Research and practical experience have demonstrated the usefulness of practicing in realistic scenarios—ones that resemble the environment in which knowledge and skills are later used. Instructors should devise scenarios that allow learners to practice what they have learned. This is challenging because different learners need to practice different things at different times, and because different working environments present different practice opportunities.

What makes a good scenario? A good scenario:

  • Has a clear set of objectives.
  • Is tailored to the needs of the learner.
  • Capitalizes on the nuances of the local environment.

For example, Bill is introducing Beverly to a low-fuel emergency. His objective at this early stage is to simply enable Beverly to recall the sorts of actions that are appropriate for a low-fuel emergency. He decides to use the classroom environment as a first practice scenario. He asks Beverly about what sorts of actions she might take if such an event would occur. She has some good ideas but he asks her to think more about before her next lesson. On her next lesson he gives her the same exercise. This time her answers are consistent and insightful. Bill decides that this scenario has served its purpose and moves on.

During their next flight, Bill’s objective is having Beverly recall and carry out the steps that she was able to cite in the classroom. As they arrive at their home airport, he presents Beverly with a low-fuel scenario. He notes that she remembers much of what she was able to recall in the classroom, but amidst the excitement, has forgotten a few things. He uses the same scenario at a different airport on their next flight, and she performs admirably.

Later in her training, Bill’s next objective is to enable her to recall and perform the emergency steps in concert with other piloting duties. They depart on a cross-country flight from a populated area to a remote area. While en route, Bill presents Beverly with a low-fuel emergency scenario knowing that there is only one airport nearby and that it is not easy to spot. She successfully uses her available navigational resources to locate and arrive at the airport. Upon returning home, Bill attempts to generalize her new abilities and put yet a different spin on the same problem. He presents the low-fuel scenario, taking advantage of the fact that there are eight nearby airports. All of the airports are in plain view, and she can choose one.

Each of these scenarios taught Beverly something she needed to learn next, and made good use of the surroundings and available circumstances. As these examples illustrate, there is no list of “canned” scenarios that can be used for all learners. Instructors should devise their own scenarios by considering what each learner needs to practice, and exploiting features of the local environment that allow them to do it.

The Learning Route to Expertise

What does it take to successfully orchestrate all of the knowledge and skills the learner has learned into what instructors, evaluators, and other pilots and mechanics would regard as true expertise? All evidence seems to point once again to the idea of practice. Just as the perfection of an individual skill seems to rely on repeated practice, so does the combination of knowledge and skills that make up our abilities to do the real-world job of pilot or mechanic.

How much practice does it take to become a true expert? In a study of expert performers in fields ranging from science to music to chess, one psychologist found that no performer had reached true expertise without having invested at least ten years of practice in his or her field. Experts have been found to use two tools to help them gain expertise in their field: cognitive strategies and problem-solving tactics.

Cognitive Strategies

The idea of cognitive strategies emerged over 50 years ago in the context of human information processing theory. Cognitive strategies refer to the knowledge of procedures or knowledge about how to do something in contrast with the knowledge of facts. They use the mind to solve a problem or complete a task and provide a structure for learning that actively promotes the comprehension and retention of knowledge. A cognitive strategy helps the learner develop internal procedures that enable him or her to perform higher level operations.

As learners acquire experience, they develop their own strategies for dealing with problems that arise frequently. For example, a learner develops the following strategy for avoiding inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) at night. He or she checks the weather prior to departure, obtains updates on the weather every hour, and plans to divert to an alternate destination at the first suspicion of unexpected weather ahead.

One approach to helping develop cognitive strategies is to study and identify the strategies that experts use and then teach these strategies to the learners. Expert strategies were identified by researchers who presented experts with problems to solve and asked them to think aloud as they attempted to solve the problems. These cognitive strategies can be taught to learners, usually with successful results.

Problem-Solving Tactics

Problem-solving tactics are specific actions intended to get a particular result, and this type of knowledge represents the most targeted knowledge in the expert’s arsenal. For example, a learner notices how easy it is to make a mistake with a takeoff distance chart after using it several times. She notices her finger drifts upward or downward when sliding it across a row of numbers on the chart, sometimes landing on the wrong number. The learner formulates several tactics to ensure she obtains the correct figures: (1) work slowly and deliberately, (2) use a ruler, and (3) double-check the work.

But even the experts had to practice. In a study of violinists at a music academy in Berlin, researchers compared the “best” learners to those who were regarded as merely “very good.” Using estimates of how many total hours each learner had spent practicing during his or her lifetime, the researchers found that the best violinists had spent an average of 7,000 hours practicing, while the very good violinists had logged about 5,000 hours. The scientific study of expertise reiterates the adage: “Practice makes perfect.”

Awareness of Existence of Unknowns

An important aspect of an expert’s knowledge is an awareness of what he or she does not know. This is not always the case witha learner. It’s important that an instructor be aware of situations in which learners have acquired “book” knowledge, but not yet acquired the more in-depth understanding that comes from association and experience. For example, after acquiring substantial knowledge of a single-engine, two-seat training aircraft, learners should understand that a four-seat aircraft by the same manufacturer should be approached with caution and not overconfidence.

Summary of Instructor Actions

To help learners exercise their knowledge and skills in a concerted fashion, the instructor should:

  • Explain the difference between normal task switching and interruption multitasking and give examples of each.
  • Ensure that individual skills are reasonably well-practiced before asking learners to perform several tasks at once.
  • Teach learners how to deal with distractions and interruptions and provide them with opportunities to practice.
  • Point out fixation and inattention when it occurs.
  • Devise scenarios that allow learners to use their knowledge and skill to solve realistic problems and make decisions.
  • Explain to the learner that continued practice with the goal of improving leads to continued improvement.