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CFI Tips

Learning From Your Students

The average time a person spends as a flight instructor is somewhere between 18 months and two years. By this time he or she is ready to move on with a flying career or has simply given up teaching. I have been teaching people to fly for nearly six years. It's my full-time job, and I do it every day. Just as flying every day keeps you sharp and makes you a better pilot, constant exposure to students of all kinds gives you a special insight into how people think and learn.

People solve problems and arrive at conclusions by many different paths. The instructor who recognizes this has a whole new box of tools at his disposal for teaching complex operations.

The Aviation Instructor's Handbook talks about the flight instructor as a practical psychologist and teaches us to "establish a common core of experience" to facilitate communication, but we must dig much deeper. We must not only find that common core, we also must discover the way each student performs the problem-solving process. Only then can we be fully effective as teachers.

Take, for example, the middle management types. I recently had a student who was a department head in a large manufacturing company. She was the typical "Type A" personality. Although she was never impatient to complete her training, her approach to retaining and recalling information reflected her approach to her role as a manager - a job that forced her to find ways to bring different pieces of the manufacturing puzzle together. She used what I call "inverted pyramid reasoning." For example, if I pointed to an airport on the chart and asked her what class of airspace existed in that area, she would stare at the airport and decide whether it was towered or nontowered. Then she would run through all the classes of airspace until she determined that it was Class G. Rather than take a "wide angle" view of the area, she fixated on the airport and ignored the colored shading around it. If asked which instruments belonged to which system, she would visualize the entire panel and eliminate the ones that didn't belong to that system. This may seem contradictory since in one case she fixated on one detail and in another she started with the big picture. I was baffled until I recognized that she was using a form of association to arrive at her answers. I was concerned that during the oral exam the pilot examiner would take this as being unfamiliar with operational knowledge and perhaps fail her on the test.

Once I understood how she was thinking, it was easy for me to come up with a solution. Instead of pointing to that airport and asking a cold question, I gave her an operational scenario and rephrased the questions as though she were asking herself the same thing while en route. Soon she was reading airspace like an experienced pilot. Using the same technique with other questions, I had her ready for the oral in no time. I had found a way to get to the top of her reasoning pyramid by a shortcut, and it worked.

Then there was the engineer. Local procedure for noise abatement was to turn crosswind at 500 feet agl when remaining in the traffic pattern. At our airport that was about 650 feet msl. On every takeoff, whether it was into a strong headwind or it was a hot, no-wind day, as soon as that altimeter hit 650 feet, this engineer was turning. Never mind that the old Cessna 150 was three miles from the runway or that the headwind kept us over the departure end. This student would turn at the prescribed altitude no matter what. And the rest of his flying was the same way. He flew by the numbers regardless of where the airplane wanted to go.

Finally I covered most of the instruments and made him fly pitch and power. That and the use of landmarks for orientation got him over his fixation with the numbers. From my experience with him, I learned not to teach the numbers, especially on landing approaches, too early in the process because that's where the student will fixate instead of looking outside the airplane. I don't really care all that much what the exact airspeed is (in a forgiving primary trainer) just so the airspeed needle is pointing generally to the right the speed within the normal landing range. A quick glance at the indicator will tell you all you need to know.

This same student was so accustomed to working within his professional frame of reference as an engineer that he had trouble with the altimeter. In his experience with test equipment, a needle movement to the left meant a decrease. That idea was fixed in his mind so firmly that if we were flying at 2,500 feet and the needle moved to the left, he read it as a decrease and started a climb. The reverse was also true. I realized the fault was mine since we normally did our maneuvers at either 2,000 or 3,000 feet. I learned a lesson from this, too, and began varying the altitudes at which we operated so that the student would get used to the different positions of the needle.

Then there was the problem-solver student. We all know the classic problem-solving method: Identify the problem, come up with various possible solutions, evaluate each solution and its potential outcome, and pick the solution that best solves the problem. This is generally effective, but in the cockpit during a landing approach things happen too quickly for such a plodding approach. With basic knowledge of how the airplane flies, the act of lowering the flaps should be a simple procedural event. But for the problem solver, it was a long, drawn-out exercise in analysis. So we went back to the classroom for some discussion of basic aerodynamics, then to the practice area to rehearse the landing procedures. Having reviewed the theory, then practiced it in the airplane, what was once a complex task became a simple procedure.

What did I learn from this? In the case of the problem solver, moving into the traffic pattern and doing touch-and-goes was premature. Although the basic maneuvers were satisfactory up to this point, it was too early to begin preparation for the solo. Before we could effectively practice in the pattern, some of the procedures needed to become automatic rather than problems that needed to be solved.

Every person perceives things in a different way. Every student learns in different ways and at different rates. The flight instructor must be able to recognize these differences as early as possible in the course of training. Doing so saves time and money for the student and makes the overall training process easier and far less frustrating for both the student and the instructor. It is up to the instructor to make the extra effort to know his or her students and how each one learns. Let each of your students teach you how best to teach them.

By Colin Cressman

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