transfer of learning: improving how flight instructors teach

SFI-9-850901giga“Remember what we did last lesson?”


“Last lesson? Remember?”


Every aspiring flight instructor studies the “Law of Primacy,” during preparation for the Fundamentals of Instruction Knowledge Test. As you remember, that particular law of learning says that the first method or knowledge taught to a student for a given situation is the one most likely to be remembered. What’s more, that first way one learns to do something is very difficult to replace with something new, which is why it’s so hard to change the ways people do things if they originally learned something different. That’s why it’s so important to transfer the “right” information the first time. Instill the wrong stuff at the beginning and your student may never get straightened out.

I long viewed the Rule of Primacy as applying primarily to student training — never considered that as a practicing flight instructor I too might be a victim of the principle. Then I learned that traditional flight-instructor methods leave much be desired; I’m still scrambling to redefine my teaching methods to do the job better. Man, that old Law of Primacy is fighting me all the way!

My new awakening began several years ago when I attended a seminar given by Dr. Mike Wiggins of Embry-Riddle University. Mike blew the doors off this group of experienced CFIs by sharing fundamental facts about how people learn, and therefore, how we should teach. What an eye-opener!

I admit that not everyone in the room was impacted so strongly as I — many principles Mike teaches are well-known by professional educators. I’d always thought we instructors were part of that group, but in fact school teachers receive a great deal of formal education in principles of teaching, while CFI training leans almost exclusively toward the aviation technical side. For most CFIs, formal training in how to teach boils down to memorizing a few rote answers for the Fundamentals of Instruction Knowledge test, so they can get on with the “important stuff” on the main Flight Instructor written. Any additional teaching skills are picked up from their own instructors, spiked over time with doses from the school of hard knocks. Accordingly, much of the science of teaching never reaches most of us. Here are a few fascinating insights I learned at Dr. Wiggins’s seminar.

“Transfer of learning” is a key concept in Mike’s work — meaning how well we instructors deliver knowledge into the minds of our students. Like desktop computers, our brains incorporate two kinds of memory: short-term “working memory” (like RAM on your PC), and long-term memory for permanently recording information (call it the hard drive.)

Information first enters the brain via short-term memory for processing. There, if everything’s working right, transient stuff like the radio frequency just assigned is processed and discarded, while information to be stored for future recovery, like input from a flight instructor, is identified and transferred to long-term memory.

Mentally immerse yourself for a moment in the cockpit during a recent lesson; conjure up the drone of the engine and interruptions from the radio. Your student is sweating an IFR approach under the hood, and you as CFI are coaching, cajoling, informing, reminding, challenging, and sharing the finer points of each segment. How much will your student absorb? Will she remember what you’ve taught her? And if so, how much?

Interesting transfer-of-learning fact number one: a person can retain only five to nine bits of information in short-term memory at a time. If we as instructors share more than a small number of facts in short order, the student dumps information overboard without absorbing it. What’s more, information coming from radio, flight controls, and instruments competes for those same five-to-seven slots, so with much going on we may need to relieve pressure by taking the controls before sharing some especially salient point.

For students to remember what we’re teaching, information that does reach their short-term memory must then be transferred into long-term memory. Sounds simple enough — until you learn it takes five to ten seconds for the brain to process a block of information from short term memory, and install it into long-term memory.

So for our student to remember an important point, we must allow five to ten seconds of silence before sharing the next one. Ten seconds to imbue one block of information…  “One-one-thousandth, two-one-thousandths, three-one-thousandths, four-one-thousandths, five-one-thousandths, six-one-thousandths, seven-one-thousandths, eight-one-thousandths, nine-one-thousandths, ten-one-thousandths…” Wow! Deliver information any faster than that and… heck, they won’t remember. What’s more, if students are denied that processing time, they can permanently lose the information in as little as fifteen seconds! It’s easy to see that if the busy cockpit a few lines back sported as much rapid-fire instruction as it sounds, the CFI probably worked very hard to achieve very little retained learning in his student.

So now we know to share no more than a few educational nuggets in short order, then program five to ten seconds of silence before contributing more — that’s what it takes for our students to learn the material.

Until now we’ve addressed transfer of individual knowledge bits to our students. Let’s back up for a moment and look at the bigger picture. Based on preliminary research, it appears that students can only absorb one or maybe two major learning experiences per lesson. “Hold on,” you say, “If I teach only one major topic per lesson we can’t meet the syllabus!”

“Could be,” says Mike. “But try to teach more than that in one lesson and you’ll just have to do it again next time.”

What’s more,  limiting major topics to one or two per lesson does not in itself ensure that students will learn everything. Important points must ultimately be shared approximately eight times, in order for students to properly absorb, understand, and retain the material. That doesn’t mean saying each point over, eight times in a row. Rather the material should be revisited in a variety of different ways, including verbal explanation, visual presentation, interactive discussion, and when possible, applied logical reasoning. The longer the interval between reinforcement of the topic, the less effective the learning. So it’s best to revisit key points several times in the first session or two, with further repetition soon thereafter.

To demonstrate these principles at our seminar, Mike listed key points to remember, quizzed us, then listed them again, had us write down the ones we remembered, assembled us in groups to share the ones we remembered, then assigned group members to divide responsibility for remembering and meet to discuss them, and finally, asked each group to report on how it was all accomplished. It works! That’s why I remember much of the stuff he taught at the time.

How do we apply this new understanding to enhance student learning?

1. Good lesson planning helps: organize each session around one or two major learning objectives or PTS tasks.

2. Share input and advice only in bite-sized chunks, with silence between important points to allow transfer of learning from your student’s short-term memory to long-term memory.

3. Reinforce important concepts through repetition using a variety of teaching methods.

It’s also important to focus on key learning elements with little deviation — don’t try to transfer all you know about a given topic to your student at one time. We instructors draw from large pools of experiences and knowledge; undoubtedly part of the fun of teaching is sharing them. But as you see, delivering too much information in short order defeats our teaching objectives. Better to transfer core knowledge thoroughly and effectively, and let nice-to-know-but-not-really-necessary stuff wait for another time.

Back to my own Law of Primacy challenges. Now that I’ve learned a few simple techniques for improving transfer of learning from me to my students, I simply cannot believe how challenging it is to change my ways — to formulate and simplify what I want to say ahead of time, to express only relevant information, and hardest of all, to keep my mouth shut between important points.

It’s worth it, though. While still refining my methods, I can already see results. Congratulations and many thanks to people like Mike Wiggins, for challenging the Law of Primacy among CFIs and sharing exciting new tools and insights for teaching. Takes me back… to the wonderful kick as a student of overcoming old habits to grasp a better method, and thereby nailing the sweet spot on the ol’ ILS. That’s what makes flying so interesting — always learning better ways and new tricks.

Based on an article that originally appeared in NAFI Mentor magazine. ©2009 Gregory N. Brown

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For more guidance on this topic, see Greg’s book, The Savvy Flight Instructor 2nd Edition.

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