Select Page

How We Practice Matters

In this series we’re examining what psychology can teach us about training better. Specifically we’re looking at the life work of Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, co-directors of the Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA. The Bjork’s demonstrate that we can enhance our learning and long-term performance by challenging ourselves more during practice. The trick is that these challenges may appear to harm our performance in the moment; however, their long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term pain.

Desirable Difficulties

The Bjork’s have coined the term “desirable difficulties” to describe strategies that bolster overall learning by making practice sessions more challenging. Earlier we looked at variation and spacing. Our next skill, “retrieval,” helps students learn by emphasizing active participation over passive listening. Students asked to remember, recite, and recall what they’ve learned outperform students simply listening and taking notes.

Output Over Input

Listening to a lecture, watching a demonstration, reading a manual, or viewing a video are all forms of input. They are various methods of pushing knowledge into our brains. Input alone doesn’t produce learning. Output – putting knowledge and skills into action – is the real engine of learning.

Listen to a lecture multiple times and you won’t learn the topic as well as if you attempt to explain the same topic to someone else just once. That first explanation might be awful, but you will learn more by doing it than by watching the lecture alone. The more students actively explain information and perform the skills they are being taught, the better they learn. Instructors should emphasize this output aspect of learning over passive inputs.

The more opportunities students have to retrieve information and make mistakes the better they will learn it.

Do You Have Any Questions?

I am as guilty as any instructor of falling back on passive questions like “Does that make sense?” or “Do you have any questions?” Aside from revealing little of the student’s actual comprehension, these questions miss the opportunity to practice retrieval. Quizzing a student on just-learned information feels awkward and uncomfortable. The student often struggles to piece together the information and deliver a clear answer. The empathetic instructor may feel they’ve put their student “on the spot” and demur in asking further questions. This is the difficult part in “desirable difficulties.”

We wouldn’t expect a student to master slow flight just by watching it be performed. They must practice the maneuver, make mistakes, and improve through guided practice. Aeronautical knowledge also requires this practice. Therefore the more opportunities students have to retrieve information (and make mistakes) the better they will learn it. Quite simply, this is how we learn.

Learn By Teaching

“I learned more in my first month as an instructor than I ever learned in years of flight training.” Flight instructors often make comments like these, but they aren’t empty platitudes. The act of teaching or preparing to teach others promotes better learning in the instructor. The Bjork’s demonstrated this by looking at two groups of golfers on the driving range. One group had been asked to prepare a lesson on proper technique that they could share. Later on these golfers outperformed a control group who had just practiced as normal. Practicing with a focus on teaching others helped improve their own skills.

Several instructional techniques are based on this premise. “Watch one, do one, teach one,” and the demonstration-performance method all involve the student progressing from watching to doing to teaching. The opportunity for student pilots to practice teaching others is endless. They can present topics to their instructor, explain what they are learning to friends and family (with their prior permission, please – we all know those pilots that overshare), or even help fellow students master difficult topics. Perhaps the greatest benefit of study groups is not what you learn from fellow students, but what you learn explaining ideas to them.

Delivering Results

At the end of the day, the most important thing for student pilots and instructors is to produce safe, competent, and proficient pilots. A little extra dose desirable difficulty during the training phase can have lasting benefits. One extra benefit of practicing retrieval that the Bjork’s point out is that it reduces test anxiety. When you condition yourself to perform and demonstrate your knowledge and skills, not only does it make you a better pilot, but it can make you less nervous about your checkride too! Hard to beat that.

What techniques do you use to practice retrieval or any other desirable difficulty in your training? Let me know in the comments below!

Fly Safe!