|Chapter 2. The Learning Process
Fixation and Inattention
Since human attention is limited in focus and highly prone to distraction, people are vulnerable to two other types of problems: fixation and inattention.
Fixation occurs when a student becomes absorbed in performing one task to the exclusion of other tasks. Instructors see many examples of this in student performance. Beginning instrument pilots characteristically fixate on particular instruments, attempting to control one aspect of their performance while other aspects deteriorate. Fixation on a task is often a sign that the task has not received enough practice in isolation. That is, the student has not yet mastered the task well enough to perform it in addition to other tasks. Fixation can happen even when individual skills have been reasonably mastered, when students have not yet learned the importance of managing their own limited attentional resources.
Inattention occurs when a student fails to pay attention to a task that is important. Inattention is sometimes a natural by-product of fixation. Students fixate on one task and become too busy to attend to other tasks. Inattention also happens when students are not busy: attention may drift when they become bored or think that a task does not deserve their attention. In some cases, this type of inattention is difficult to eliminate through training and practice. For example, it is well known that humans perform poorly when placed in the role of passive monitor. Many studies have shown how performance rapidly deteriorates when humans are asked to passively monitor gauges or the progress of an automated system such as a GPS navigation computer or autopilot. Furthermore, it seems that the more reliable the system becomes, the poorer the human performance becomes at the monitoring task. The first line of defense against this type of inattention is to alert the student to the problem, and to help students develop habits that keep their attention focused.
How To Identify Fixation or Inattention Problems
One way for instructors to identify problems with fixation and inattention is to try and follow where students look. To accomplish this, instructors can glance at a student’s eyes to try to determine where the student is looking. Students who appear to look at one instrument for an extended period of time might have a problem with fixation. Students whose gaze is never directed toward engine instruments might have a problem with inattention.
The technique of following student eye movements is useful, but has limitations since looking in the same direction as the student is not the same as “seeing” what the student sees.
Research and practical experience have demonstrated the usefulness of practicing in realistic scenarios—ones that resemble the environment in which knowledge and skills are later used. Instructors must devise scenarios that allow students to practice what they have learned. This is challenging because different students need to practice different things at different times, and because different working environments present different practice opportunities.
What makes a good scenario? A good scenario:
For example, Bill is introducing Beverly to a low-fuel emergency. His objective at this early stage is to simply enable Beverly to recall the sorts of actions that are appropriate for a low-fuel emergency. He decides to use the classroom environment as a first practice scenario. He asks Beverly about what sorts of actions she might take if such an event would occur. She has some good ideas but he asks her to think more about before her next lesson. On her next lesson he gives her the same exercise. This time her answers are consistent and insightful. Bill decides that this scenario has served its purpose and moves on.
During their next flight, Bill’s objective is having Beverly recall and carry out the steps that she was able to cite in the classroom. As they arrive at their home airport, he presents Beverly with a low-fuel scenario. He notes that she remembers much of what she was able to recall in the classroom, but amidst the excitement, has forgotten a few things. He uses the same scenario at a different airport on their next flight, and she performs admirably.
Later in her training, Bill’s next objective is to enable her to recall and perform the emergency steps in concert with other piloting duties. They depart on a cross-country flight from a populated area to a remote area. While en route, Bill presents Beverly with a low-fuel emergency scenario knowing that there is only one airport nearby and that it is not easy to spot. She successfully uses her available navigational resources to locate and arrive at the airport. Upon returning home, Bill attempts to generalize her new abilities and put yet a different spin on the same problem. He presents the low-fuel scenario, taking advantage of the fact that there are eight nearby airports. All of the airports are in plain view, and she must choose one.
Each of these scenarios taught Beverly something she needed to learn next, and made good use of the surroundings and available circumstances. As these examples illustrate, there is no list of “canned” scenarios that can be used for all students. Instructors must learn to devise their own scenarios by considering what each student needs to practice, and exploiting features of the local environment that allow them to do it.
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