In the initial stages of skill acquisition, practical suggestions are more valuable to the learner than a grade. Early evaluation is usually teacher oriented. It provides a check on teaching effectiveness, can be used to predict learner outcomes, and can help the teacher locate special problem areas. The observations on which the evaluations are based also can identify the learner’s strengths and weaknesses, a prerequisite for making constructive criticism. For additional information, refer to Assessment.

As a learner practices a skill, it is important he or she perform the skill correctly and that the skill being practiced is one that needs to be developed to maturity. An instructor ensures a skill is practiced correctly by monitoring the practice and providing feedback about the skill development. The learner profits by having someone watch the performance and provide constructive criticism to help eliminate errors. Providing compliments on aspects of the skill that were performed correctly help keep the evaluation positive. Allowing the learner to critique his or her performance enhances learner-centered training.

Instructors should note learners can develop deviations from the intended method of performance at any stage of skill acquisition.

Overlearning of Knowledge

Overlearning is the continued study of a skill after initial proficiency has been achieved. Practice proceeds beyond the point at which the act can be performed with the required degree of excellence. The phenomenon of overlearning sometimes occurs when knowledge used frequently begins to take on the properties of a skill. For example, a learner’s everyday knowledge about weight and balance concepts tends to center on the routine use of familiar charts found in the aircraft. Eventually, the learner’s performance is characterized less by an understanding of weight and balance concepts, and more by an automatic process in which rows and columns of familiar charts give desired numbers.

In some cases, the overlearning of knowledge has the advantage of making application of knowledge more streamlined and efficient. In other cases, the development of automated routines can lead to problems. For example, a verbal checklist procedure becomes so automatic that a streamlined recitation of checklist items becomes decoupled from the thoughts and actions the checklist items are intended to trigger. In this case, the pilot or mechanic may not stop to consider each item.

The development of automated skills can impede further learning or lead to forgetting general knowledge. In one study, learner pilots and flight instructors were asked to solve weight and balance problems using charts taken from two different aircraft: (1) a small single-engine airplane they flew on a daily basis and (2) a different small single-engine airplane in which they had no experience. Test scores were surprisingly low when the charts for the unfamiliar airplane were used, and this was as true for instructors as it was for learners. The results suggest pilots had focused on developing streamlined, automatic procedures tuned to the details of the familiar aircraft charts while their ability to use their understanding of overall weight and balance concepts seemed to have diminished.

Instructors should remain aware of skills learners develop as a result of overlearning and help make sure that their actions continue to be accompanied by a use of their underlying knowledge. As a learner progresses, the key difference between knowledge and skill becomes apparent. Memorized facts about a topic that once supported the beginner’s awkward performance of the skill tend to develop into deeper understanding. Skill acquisition involves learning many individual steps that eventually meld into a seemingly continuous automated process, at which point the learner has entered the procedural knowledge realm, and may no longer be consciously aware of the individual steps.

Application of Skill

The final and critical question is “Can the learner use the information received?” It is not uncommon to find that learners devote weeks and months in school learning new abilities, and then fail to apply these abilities on the job. To solve this problem, two conditions need to be present. First, the learner needs to understand the skill so well that it becomes easy, even habitual. Second, the learner should be able to recognize the types of situations where it is appropriate to use the skill. This second condition involves the question of transfer of learning, which is discussed in the Transfer of Learning post.

Summary of Instructor Actions

To help learners acquire skills, the instructor should:

  • Explain that the key to acquiring and improving any skill is continued practice.
  • Monitor learner practice of skills and provide immediate feedback.
  • Avoid conversation and other distractions when learners are practicing individual skills.
  • Explain that learning plateaus are common and that continued practice leads to continued improvement.