Mix it up

Learning styles in aviation

By Garrett DeMeyer

What’s your learning style?  Personally, I’m an olfactory learner. I learn best through my sense of smell. Allow me to explain.

Advanced Pilot

For some, the idea of a learning style is seen as the golden ticket to reaching every student and making certain they retain information. Online quizzes can quickly inform you of your preference and provide tips to study better. Typically, people are sorted into visual, auditory, kinesthetic (learning through touch or by doing), and those who learn best by reading.

A common interpretation of the learning styles theory is to match instruction to someone’s preferred style. If a student tells their instructor they are a visual learner, the instructor will find ways to incorporate more charts, diagrams, and pictures into their lessons. If a student indicates they prefer learning through reading, the instructor may allow the textbook to do more of the teaching.

It’s easy for us to get stuck in the mindset of one learning style and let that define our learning. When I took the quiz, I proudly learned I was a visual learner. This means pictures, diagrams, and videos are the best way for me to learn. Read about my airplanes electrical system? Why bother, I’m a visual learner, show me the diagrams!

While that attitude might be a bit extreme, I fear the act of asking students what their learning style is or having students take a learning styles quiz introduces some confirmation bias into their learning. If a student believes they are a kinesthetic learner, they might not think watching a video of someone performing steep turns will help them learn. They need to be in the airplane and flying the maneuvers to learn.

Thinking back to your own training, wouldn’t watching a video on steep turns and then flying the maneuver help you learn better than just flying steep turns alone?

If you’re like me, a combination of material was most effective to your learning. I was able to benefit from all the different ways information can be learned. You probably enjoyed learning in the airplane the most but seeing a diagram of lift vectors in a turn or watching someone else fly the maneuver when you’re at 1 G and 0 knots may have been the extra step needed for the procedure to click.

Psychology supports the idea that learning styles are not the panacea some would have you believe. A study in the Journal of Educational Psychology reported, “Results failed to show a statistically significant relationship between learning style preference (auditory, visual word) and learning aptitude (listening comprehension, reading comprehension).” In other words, it didn’t matter what learning style you thought you had, your test results were the same. What’s more, it found no statistically significant evidence that teaching in someone’s preferred learning style results in better learning or retention.

Another 2017 paper published in the British Journal of Psychology concluded “learning style was associated with subjective aspects of learning but not objective aspects of learning.” People like to know what their learning style is, but blindly adhering to that learning style alone is not an effective way from them to learn.

Finally, a study published in 2020 in Frontiers in Education pored through papers from as early as 2004 and “concluded that there is currently no empirical evidence that this ‘matching instruction’ improves learning, and it could potentially cause harm.”

Seeing, hearing, doing, and reading are all valid ways for everybody to learn. Instead of having lessons tailored to a learning style, find the kind of learning that most effectively conveys the topic.

As an example, pretend you’re learning how to calculate takeoff performance. Your instructor can stand in front of you all day long explaining how to perform the calculations. They can make beautiful slides with great animations tracing the procedure and showing the calculations step by step. But when you go to take the written test, you freeze. While performance calculations are any easy target for visual learning, it’s a task you physically need to do. The only way to learn is by doing and practicing the calculations for yourself. By understanding what you need to know, your instructor can create a lesson that allows the information to be shared effectively and efficiently.

However, many of the things we do in flying involves all our senses. Using all the learning styles in concert with each other, tailored to the topic you’re trying to teach, may produce the best results for your students.

Learning radio communications is one example of this approach. First, it may be helpful to draw a diagram explaining the parts of a radio transmission (who you’re talking to, who you are where you are, what you want). For homework, have your student read through sample radio transmissions and listen to to get a feel for what they can expect. During the next lesson prepare a script to help your student learn by doing.

If you’re an instructor, you may already be utilizing multiple teaching styles in your lessons. I encourage you to continue to work with the different materials you have and find ways to mesh the learning styles into effective lessons. If you find yourself always turning to lessons that favor one mode of learning, give something else a try. I bet your student will respond well to a mix of instructional materials.

As a student don’t be afraid to take it upon yourself to play to all the different learning styles. Watch videos, read the textbox, talk to other pilots, and chair fly. The more ways you’re presented with information, the faster you’ll learn.

While the idea of learning styles is well intentioned, the message has been lost in the promise of a quick and easy solution. Teaching (and learning) is hard! The more tools we have at our disposal, the better we’ll learn. Don’t be afraid to try a different style if it’s suited to the information you’re learning. Be open to a mix of materials to stimulate all the ways you learn.

What about my answer from the first paragraph? You can’t draw a diagram to explain the sublime scent of 100LL on a calm summer morning. The only way to learn is to take a sniff.

Garrett DeMeyer is a private pilot and is working toward his instrument rating.

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