Safety Publications/Articles


Connecting with the cortex

How your students learn

Training trends
May 2005

Student pilot certificates are the number of student pilot certificate applications processed during the month of May, and includes renewals as well as original issuances. Airline pilot hiring is all professional pilot hiring during May as reported by aviation career consulting firm AIR, Inc. and includes major, national, and regional airlines as well as fractional operators.


Student pilot certificates

Airline pilot hiring










Remember when your fifth-grade teacher told you she couldn't cut a hole in your head and pour in knowledge? She was right. As much as she might have liked to crack your head open at times, she had to go through your external sensory organs to reach your cerebral cortex, the part of the brain focused on learning.

As flight instructors, we have to follow those same paths to each student's cerebral cortex. If we're effective, our student will absorb the instruction we're giving, relate that instruction to the physical sensations of flight, and compare all of that to a constantly changing base of experience stored in his brain. If everything goes well, the result will be what the FAA's Fundamentals of Instruction textbook calls a "change in behavior as a result of experience." In other words, learning will have occurred.

Specialists in neurology tell us, however, that inputs for the cerebral cortex must first pass through a portal called the limbic system. This portal examines each sensory input to determine whether it's a threat. If there's no threat, the input is routed to the cortex. If the input is determined to be a threat, an autonomic "fight or flight" response is generated. If you've been instructing for long, you've probably seen this in action when a flight student feeling threatened might snap at you, or scream like a frightened child. These are classic examples of "fight" and "flight" reactions, respectively.

There are also times when the limbic system doesn't know how to react to a given input. At that time, the brain "locks up," sometimes also locking the student's hands on the flight controls. The moral here is, if you want to reach the flight student's cortex, don't threaten the limbic system. Physiologically, the limbic system is disarmed when we laugh. So it follows that "when they're laughing, they're learning." As a result, those instructors who can make learning fun are most effective.

So how can we best get all that valuable and fun information into our students' sensory organs, past the limbic system, and into the cerebral cortex? In part, by understanding which sensory input works best for each student and adjusting our instruction to take advantage of that knowledge. Of the five human senses, the three most often used to receive flight instruction are sight, touch, and hearing. Almost always, a student learns better through one sense--or modality--than the others.

Before you start teaching a new student, give him a modality test. Here is one that is quite simple. Look at the student and hold up the "OK" sign with your thumb and index finger making a circle. Now tell the student to hold up the "OK" sign and "...put this 'OK' sign right here on your chin." But instead of putting it on your own chin, put the sign on your cheek. If your student primarily uses the visual modality to learn, he'll most likely do what you did and put the "OK" on his cheek too. If the student learns best through the aural modality, the "OK" will go right to the chin because the student listened to what you said. If you don't like this modality test, there are lots of others on the Internet. Find one and use it.

Most flight students (and most flight instructors) are predominantly visual learners. That means they learn best by seeing the instruction. Seeing an airplane attempting to taxi with the tail tied down gives the student a visual experience from which he will hopefully learn; i.e., modify his behavior by not repeating the experience.

Sometimes, an instructor will encounter a student who learns better through touch, or the tactile sense. These "seat of the pants" students feel the maneuvers through the controls and by the forces of gravity on their bodies. If you've ever had a student who easily became one with the airplane, flying it as a natural extension of himself, you've seen the tactile modality in action.

Aural learners do best by hearing the instruction. Their preferred environment is a quiet classroom, listening to lecture. Although everybody learns at least in part through hearing, true aural learners have a hard time in the world's worst classroom, the airplane. From their standpoint, it's noisy and distracting. Also, since most flight instructors themselves learn best through visual and tactile inputs, they teach that way.

As a teacher, you need to find which of these senses or modalities both you and your student favor. Note also that as a teacher you will face a challenge if your student learns best in one modality and you learn best in another.

Once you know how the student learns, teach using the modality that best reaches your student's brain. Make learning fun and use the student's favored modality to teach the lesson, and you'll achieve your teaching objectives faster--his brain.

Patrick Shaub is a senior lecturer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation and an active airplane and helicopter flight instructor with more than 6,000 hours total flight time. Though not a neurologist, he believes that laughter in the cockpit is "good medicine.

By Patrick Shaub

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