereas a long, detailed explanation is confusing before the student begins performing, specific comments are more meaningful and useful after the skill has been partially mastered.

Knowledge of Results

In learning some simple skills, students can discover their own errors quite easily. In other cases, such as learning complex aircraft maintenance skills, flight maneuvers, or flight crew duties, mistakes are not always apparent. A student may know that something is wrong, but not know how to correct it. In any case, the instructor provides a helpful and often critical function in making certain that the students are aware of their progress. It is perhaps as important for students to know when they are right as when they are wrong. They should be told as soon after the performance as possible, and should not be allowed to practice mistakes. It is more difficult to unlearn a mistake, and then learn it correctly, than to learn correctly in the first place. One way to make students aware of their progress is to repeat a demonstration or example and to show them the standards their performance must ultimately meet.

Progress Follows a Pattern

The experience of learning to write a word with the wrong hand probably confirmed what has been consistently demonstrated in laboratory experiments on skill learning. The first trials are slow, and coordination is lacking. Mistakes are frequent, but each trial provides clues for improvement in subsequent trials. The student modifies different aspects of the skill such as how to hold the pencil, or how to execute finger and hand movement.

Graphs of the progress of skill learning, such as the one shown below, usually follow the same pattern. There is rapid improvement in the early stages, then the curve levels off and may stay level for a significant period of time. Further improvement may seem unlikely. This is a typical learning plateau.

A learning plateau may signify any number of conditions. For example, the student may have reached capability limits, may be consolidating levels of skill, interest may have waned, or the student may need a more efficient method for increasing progress. Keep in mind that the apparent lack of increasing proficiency does not necessarily mean that learning has ceased. The point is that, in learning motor skills, a leveling off process, or a plateau, is normal and should be expected after an initial period of rapid improvement. The instructor should prepare the student for this situation to avert discouragement. If the student is aware of this learning plateau, frustration may be minimized.

Duration and Organization of a Lesson

In planning for student performance, a primary consideration is the length of time devoted to practice. A beginning student reaches a point where additional practice is not only unproductive, but may even be harmful. When this point is reached, errors increase, and motivation declines. As a student gains experience, longer periods of practice are profitable.

Another consideration is the problem of whether to divide the practice period. Perhaps even the related instruction should be broken down into segments, or it may be advantageous to plan one continuous, integrated sequence. The answer depends on the nature of the skill. Some skills are composed of closely related steps, each dependent on the preceding one. Learning to pack a parachute is a good example. Other skills are composed of related subgroups of skills. Learning to overhaul an aircraft engine is a good example.

Evaluation vs Critique

If an instructor were to evaluate the fifteenth writing of the word "learning," only limited help could be given toward further improvement. The instructor could judge whether the written word was legible and evaluate it against some criterion or standard, or perhaps even assign it a grade of some sort. None of these actions would be particularly useful to the beginning student. However, the student could profit by having someone watch the performance and critique constructively to help eliminate errors.

In the initial stages, practical suggestions are more valuable to the student than a grade. Early evaluation is usually teacher oriented. It provides a check on teaching effectiveness, can be used to predict eventual student learning proficiency, and can help the teacher locate special problem areas. The observations on which the evaluations are based also can identify the student's strengths and weaknesses, a prerequisite for making constructive criticism.

Application of Skill

The final and critical question is, Can the student use what has been learned? It is not uncommon to find that students devote weeks and months in school learning new abilities, and then fail to apply these abilities on the job. To solve this problem, two conditions must be present. First, the student must learn the skill so well that it becomes easy, even habitual; and second, the student must recognize the types of situations where it is appropriate to use the skill. This second condition involves the question of transfer of learning, which is briefly discussed later in this chapter.


Memory is an integral part of the learning process. Although there are several theories on how the memory works, a widely accepted view is the multi-stage concept which states that memory includes three parts: sensory, working or short-term, and long-term systems. As shown in figure 1-9 on the following page, the total system operates somewhat like an advanced computer that accepts input (stimuli) from an external source, contains a processing apparatus, a storage capability, and an output function.

Sensory Register

The sensory register receives input from the environment and quickly processes it according to the individual's preconceived concept of what is important. However, other factors can influence the reception of information by the sensory system. For example, if the input is dramatic and impacts more than one of the five senses, that information is more likely to make an impression. The sensory register processes inputs or stimuli from the environment within seconds, discards what is considered extraneous, and processes what is determined by the individual to be relevant. This is a selective process where the sensory register is set to recognize certain stimuli and immediately transmit them to the working memory for action. The process is called preceding. An example is sensory preceding to recognize a fire alarm. No matter what is happening at the time, when the sensory register detects a fire alarm, the working memory is immediatly made aware of the alarm and preset responses begin to take place.

Working or Short-Term Memory

Within seconds the relevant information is passed to the working or short-term memory where it may temporarily remain or rapidly fade, depending on the individual's priorities. Several common steps help retention in the short-term memory. These include rehearsal or repetition of the information and sorting or categorization into systematic chunks. The sorting process is usually called coding or chunking. A key limitation of the working memory is that it takes 5-10 seconds to properly code information. If the coding process is interrupted, that information is lost after about 20 seconds.

The working or short-term memory is not only time limited, it also has limited capacity, usually about seven bits or chunks of information. A seven-digit telephone number is an example. As indicated, the time limitation may be overcome by rehearsal. This means learning the information by a rote memorization process. Of course, rote memorization is subject to imperfections in both the duration of recall and in its accuracy. The coding process is more useful in a learning situation. In addition, the coding process may involve recoding to adjust the information to individual experiences. This is when actual learning begins to take place. Therefore, recoding may be described as a process of relating incoming information to concepts or knowledge already in memory.

Methods of coding vary with subject matter, but typically they include some type of association. Use of rhymes or mnemonics is common. An example of a useful mnemonic is the memory aid for one of the magnetic compass errors. The letters "ANDS'' indicate:


Variations of the coding process are practically endless. They may consist of the use of acronyms, the chronology of events, images, semantics, or an individually developed structure based on past experiences. Developing a logical strategy for coding information is a significant step in the learning process. In this brief discussion of memory, it may appear that sensory memory is distinct and separate from working or short-term memory. This is not the case. In fact, all of the memory systems are intimately related. Many of the functions of working or short-term memory are nearly identical to long-term memory functions.

Long-Term Memory

What then is distinctive about the long-term memory? This is where information is stored for future use. For the stored information to be useful, some special effort must have been expended during the coding process in working or short-term memory. The coding should have provided meaning and connections between old and new information. If initial coding is not properly accomplished, recall will be distorted and it may be impossible. The more effective the coding process, the easier the recall. However, it should be noted that the long-term memory is a reconstruction, not a pure recall of information or events. It also is subject to limitations, such as time, biases, and, in many cases, personal inaccuracies. This is why two people who view the same event will often have totally different recollections.

Memory also applies to psychomotor skills. For example, with practice, a tennis player may be able to serve a tennis ball at a high rate of speed and with accuracy. This may be accomplished with very little thought. For a pilot, the ability to instinctively perform certain maneuvers or other tasks which require manual dexterity and precision provides obvious benefits. For example, it allows the pilot more time to concentrate on other essential duties such as navigation, communications with air traffic control facilities, and visual scanning for other aircraft.

As implied, one of the major responsibilities of the instructor is to help students use their memories effectively. Strategies designed to aid students in retention and recall of information from the long-term memory are included later in this chapter. At the same time, an associated phenomenon, forgetting, cannot be ignored.

Theories of Forgetting

A consideration of why people forget may point the way to help them remember. Several theories account for forgetting, including disuse, interference, and repression.


The theory of disuse suggests that a person forgets those things which are not used. The high school or college graduate is saddened by the lack of factual data retained several years after graduation. Since the things which are remembered are those used on the job, a person concludes that forgetting is the result of disuse. But the explanation is not quite so simple. Experimental studies show, for example, that a hypnotized person can describe specific details of an event which normally is beyond recall. Apparently the memory is there, locked in the recesses of the mind. The difficulty is summoning it up to consciousness.


The basis of the interference theory is that people forget something because a certain experience has overshadowed it, or that the learning of similar things has intervened. This theory might explain how the range of experiences after graduation from school causes a person to forget or to lose knowledge. In other words, new events displace many things that had been learned. From experiments, at least two conclusions about interference may be drawn. First, similar material seems to interfere with memory more than dissimilar material; and second, material not well learned suffers most from interference.


Freudian psychology advances the view that some forgetting is repression due to the submersion of ideas into the subconscious mind. Material that is unpleasant or produces anxiety may be treated this way by the individual, but not intentionally. It is subconscious and protective. The repression theory does not appear to account for much forgetfulness of the kind discussed in this chapter, but it does tend to explain some cases.

Retention of Learning

Each of the theories implies that when a person forgets something, it is not actually lost. Rather, it is simply unavailable for recall. The instructor's problem is how to make certain that the student's learning is readily available for recall. The following suggestions can help.

Teach thoroughly and with meaning. Material thoroughly learned is highly resistant to forgetting. This is suggested by experimental studies and it also was pointed out in the sections on skill learning. Meaningful learning builds patterns of relationship in the student's consciousness. In contrast, rote learning is superficial and is not easily retained. Meaningful learning goes deep because it involves principles and concepts anchored in the student's own experiences. The following discussion emphasizes five principles which are generally accepted as having a direct application to remembering.

Praise Stimulates Learning

Responses which give a pleasurable return tend to be repeated. Absence of praise or recognition tends to discourage, and any form of negativism in the acceptance of a response tends to make its recall less likely.

Recall is Promoted by Association

As discussed earlier, each bit of information or action which is associated with something to be learned tends to facilitate its later recall by the student. Unique or disassociated facts tend to be forgotten unless they are of special interest or application.

Favorable Attitudes Aid Retention

People learn and remember only what they wish to know. Without motivation there is little chance for recall. The most effective motivation is based on positive or rewarding objectives.

Learning with All our Senses is most Effective

Although we generally receive what we learn through the eyes and ears, other senses also contribute to most perceptions. When several senses respond together, a fuller understanding and greater chance of recall is achieved.

Meaningful Repetition Aids Recall

Each repetition gives the student an opportunity to gain a clearer and more accurate perception of the subject to be learned, but mere repetition does not guarantee retention. Practice provides an opportunity for learning, but does not cause it. Further, some research indicates that three or four repetitions provide the maximum effect, after which the rate of learning and probability of retention fall off rapidly.

Along with these five principles, there is a considerable amount of additional literature on retention of learning during a typical academic lesson. After the first 10-15 minutes, the rate of retention drops significantly until about the last 5-10 minutes when students wake up again. Students passively listening to a lecture have roughly a five percent retention rate over a 24-hour period, but students actively engaged in the learning process have a much higher retention. This clearly reiterates the point that active learning is superior to just listening.

Transfer of Learning

During a learning experience, the student may be aided by things learned previously. On the other hand, it is sometimes apparent that previous learning interferes with the current learning task. Consider the learning of two skills. If the learning of skill A helps to learn skill B, positive transfer occurs. If learning skill A hinders the learning of skill B, negative transfer occurs. For example, the practice of slow flight (skill A) helps the student learn short-field landings (skill B). However, practice in making a landing approach in an airplane (skill A) may hinder learning to make an approach in a helicopter (skill B). It should be noted that the learning of skill B may affect the retention or proficiency of skill A, either positively or negatively. While these processes may help substantiate the interference theory of forgetting, they are still concerned with the transfer of learning.

It seems clear that some degree of transfer is involved in all learning. This is true because, except for certain inherent responses, all new learning is based upon previously learned Experience. People interpret new things in terms of what they already know.

Many aspects of teaching profit by this type of transfer. It may explain why students of apparently equal ability have differing success in certain areas. Negative transfer may hinder the learning of some; positive transfer may help others. This points to a need to know a student's past experience and what has already been learned. In lesson and syllabus development, instructtors should plan for transfer by organizing course materials and individual lesson materials in a meaningful sequence. Each phase should help the student learn what is to follow.

The cause of transfer and exactly how it occurs is difficult to determine, but no one disputes the fact that transfer does occur. The significance of this ability for the instructor is that the students can be helped to achieve it. The following suggestions are representative of what educational psychologists believe should be done.

Plan for transfer as a primary objective. As in all areas of teaching, the chance for success is increased if the teacher deliberately plans to achieve it.
Make certain that the students understand that what is learned can be applied to other situations. Prepare them to seek other applications.
Maintain high-order learning standards. Overlearning may even be appropriate. The more thoroughly the students understand the material, the more likely they are to see its relationship to new situations. Avoid unnecessary rote learning, since it does not foster transfer.
Provide meaningful learning experiences that build students' confidence in their ability to transfer learning. This suggests activities that challenge them to exercise their imagination and ingenuity in applying their knowledge and skills.
Use instructional material that helps form valid concepts and generalizations. Use materials that make relationships clear.

Habit Formation

The formation of correct habit patterns from the beginning of any learning process is essential to further learning and for correct performance after the completion of training. Remember, primacy is one of the fundamental principles of learning. Therefore, it is the instructor's responsibility to insist on correct techniques and procedures from the outset of training to provide proper habit patterns. It is much easier to foster proper habits from the beginning of training than to correct faulty ones later.

Due to the high level of knowledge and skill required in aviation for both pilots and maintenance technicians, training traditionally has followed a building block concept. This means new learning and habit patterns are based on a solid foundation of experience and/or old learning. Everything from intricate cognitive processes to simple motor skills depends on what the student already knows and how that knowledge can be applied in the present. As knowledge and skill increase, there is an expanding base upon which to build for the future.

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