Chapter 2. The Learning Process

The Learning Route to Expertise

What does it take to successfully orchestrate all of the knowledge and skills the student has learned into what instructors, evaluators, and other pilots and mechanics would regard as true expertise? All evidence seems to point once again to the idea of practice. Just as the perfection of an individual skill seems to rely on repeated practice, so does the combination of knowledge and skills that make up our abilities to do the real-world job of pilot or mechanic.

How much practice does it take to become a true expert? In a study of expert performers in fields ranging from science to music to chess, one psychologist found that no performer had reached true expertise without having invested at least ten years of practice in his or her field. Experts have been found to use two tools to help them gain expertise in their field: cognitive strategies and problem-solving tactics.

Cognitive Strategies

The idea of cognitive strategies emerged over 50 years ago in the context of human information processing theory. Cognitive strategies refer to the knowledge of procedures or knowledge about how to do something in contrast with the knowledge of facts. They use the mind to solve a problem or complete a task and provide a structure for learning that actively promotes the comprehension and retention of knowledge. A cognitive strategy helps the learner develop internal procedures that enable him or her to perform higher level operations.

As students acquire experience, they develop their own strategies for dealing with problems that arise frequently. For example, a student develops the following strategy for avoiding inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) at night. He or she checks the weather prior to departure, obtains updates on the weather every hour, and plans to divert to an alternate destination at the first suspicion of unexpected weather ahead.

One approach to helping students develop cognitive strategies is to study and identify the strategies that experts use and then teach these strategies to the students. Expert strategies were identified by researchers who presented experts with problems to solve and asked them to think aloud as they attempted to solve the problems. These cognitive strategies can be taught to students, usually with successful results.

Problem-Solving Tactics

Problem-solving tactics are specific actions intended to get a particular result, and this type of knowledge represents the most targeted knowledge in the expert’s arsenal. For example, a student notices how easy it is to make a mistake with a takeoff distance chart after using it several times. She notices her finger drifts upward or downward when sliding it across a row of numbers on the chart, sometimes landing on the wrong number. The student formulates several tactics to ensure she obtains the correct figures: (1) work slowly and deliberately, (2) use a ruler, and (3) double-check the work.

But even the experts had to practice. In a study of violinists at a music academy in Berlin, researchers compared the “best” students to those who were regarded as merely “very good.” Using estimates of how many total hours each student had spent practicing during his or her lifetime, the researchers found that the best violinists had spent an average of 7,000 hours practicing, while the very good violinists had logged about 5,000 hours. The scientific study of expertise reiterates the adage: “Practice makes perfect.”

Awareness of Existence of Unknowns

An important aspect of an expert’s knowledge is an awareness of what he or she does not know. This is not always the case with a student. It’s important that an instructor be aware of situations in which students have acquired “book” knowledge, but not yet acquired the more in-depth understanding that comes from association and experience. For example, after acquiring substantial knowledge of a single-engine training aircraft, students should understand that a four-seat aircraft by the same manufacturer should be approached with caution and not overconfidence.

Summary of Instructor Actions

To help students exercise their knowledge and skills in a concerted fashion, the instructor should:

  • Explain the two types of multitasking and give examples of each type.
  • Ensure that individual skills are reasonably well-practiced before asking students to perform several tasks at once.
  • Teach students how to deal with distractions and interruptions and provide them with opportunities to practice.
  • Point out fixation and inattention when it occurs.
  • Devise scenarios that allow students to use their knowledge and skill to solve realistic problems and make decisions.
  • Explain to the student that continued practice with the goal of improving leads to continued improvement.
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