Learning Theory for Student Pilots

Every CFI candidate spends a considerable amount of time not only learning to fly from the right seat, but also learning about learning.  We learn about disuse and interference.  We learn how frequency and muscle memory play into flight instruction.  But after our initial CFI Checkride it is often difficult to keep what we learned about teaching in the forefront of our minds.  We often begin to focus more on flying and rely on repetition to do the teaching.

My wife, a counselor, just returned from a recent conference where the topic of learning was central.  A very pragmatic and easy to understand model was presented.  As she described it, I became excited because I realized it described the flight training process perfectly!  The beauty of this model is that it can give Flight Instructors, as well as their students, some hooks on which to hang their experiences.  If can provide insight into the challenges and even the frustrations of flight training.  This could be one way of helping students make sense of where they are in the process and showing them the next logical step they will experience.

The model is simple, containing only four steps:

STEP 1: Unconscious Incompetence: The first step of this process is not knowing what you don’t know.  This is the discovery flight stage.  You are excited to be flying but you really don’t know much about what’s going on, what you will feel, what the instruments are or what the controls do.  The key to this stage is that you don’t really even know what questions to ask.  It is very important that the instructor understand this phase and that his or her role is to anticipate the topics that need to be addressed and the questions that need to be answered.  The more the instructor can do this, the more comfortably the student will be in establishing themselves in the training process.

STEP 2: Conscious Incompetence: The second phase of learning is the sense of being overwhelmed.  Suddenly the student is keenly aware of their lack of knowledge, experience and skill.  This usually comes in the early, pre-solo lessons.  Every part of their flying takes very conscious and concerted effort.  Maintaining a coordinated turn, holding straight and level flight, pitching for a constant airspeed climb all require great effort and the maneuvers won’t be particularly well done.  They’re learning, after all!  There’s a lot of self-doubt and sometimes students simply feel they are drowning in new experiences and buckets of information.  This can prove to be discouraging for the student.  They need to know that this is a normal part of learning to fly!  The instructor has to really walk a student through this phase of their training carefully to keep them encouraged and moving forward.  Look for even minor areas of improvement and build on them.  Don’t let despair take root!  If they can hold on through this phase, the breakthroughs are coming!

STEP 3: Conscious Competence: “That landing was all yours!”

I’m always excited to say that to a new pilot who has just made his first unassisted landing.   Without fail they are surprised and question me, “Really?  You weren’t on the controls?!”  They don’t realize that they have gained competence in this new skill.  At this stage your student’s flying has improved immensely and they are able to do many of the maneuvers well.   They can see their progress and remember how they had struggled only a few weeks ago with many of these same maneuvers.  Even though they are doing well, their competence still requires a great deal of conscious effort.  Many of the maneuvers are still rather mechanical, but they are done well and to standard.

At this point in training, their ability to fly well is dependent on their ability to mentally stay ahead of the plane.  Students can be fairly easily overwhelmed if too many tasks demand their attention.   Even so, as they move through this phase and become more competent, it is good to challenge them with distractions and diversions so they learn to think more and more ahead of the plane.  Students are usually very enthusiastic about their progress in this phase (and they should be) but it does take a lot of effort to do many of these tasks.

STEP 4: Unconscious Competence: As instructors we notice this long before the student will.  They begin holding their altitude without much effort, their turns no longer sling the instructor to the outside of the turn, and the pattern becomes second nature.  Stall awareness and recovery becomes automatic.  They feel the buffet, they sense the break of the stall, and automatically make their recovery.  It’s important to help them see their progress and celebrate their newly developed skills.  These skills are now second nature.  They occur without much thought at all.  As an instructor, this is great to see develop in a student.

Hopefully, by the time of the checkride the student knows what they know and have confidence in their skills as a pilot.  They will have become “unconsciously competent” but not overly cocky, which is a bit of a balance.   At this stage, the pilot knows she can fly the plane and her knowledge base is such that she has solid command of the Private Pilot material.  They are proud of their accomplishments and confident in their abilities, but also know there is much more to learn.  By Step 4 they do many of the tasks of flying without thinking.  They have learned not only the motor skills required to fly, but have also grown comfortable in their role as pilot.

These four steps can provide a great frame of reference for both instructors and students to understand their place in the training process.  It can be encouraging to understand that this is indeed a process and that it is normal to feel  overwhelmed before gaining your confidence and proficiency as a pilot.  It is good for a student to see his progress and his growth in competency.  Hopefully flight instructors can also frame their experience in a new way and be encouraged in their work as teachers.


4 responses to “Learning Theory for Student Pilots

  1. Wow, great stuff. If only I had known about Step 2 before starting my reading, I would’ve understood why I felt so overwhelmed with the material! 🙂 After talking to you and reading this, I now realize it’s part of the process.

    • That’s one reason I began researching the process a little more. I have several students right now, all basically in the same phase of training and I began to wonder if there was a simple model out there that sort of explained the process. You’re doing great..be encouraged!

  2. Pingback: Learning Theory for Student Pilots | learning|distance learning|online learning|distance learning course:learning net

  3. Great post, Chris. Describes my current experience perfectly, right down to when I made my first unassisted landing and I thought my instructor John was helping me do it!

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