Chapter 2. The Learning Process

Habit Formation

The formation of correct habit patterns from the beginning of any learning process is essential to further learning and for correct performance after the completion of training. Remember, primacy is one of the fundamental principles of learning. Therefore, it is the instructor’s responsibility to insist on correct techniques and procedures from the outset of training to provide proper habit patterns. It is much easier to foster proper habits from the beginning of training than to correct faulty ones later.

Due to the high level of knowledge and skill required in aviation for both pilots and maintenance technicians, training has traditionally followed a building block concept. This means new learning and habit patterns are based on a solid foundation of experience and/or old learning. Everything from intricate cognitive processes to simple motor skills depends on what the student already knows and how that knowledge can be applied in the present. As knowledge and skill increase, there is an expanding base upon which to build for the future.

How Understanding Affects Memory

The ability to remember is greatly affected by the level of understanding of what has been learned. Many studies have demonstrated a depth-of-processing effect on memory: the more deeply humans think about what they have learned, the more likely they are able to retrieve that knowledge later. Depth-of-processing is the natural result of the kinds of learning activities described earlier: beginning with memorized information and then elaborating upon it, making associations, constructing explanations, all in pursuit of furthering understanding.

The effects of depth of processing on memory are quite powerful and result from even the simplest attempts to elaborate on what has been learned. One study asked participants to memorize sentences such as “The pilot arrived late.” Half of the participants simply memorized the sentences as they were. The other participants were asked to develop an elaboration for the sentence such as “because of the bad weather.”

When put to a test, participants who created elaborations were significantly better able to recall the sentences. When memories for sentences had decayed, it seems that remembered words from the elaborations helped people recall them.

Remembering During Training

Remembering what is learned on a day-to-day basis is the first challenge students must meet. As students are presented with new knowledge each day, they must work to maintain that new knowledge plus all the knowledge they learned on previous days. Indeed, remembering during training is a challenge that increases in magnitude each day.

The first threat to newly acquired knowledge is a lack of frequent usage in the past. To address this threat, the student must engage in regular practice of what they have learned. Students often put off daily studying in favor of “cramming” the night before an evaluation. These students should be made aware that shorter and regularly spaced study sessions produce memory results that far exceed those obtained from cramming.

A second threat to newly acquired knowledge is a lack of understanding that might serve to assist the student in recalling it. It has been demonstrated that study practices that combine repetition of knowledge along with efforts to increase one’s understanding of the knowledge lead to best results. The idea of reading with “study questions” in mind is one that has received much attention by memory researchers.

Experiments have found that not only does answering study questions lead to better memory, but so does the very act of creating study questions. In one experiment in which students read a text and were then tested on their comprehension, students who wrote their own study questions and then discarded them unanswered exhibited better recall than students who simply read the text.

Remembering After Training

Students must leave the training environment with a sound understanding that a certificate is in no sense a guarantee that they will remember anything that they have learned. It seems that no one is exempt from the process of forgetting. Continued practice of their knowledge and skill is the only means of retaining what they learned, and practice is important after they become certificated pilots and mechanics as it is during their training.

One study of pilots’ retention of aeronautical knowledge showed that students’ retention of some topics was superior to that of their own instructors. It seems that the students’ active use and recent rehearsal of these knowledge topics in preparation for knowledge and practical tests outweighed the effects of the more frequent (but less recent) usage on the part of the instructors. This finding nicely demonstrates that an instructor’s knowledge is just as vulnerable to forgetting when it has not been recently practiced.

In the same study, the ability of certificated pilots to remember details about regulations was related to the number of months since each pilot’s last flight review. This suggests that pilots may take steps to sharpen their knowledge before a flight review and allow it to decay between reviews. Even skills that become automatic during training may not remain automatic after a period of disuse.

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