Safety Publications/Articles


Younger instructor, older student

Training techniques for the adult learner

The demographics of the flight instruction business have changed dramatically. The days of a young person beginning a professional aviation career at the local airport are fading fast; a majority of today's future professional aviators are either attending college or university aviation programs or are enrolled in large commercial flight schools.

Operators of many smaller aviation businesses have had to reassess the market for their flight training activities. Many are finding an active market with older students. These people have reached a stage in their lives where they can afford both the time and the money to learn to fly, and they are excellent potential customers. These students are generally interested in learning to fly either as a hobby or as an asset to their business activities. It is increasingly common for a flight instructor at a local airport to find himself working with students who may be significantly older than he is and who have had significant personal, educational, and professional experiences in their lives.

The word education stems for the Latin word educare, which is a combination of the Latin e, meaning "out," and ducere, meaning "to lead." Education, therefore, is a process where a person is "led out" on a search for knowledge, insight, and wisdom. You are the leader in the relationship you work so hard to establish and foster with your students. You are the one who will lead them on their journey of discovery into the exciting world of aviation.

When working with an older student, the first difference the instructor sees is the age difference - but this is not the only, or even the most important, difference. Adult learners are more mature, have experienced successes and failures in their lives, expect to be treated as they are used to being treated by their peers, and expect a certain level of competence and professionalism from their flight instructor. Many have had experience with professional training programs in other fields, and they expect to find the same level of quality and professionalism in their aviation training.

Research has shown that adult learners expect certain things from teachers or instructors. Adult learners expect their instructor to be knowledgeable in the subject areas he is teaching. As a flight instructor, you are the expert, and you should have and project confidence in your knowledge and skills without projecting egotism or arrogance. Adult learners will tend to ask more in-depth and probing questions than younger students, especially as their training progresses, and they will expect you to provide them with direct and insightful answers.

Adult learners expect their instructor to present the material clearly and to be capable of explaining problem areas effectively. It is very important with adult learners that you have a plan for your training activities, which means a course syllabus and individual lesson plans. I have found it very beneficial to give my students a copy of the course syllabus and a complete set of individual lesson plans at the beginning of the training program. This is a great way to allow them to feel connected with your training program. It also shows them that you are a professional, are well-organized, are ready to proceed with their training, and take pride in what you do.

Adult learners expect their instructor to be motivating. An encouraging comment when needed and positive reinforcement when appropriate will go a long way toward developing a strong rapport with your adult learners.

Adult learners expect their instructor to explain the relevance of the material covered. Adults frequently learn to fly with a definite purpose in mind. Explain the relevance of each topic you cover and each flight maneuver you teach. I have found it very helpful to know exactly what your student's aviation goals are and then relate his or her training to those goals. A student planning to fly a fabric-covered taildragger from a grass strip will have a very different set of training priorities than a student who plans to eventually operate a turbocharged twin into busy metropolitan airports for business purposes.

I remember a specific situation many years ago when I was just getting started in aviation and was instructing for a small flight school in central Pennsylvania. Most of my students were in their late teens or early twenties, wanting to pursue careers in aviation. One day I began working with a retired man who had dreamed of learning to fly his whole life. I began by following the same syllabus that I had been using with the young future professional pilots. The training was not proceeding as I hoped, and with no formal training in education, I was running out if ideas. One day I took the man to lunch at the local airport restaurant, and we just talked. He told me that he had grown up in the 1930s next to a small grass-strip airport and had spent hours watching the airplanes taking off and landing. The next day when he arrived for his lesson I put him in the front seat of a two-place tandem-seat tailwheel Piper Super Cub, and we took off and visited three grass-strip airports that were located nearby. The man's eyes were shining, there was a new spring in his step, the questions were pouring in, and he was more excited than I could have ever imagined. After 50 years he had found his dream.

Adult learners expect their instructor to be enthusiastic. If you're bored with what you're doing, it will be impossible to conceal that boredom - especially from your adult students. They should believe that their lesson is the most important thing on your mind at that time. It is to them, and it should be for you as well.

Adult learners expect their instructor to create a learning environment in which they will feel comfortable. This is especially important in flight training, where the environment is so totally new, unique, and unfamiliar. Primarily because of a lack of understanding, students often perceive airplanes to be threatening. A complete and detailed preflight discussion should be conducted. You should explain exactly what will be covered in the upcoming flight lesson, why it is important, and how it fits into the student's overall training program. This is always good educational practice and will significantly help to ease the anxiety of someone who may be a bit apprehensive. Nothing decreases anxiety as effectively as knowledge and understanding.

Adult learners expect their instructor to employ a variety of instructional techniques. Fortunately, this is rarely a problem for us as flight instructors. Excellent textbooks with accompanying workbooks, large classroom-size training aids, videotapes, films, and programs on CDs and DVDs are all readily available and comparatively inexpensive.

Adult learners expect their instructor to be capable of adapting to meet a wide variety of student needs. Because of their broader range of backgrounds and experiences, adult learners bring with them a broader range of needs, problems, and concerns. As with any student, individual adult learners will experience areas of rapid progress, areas of slower progress, plateaus, and even reversions as their training progresses. The difference is that older learners will more readily recognize this situation and will expect you to guide and lead them through these periods.

Adult learners expect their instructor to be dedicated to teaching. It is very common for people heading for a career as a commercial pilot to build flight time and experience by working as a flight instructor. Unfortunately, at the time we are doing it we are often not knowledgeable enough, experienced enough, or mature enough to appreciate what a great personal and professional experience flight instructing really is. Regardless of why you are instructing, you owe it to your student and yourself to teach as competently and professionally as you can. The cultivation of a professional attitude combined with experience as a flight instructor will pay you enormous dividends in the future.

When working with older students you should approach your relationship as being that of a leader, coordinator, facilitator, coach, and guide. Adult learners tend to be very inquisitive and often want information that goes significantly beyond the minimum knowledge required to just pass an FAA exam. This can be a wonderful opportunity for you to include additional material not normally covered at that stage of pilot training and engage in more challenging discussions than those that might normally take place with younger learners who are primarily interested in just passing the required tests and getting their certificates and ratings.

Try to promote as much student participation and communication as you can when working with adult students. This can be done in subtle ways without sacrificing any of the structure and integrity that you have worked so hard to design into your training program. Ask questions often, and not just about technical aspects of flying. Ask for your adult students' opinions on what they are experiencing, what they are feeling, and what they perceive the value of those experiences and feelings to be. It will give them a real sense that you care about them as individuals, and you might just be surprised by what you can learn from them. Adult learners may very well approach their flight training from a different background and with different experiences than you did when you learned to fly. You may find their thoughts and observations to be very interesting and worthwhile.

Develop a collaborative and mutually respectful training environment for your adult students where free and active communication can occur. If you are planning to review several flight maneuvers during that day's lesson, review them in preflight and ask your adult learner which he or she would like to do first. Your student will feel like he or she is a participating member of your instructional team. Drilling a bit deeper and inquiring as to the reason for the particular response you were given may uncover a hidden uneasiness or outright fear of some maneuver or group of maneuvers that you should be aware of and will need to address.

Recognize and respect the unique individuality of your adult students. Older students have had unique and often significant life experiences, both positive and negative, that will affect how they perceive you, your training, and flying in general. If a person has a technical background, work that into your discussions and relate some of the training topics to that experience. Maybe your student has experience with travel, social work, education, psychology, sociology, or business. All of those and virtually any other area of interest can be related to aviation with a little creativity on your part. The more successful you are at relating your flight training activities to your students' specific background and experiences, the more interested and involved he or she will become in the training and the more dynamic and rewarding your instructor/student relationship will be.

It is especially important when working with an adult student that you see yourself as the professional that you are. This can be very difficult, especially for a younger or fairly new flight instructor who is asked to work with an older student - someone who is an accomplished professional in his or her field. Regardless of your student's age or professional or educational accomplishments, you are a professional in your field. He or she has sought you out to learn and benefit from your knowledge and experience. Adult students are used to working with professionals, and if you don't see yourself as being one, neither will they.

C. Hall "Skip" Jones, of Manassas, Virginia, is an ATP, CFII, A&P, and IA. He has logged more than 12,000 hours of flight time, including more than 4,000 hours as a CFI. He is pursuing a doctoral degree in adult education.

By C. Hall "Skip" Jones

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