Chapter 2. The Learning Process

Thorndike and the Laws of Learning

One of the pioneers of educational psychology, E.L. Thorndike formulated three laws of learning in the early 20th century. [Figure 2-7] These laws are universally accepted and apply to all kinds of learning: the law of readiness, the law of exercise, and the law of effect. Since Thorndike set down his laws, three more have been added: the law of primacy, the law of intensity, and the law of recency.


The basic needs of the learner must be satisfied before he or she is ready or capable of learning (see Chapter 1, Human Behavior). The instructor can do little to motivate the learner if these needs have not been met. This means the learner must want to learn the task being presented and must possess the requisite knowledge and skill. In SBT, the instructor attempts to make the task as meaningful as possible and to keep it within the learner’s capabilities.

Students best acquire new knowledge when they see a clear reason for doing so, often show a strong interest in learning what they believe they need to know next, and tend to set aside things for which they see no immediate need. For example, beginning flight students commonly ignore the flight instructor’s suggestion to use the trim control. These students believe the control yoke is an adequate way to manipulate the aircraft’s control surfaces. Later in training, when they must divert their attention away from the controls to other tasks, they realize the importance of trim.

Instructors can take two steps to keep their students in a state of readiness to learn. First, instructors should communicate a clear set of learning objectives to the student and relate each new topic to those objectives. Second, instructors should introduce topics in a logical order and leave students with a need to learn the next topic. The development and use of a well-designed curriculum accomplish this goal.

Readiness to learn also involves what is called the “teachable moment” or a moment of educational opportunity when a person is particularly responsive to being taught something. One of the most important skills to develop as an instructor is the ability to recognize and capitalize on “teachable moments” in aviation training. An instructor can find or create teachable moments in flight training activity: pattern work, air work in the local practice area, cross-country, flight review, or instrument proficiency check.

Teachable moments present opportunities to convey information in a way that is relevant, effective, and memorable to the student. They occur when a learner can clearly see how specific information or skills can be used in the real world.

For example, while on final approach several deer cross the runway. Bill capitalizes on this teachable moment to stress the importance of always being ready to perform a go-around.

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