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Laps in the Pattern

Flight instructors are no strangers to the traffic pattern. To develop our students’ skills, we coach them through as many landings as we can. Closed circuits in the traffic pattern are a common way to cram plenty of landings into a tight block of time. As a student prepares to solo it’s not uncommon to see 8, 10, or more landings performed in a single flight. The objective is to drill the landings repeatedly to help the student get better. But, what if we’re getting this all wrong?

Desirable Difficulties

Practicing a single skill set repeatedly in a single session is referred to as “block” practice.  This is what we do when we spend most or all of a flight lesson in the pattern or practicing the same maneuver multiple times. Research by Elizabeth and Robert Bjork of UCLA suggests this isn’t the best way to learn. While block practice may appear to produce quicker gains in performance, the improvement doesn’t last.  In fact, the Bjork’s have discovered many common practice strategies – some used in flight training – may actually degrade our long-term learning in favor or short-term performance boosts.

So, what’s happening?  A crucial difference exists between learning and performance. When we are learning best, our performance will appear poor. Conversely, when we are performing well, we aren’t likely learning much.  Learning is a cognitively intense activity, where performance is more of a replay of skills already learned.  So, if you are performing well, you’re not learning much new. To promote better learning, the Bjorks recommend introducing “desirable difficulties” to shift your brain back into learning mode and promote better long-term development.


The Bjorks have developed four major strategies for creating desirable difficulties.  In earlier articles we discussed variation, spacing, and retrieval.  Today we’ll look at “interleaving” which is essentially the opposite of block practice. Instead of practicing a single skill set over and over again, interleaving involves moving from one skill to another during a practice session. When we make lap after lap in the traffic pattern practicing multiple landings in a row, that’s block practice. Interleaving would be performing a landing or two early in the flight, then heading to the practice area to work on slow flight or other maneuvers before going back to practice another couple of landings.

If you are performing well, you’re not learning much new.

Forgetting is the Thing

You might be thinking, “if I interrupt my practice with other tasks, won’t I forget some of what I learned?”  Yes.  This is the main reason interleaving seems counter-intuitive.  We lose some of the progress gained during the practice session.  If we go practice skill B after we started with skill A, then we’ll forget some of what was learned of skill A by the time we come back to it. That, it turns out, is exactly the point.

Elizabeth and Robert Bjork argue that forgetting a little bit (and having to relearn) is what makes this such a powerful tool for long-term progress. By making your brain work harder during practice you are earning a boost in long-term progress and superior performance.  This is why you’re more likely to remember facts committed to memory if you practice recalling them after some time has passed.  Of all the desirable difficulties, the disconnect between short-term performance and long-term learning is perhaps the most obvious with interleaving.

Using the Skill

So, if the basic idea is to break up practice blocks by inserting other learning tasks, how do we put this to use in flight training?  Here are some possibilities out of a virtually endless list:

Ground Practice

  • If practicing for a knowledge test, mix up the questions so you don’t have 5 or 6 questions on the same topic area in row.
  • Practice performing weight and balance and performance calculations as part of a larger flight planning task rather than just drilling multiple weight and balance problems back to back.
  • Recite memory items in several short sessions while doing other learning tasks in between.

Flight Practice

  • If a lesson plan calls for practicing 3 maneuvers, move through all three before repeating any of them (I suspect this is less useful if the maneuvers are brand new to a student.)
  • Simulate engine failures in different phases of flight and under different conditions, within the bounds of safety of course.
  • Where practical, separate similar maneuvers or procedures with others that aren’t related.  Don’t try to do more than one thing at a time but practice several things consecutively rather than repeating the same task over and over.


Interleaving and the other desirable difficulties are based on the idea that increasing the challenges of learning in positive ways can promote better long-term learning and retention.  These ideas seem counter-intuitive because the increased difficulty may appear to slow progress.  It is important to remember that short-term performance and long-term learning are not linked, and what helps one likely hurts the other.  By focusing on long-term learning and stepping up the difficulty of practice in meaningful ways, pilots will be better able to apply the skills in the future when it really counts.  What are your thoughts?  Let me know in the comments below.

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