Chapter 2. The Learning Process

Acquiring Skill Knowledge

An aviation instructor also helps a student acquire skill knowledge, which is knowledge reflected in motor or manual skills and in cognitive or mental skills, that manifests itself in the doing of something. Thus, skill knowledge differs from declarative knowledge because the student is not usually aware of it consciously or able to articulate the skill. Evidence of skill knowledge is gained through observations of performance. This knowledge of how to do things is based on extensive practice, which leads to the storage of skill knowledge. An everyday example of skill knowledge is the ability to ride a bicycle.

Skill knowledge is acquired slowly through related experience. For example, a maintenance student who is learning to weld typically burns or cracks the metal being welded while an expert welder’s work is free of such imperfections. What does the experienced welder “know” that the beginner does not? The expert welder has had many hours of practice and a knowing-is-in-the-doing ability the inexperienced welder lacks. It isn’t always possible to reduce to mere words that which one knows or knows how to do.

Stages of Skill Acquisition

Students make their way from beginner to expert via three stages of skill knowledge acquisition, helping students transition from beginner to expert. The development of any skill acquisition (or the learning process) has three characteristic stages: cognitive, associative, and automaticity. An instructor must learn to recognize each stage in student performance in order to assess student progress.

Cognitive Stage

Cognitive learning has a basis in factual knowledge. Since the student has no prior knowledge of flying, the instructor first introduces him or her to a basic skill. The student then memorizes the steps required to perform the skill. As the student carries out these memorized steps, he or she is often unaware of progress, or may fixate on one aspect of performance. Performing the skill at this stage typically requires all the student’s attention; distractions introduced by an instructor often cause performance to deteriorate or stop.

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.

For example, Beverly enters a steep turn after increasing power by a prescribed amount and adjusting the pitch trim. She fixates on the attitude indicator as she attempts to achieve the desired bank angle. The bank angle exceeds tolerances as she struggles to correct it, making many abrupt control inputs.

Associative Stage

Even demonstrating how to do something does not result in the student learning the skill. Practice is necessary in order for the student to learn how to coordinate muscles with visual and tactile senses. Learning to perform various aircraft maintenance skills or flight maneuvers requires practice. Another benefit of practice is that as the student gains proficiency in a skill, verbal instructions become more meaningful. A long, detailed explanation is confusing before the student begins performing, whereas specific comments are more meaningful and useful after the skill has been partially mastered.

As the storage of a skill via practice continues, the student learns to associate individual steps in performance with likely outcomes. The student no longer performs a series of memorized steps, but is able to assess his or her progress along the way and make adjustments in performance. Performing the skill still requires deliberate attention, but the student is better able to deal with distractions.

For example, Beverly enters the steep turn and again struggles to achieve the desired bank angle. Still working on the bank angle, she remembers the persistent altitude control problem and glances at the altimeter. Noticing that the aircraft has descended almost 100 feet, she increases back pressure on the control and adjusts the trim slightly. She goes back to a continuing struggle with the bank angle, keeping it under control with some effort, and completes the turn 80 feet higher than started.

Automatic Response Stage

Automaticity is one of the by-products of practice. As procedures become automatic, less attention is required to carry them out, so it is possible to do other things simultaneously, or at least do other things more comfortably. By this stage, student performance of the skill is rapid and smooth. The student devotes much less deliberate attention to performance, and may be able to carry on a conversation or perform other tasks while performing the skill. The student makes far fewer adjustments during his or her performance and these adjustments tend to be small. The student may no longer be able to remember the individual steps in the procedure, or explain how to perform the skill.

For example, the student smoothly increases power, back pressure on the yoke, and trim as a turn is entered. During the turn, the instructor questions the student on an unrelated topic. The student answers the questions, while making two small adjustments in pitch and trim, and then rolls out of the turn with the altimeter centered on the target altitude. Noting the dramatically improved performance, the instructor asks “What are you doing differently?” The student seems unsure and says, “I have developed a feel for it.”

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