Learning theory is a body of principles advocated by psychologists and educators to explain how people acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes. Primary learning theories include classical and operant conditioning and social learning. [Figure 1]

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Figure 1. Learning theories of psychology include classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning

Classical conditioning is learning based on an association made between a neutral environmental stimulus and a natural stimulus. For example, the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that a dog could be trained to associate the sound of a beating metronome with being fed. Pavlov would start the metronome before presenting the dog with food. Over time, the dog learned to associate the unique sound with receiving food and, as a result, the dog would physically respond to only the sound of the metronome. Today, this experiment is commonly referred to as Pavlov’s Dog.

Operant conditioning is very similar to classical conditioning in which forming associations is the fundamental tool of learning. However, in operant conditioning, the association is made between behavior and the consequences of that behavior. In this learning method, a positive behavior creates a positive consequence; a negative behavior creates a negative consequence. The learner then makes an association between behaviors and consequences and then predicts that future behaviors will result in similar consequences.

Social learning is simply learning by observation. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests, basically, that we all learn from each other. Learning occurs by observing the actions of those around us, imitating those actions, and finally modeling those actions ourselves that others around us may then observe, effectively perpetuating the learning process through continued social interactions. Bandura’s theory states that there are four stages associated to social learning:

  1. Attention—the ability of the observer to pay attention to others around him or her in order to learn.
  2. Retention—the ability to remember an observed behavior to later repeat that behavior.
  3. Reproduction—the act of producing a previously observed behavior. This may require additional skills beyond what was initially observed.
  4. Motivation—the reason to reproduce an observed behavior.

Various branches of learning theory are used in formal training programs to improve and accelerate the learning process. Key concepts such as desired learning outcomes, objectives of the training, and depth of training also apply. When properly integrated, learning principles can be useful to aviation instructors and developers of instructional programs for both pilots and AMTs.

Many psychologists and educators have attempted to explain how people learn. While variations abound, modern learning theories grew out of two concepts of how people learn: behaviorism and cognitive theory.


Behaviorism explains animal and human behavior entirely in terms of observable and measurable responses to stimuli. Behaviorism was introduced in the twentieth century and its followers believed all human behavior is conditioned more or less by events in the environment. Thus, human behavior can be predicted based on past rewards and punishments. Classic behaviorist theory in education stressed a system of rewards and punishment or the “carrot and stick” approach to learning. In modern education circles, behaviorism stresses the importance of having a particular form of behavior positively reinforced by someone (other than the learner) who shapes or controls what is learned. In aviation training, the instructor provides the reinforcement.

Today, behaviorism is now used more to break unwanted behaviors, such as smoking, than in teaching. The popularity of behaviorism has waned due to research that indicates learning is a much more complex process than a response to stimuli. Humans, far from being passive products of experience, are always actively interacting with the environment.

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory focuses on what is going on inside the mind. It is more concerned with cognition (the process of thinking and learning)—knowing, perceiving, problem-solving, decision-making, awareness, and related intellectual activities—than with stimulus and response. Learning is not just a change in behavior; it is a change in the way a learner thinks, understands, or feels. Theories based on cognition are concerned with the mental events of the learner. Much of the recent psychological thinking and experimentation in education includes some facets of the cognitive theory.

Theories of cognitive learning were established by psychologists and educators such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Benjamin Bloom, and Jerome Bruner. [Figure 2] There have been many interpretations of the research data dealing with cognitive theories. This has led to many different models for learning as well as some associated catch phrases.

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Figure 2. Psychologists and educators who established the theories of cognitive learning

For example, educator, psychologist, and philosopher, John Dewey introduced the concept “reflective thought.” Dewey believed learning improves to the degree that it arises out of the process of reflection. Over the years, terminology describing reflection has spawned a host of synonyms, such as “critical thinking,” “problem-solving,” and “higher level thought.”

For Dewey, the concept of reflective thought carried deep meaning. He saw reflection as a process that moves a learner from one experience into the next with deeper understanding of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas. Thus, reflection leads the learner from the unclear to the clear.

Jean Piaget, who spent 50 years studying how children develop intellectually, became a major figure in the school of cognitive thought. His research led him to conclude there is always tension between assimilation (old ideas meeting new situations) and accommodation (changing the old ideas to meet the new situations). The resolution of this tension results in intellectual growth. Thus, humans develop cognitive skills through active interaction with the world (a basic premise of scenario-based training (SBT), discussed later in this site).An American psychologist who studied with Piaget, Jerome Bruner became interested in how intellectual development related to the process of learning. His research led him to advocate learning from the known to the unknown, or from the concrete to the abstract, because humans best learn when relating new knowledge to existing knowledge. He introduced and developed the concept of the spiral curriculum, which revisits basic ideas repeatedly and builds on them in increasingly sophisticated ways as the learner matures and develops.

Consider the opening scenario with Bill and Beverly. Bill might effectively use this theory with Beverly because she arrived at her first class with a store of aviation facts. Building upon this knowledge, Bill can teach her how to keep the aircraft in straight and level flight while he reinforces what she knows about basic aerodynamics via demonstration and discussion. Since aerodynamics is a constant thread in the flight lessons, Bill is also able to employ the spiral curriculum concept in future lessons by repeatedly revisiting the basic concepts and building upon them as Beverly’s skill and knowledge increase.

A group of educators led by Benjamin Bloom tried to classify the levels of thinking behaviors thought to be important in the processes of learning. [Figure 3] They wanted to classify education goals and objectives based on the assumption that abilities can be measured along a continuum from simple to complex. The result, which remains a popular framework for cognitive theory, was Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. The taxonomy (a classification system according to presumed relationships) comprises six levels of intellectual behavior and progresses from the simplest to the most complex: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. For more detailed information about the taxonomy, see Domains of Learning.

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Figure 3. Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain

Continued research into cognitive theory has led to theories such as information processing and constructivism. This is the basis of the organizing a lesson methods discussed in The Teaching Process.

Information Processing Theory

Information processing theory uses a computer system as a model for human learning. The human brain processes incoming information, stores and retrieves it and generates responses to the information. This involves a number of cognitive processes: gathering and representing information (encoding), retaining of information, and retrieving the information when needed.

This learning system has limitations and needs to be operated properly. A computer gets input from a keyboard, mouse, etc., whereas the human brain gets input from the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. The amount of sensory input the brain receives per second ranges from thousands to millions of bits of information according to various theories. Regardless of the number, that is a lot of information for the brain to track and process.

One way the brain deals with all this information is to let many of the habitual and routine things go unnoticed. For example, a pilot who uses the rudder when entering a turn is usually unaware of pressing the pedal, even though it involves moving a leg, exerting pressure on the pedal, etc. The human unconscious takes charge, leaving conscious thought processes free to deal with issues that are not habitual.

Since information processing theorists approach learning primarily through a study of memory, this learning concept is revisited during the discussion of memory.


A derivative of cognitive theory, constructivism is a philosophy of learning that holds that learners do not acquire knowledge and skills passively but actively build or construct them based on their experiences. As implied by its name, constructivism emphasizes the constructing or building that goes on during the learning process. Therefore, it creates a learner-centered environment in which they assume responsibility for their own learning.

According to constructivism, humans construct a unique mental image by combining preexisting information with the information received from sense organs. Learning is the result of matching new information against this preexisting information and integrating it into meaningful connections. In constructivist thinking, learners are given more latitude to become effective problem solvers, identifying and evaluating problems, as well as deciphering ways in which to transfer their learning to these problems, all of which foster critical thinking skills. While the learner is at the center of the process, an experienced teacher is necessary to guide them through the information jungle. Constructivism techniques are good for some types of learning, some situations, and some individuals, but not all. This school of thought also encourages teaching learners how to use what are known as the higher order thinking skills (HOTS) from Bloom’s Taxonomy and training based on problems or scenarios. Constructivism is the basis for several of the training delivery methods covered in The Teaching Process.

Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS)

The constructivist theory of learning explains and supports the learning of HOTS, which is commonly called aeronautical decision-making (ADM) in aviation. HOTS lie in the last three levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation skills. Teaching the higher level thinking skills which are essential to judgment, decision-making, and critical thinking is important to aviation because a common thread in aviation accidents is the absence of higher order thinking skills.

HOTS are taught like other cognitive skills, from simple to complex and from concrete to abstract. To teach HOTS effectively involves strategies and methods that include (1) using problem-based learning (PBL) instruction, (2) authentic problems, (3) real-world problems, (4) learner-centered learning, (5) active learning, (6) cooperative learning, and (7) customized instruction to meet the individual learner’s needs. These strategies engage the learner in some form of mental activity, have the learner examine that mental activity and select the best solution, and challenge the learner to explore other ways to accomplish the task or the problem.

It should be remembered that critical thinking skills should be taught in the context of subject matter. Learners progress from simple to complex; therefore, they need some information before they can think about a subject beyond rote learning. For example, knowing that compliance with the weight and balance limits of any aircraft is critical to flight safety may not help an aviation learner interpret weight and balance charts unless he or she also knows something about the concept of a center of gravity.

If the learner does not yet have much subject matter knowledge, they can draw on past experiences to gain entry into complex concepts. For example, most learners probably played on a seesaw during their childhood. Thus, they have a basic experience of how weight and balance works around a center of gravity.

Additionally, HOTS should be emphasized throughout a program of study for best results. For aviation, this means HOTS should be taught in the initial pilot training program and in every subsequent pilot training program. Instructors need to teach the cognitive skills used in problem-solving until these techniques become automated and transferable to new situations or problems. Cognitive research has shown the learning of HOTS is not a change in observable behavior but the construction of meaning from experience.

Scenario-Based Training (SBT)

At the heart of HOTS lies scenario-based training (SBT) which is an example of the PBL instructional method and facilitates the enhancement of learning and the development and transference of thinking skills. SBT provides more realistic decision-making opportunities because it presents tasks in an operational environment; it correlates new information with previous knowledge, and introduces new information in a realistic context.

SBT is a training system that uses a structured script of “real-world” scenarios to address flight-training objectives in an operational environment. Such training can include initial training, transition training, upgrade training, recurrent training, and special training.

The instructor should adapt the scenarios to the aircraft, its specific flight characteristics and the likely flight environment, and should always require the learner to make real-time decisions in a realistic setting. The scenarios should always be planned and led by the learner (with the exception of the first flight or two or until the learner has developed the necessary skills).

SBT not only meets the challenge of teaching aeronautical knowledge to the application level of learning, but also enables the instructor to teach the underlying HOTS needed to improve ADM. The best use of scenarios draws the learner into formulating possible solutions, evaluating the possible solutions, deciding on a solution, judging the appropriateness of that decision and finally, reflecting on the mental process used in solving the problem. It causes the learner to consider whether the decision led to the best possible outcome and challenges the learner to consider other solutions.

SBT scenarios help learners better understand the decisions they have to make and also helps focus the learner on the decisions and consequences involved. It is being used to train people in everything from emergency response to hotel management. The strength of SBT lies in helping the learner gain a deeper understanding of the information and in the learner improving his or her ability to recall the information. This goal is reached when the material is presented as an authentic problem in a situated environment that allows the learner to “make meaning” of the information based on his or her past experience and personal interpretation.

SBT has become one of the primary methods to teach today’s aviation learners how to make good aeronautical decisions which in turn enhances the safety of all aviation related activities. For information on how to create an SBT lesson, refer to The Teaching Process, and for how to incorporate SBT into a training syllabus, refer to Planning Instructional Activity.