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Eye of the Optimist-the Learning Process

I have been thinking about the term "learning process." I know it is about getting new information, having new experiences or rethinking experiences, trying new perspectives and ultimately changing ideas and behavior. I think people generally think of process as an organic development. It is necessarily an individual development and can take place in different ways. As a teacher, I realize that there are teaching steps to go through engaging the learner and having the learner discuss or try things out after studying a lesson. 

I searched a professional definition in psychology and found a definition plus details about the learning process on a website called "Dynamic Flight." It is actually a private helicopter training institute (Dynamic Flight, Inc.), but it has a wonderful article on learning. I imagine it is for training the instructors, and I suppose it is copied from some consultant's material. Anyway, the website URL is http://www.dynamicflight.com/avcfibook/learning_process/ .

The page begins with a definition of "learning process" then dissects concepts of learning. I quote.

To learn is to acquire knowledge or skill. Learning also may involve a change in attitude or behavior. Children learn to identify objects at an early age; teenagers may learn to improve study habits; and adults can learn to solve complex problems. Pilots and aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) need to acquire the higher levels of knowledge and skill, including the ability to exercise judgment and solve problems. The challenge for the aviation instructor is to understand how people learn, and more importantly, to be able to apply that knowledge to the learning environment. This handbook is designed as a basic guide to educational psychology. This chapter addresses that branch of psychology directly concerned with how people learn.

Definition of Learning
The ability to learn is one of the most outstanding human characteristics. Learning occurs continuously throughout a person's lifetime. To define learning, it is necessary to analyze what happens to the individual. For example, an individual's way of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and doing may change as a result of a learning experience. Thus, learning can be defined as a change in behavior as a result of experience. This can be physical and overt, or it may involve complex intellectual or attitudinal changes which affect behavior in more subtle ways. In spite of numerous theories and contrasting views, psychologists generally agree on many common characteristics of learning.

Characteristics of Learning
Aviation instructors need a good understanding of the general characteristics of learning in order to apply them in a learning situation. lf learning is a change in behavior as a result of experience, then instruction must include a careful and systematic creation of those experiences that promote learning. This process can be quite complex because, among other things, an individual's background strongly influences the way that person learns. To be effective, the learning situation also should be purposeful, based on experience, multifaceted, and involve an active process.

Learning is Purposeful
Each student sees a learning situation from a different viewpoint. Each student is a unique individual whose past experiences affect readiness to learn and understanding of the requirements involved. For example, an instructor may give two aviation maintenance students the assignment of learning certain inspection procedures. One student may learn quickly and be able to competently present the assigned material. The combination of an aviation background and future goals may enable that student to realize the need and value of learning the procedures. A second student's goal may only be to comply with the instructor's assignment, and may result in only minimum preparation. The responses differ because each student ads in accordance with what he or she sees in the situation.

Most people have fairly definite ideas about what they want to do and achieve. Their goals sometimes are short term, involving a matter of days or weeks. On the other hand, their goals may be carefully planned for a career or a lifetime. Each student has specific intentions and goals. Some may be shared by other students. Students learn from any activity that tends to further their goals. Their individual needs and attitudes may determine what they learn as much as what the instruc- tor is trying to get them to learn. In the process of learning, the student's goals are of paramount significance. To be effective, aviation instructors need to find ways to relate new learning to the student's goals.

Learning is a Result of Experience
Since learning is an individual process, the instructor cannot do it for the student. The student can learn only from personal experiences; therefore, learning and knowledge cannot exist apart from a person. A person's knowledge is a result of experience, and no two people have had identical experiences. Even when observing the same event, two people react differently; they learn different things from it, according to the manner in which the situation affects their individual needs. Previous experience conditions a person to respond to some things and to ignore others.

All learning is by experience, but learning takes place in different forms and in varying degrees of richness and depth. For instance, some experiences involve the whole person while others may be based only on hearing and memory. Aviation instructors are faced with the problem of providing learning experiences that are meaningful, varied, and appropriate. As an example, students can learn to say a list of words through repeated drill, or they can learn to recite certain principles of flight by rote. However, they can make them meaningful only if they understand them well enough to apply them correctly to real situations. If an experience challenges the students, requires involvement with feelings, thoughts, memory of past experiences, and physical activity, it is more effective than a learning experience in which all the students have to do is commit something to memory.

It seems clear enough that the learning of a physical skill requires actual experience in performing that skill. Student pilots learn to fly aircraft only if their experiences include flying them; student aviation maintenance technicians learn to overhaul power plants only by actually performing that task. Mental habits are also learned through practice. If students are to use sound judgment and develop decision-making skills, they need learning experiences that involve knowledge of general principles and require the use of judgment in salving realistic problems.

Learning is Multifaceted
If instructors see their objective as being only to train their students' memory and muscles, they are underestimating the potential of the teaching situation. Students may learn much more than expected if they fully exercise their minds and feelings. The fact that these items were not included in the instructor's plan does not prevent them from influencing the learning situation.

Psychologists sometimes classify learning by types, such as verbal, conceptual, perceptual, motor, problem solving, and emotional. Other classifications refer to intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, and attitudinal changes, along with descriptive terms like surface or deep learning. However useful these divisions may be, they are somewhat artificial. For example, a class learning to apply the scientific method of problem solving may learn the method by trying to solve real problems. But in doing so, the class also engages in verbal learning and sensory perception at the same time. Each student approaches the task with preconceived ideas and feelings, and for many students, these ideas change as a result of experience. Therefore, the learning process may include verbal elements, conceptual elements, perceptual elements, emotional elements, and problem solving elements all taking place at once. This aspect of learning will become more evident later in this handbook when lesson planning is discussed.
Learning is multifaceted in still another way. While learning the subject at hand, students may be learning other things as well. They may be developing attitudes about aviation-good or bad-depending on what they experience. Under a skillful instructor, they may learn self-reliance. The list is seemingly endless. This type of learning is sometimes referred to as incidental, but it may have a great impact on the total development of the student.

Learning is an Active Process
Students do not soak up knowledge like a sponge absorbs water. The instructor cannot assume that students remember something just because they were in the classroom, shop, or airplane when the instructor presented the material. Neither can the instructor assume that the students can apply what they know because they can quote the correct answer verbatim. For students to learn, they need to react and respond, perhaps outwardly, perhaps only inwardly, emotionally, or intellectually. But if learning is a process of changing behavior, clearly that process must be an active one.

Learning Styles
Although characteristics of learning and learning styles are related, there are distinctions between the two. Learning style is a concept that can play an important role in improving instruction and student success. It is concerned with student preferences and orientation at several levels. For example, a student's information processing technique, personality, social interaction tendencies and the instructional methods used are all significant factors which apply to how individual students learn. In addition, today's culturally diverse society, including international students, must be considered.

The key point is that all students are different, and training programs should be sensitive to the differences. Some students are fast learners and others have difficulties; and, as already mentioned, motivation, experience, and previous training affect learning style. Any number of adjectives may be used to describe learning styles. Some common examples include:

Theories abound concerning right- or left-brain dominance. In general, those with right-brain dominance are characterized as being spatially oriented, creative, intuitive, and emotional. Those with left-brain dominance are more verbal, analytical, and objective. However, the separate hemispheres of the brain do not function independently. For example, the right hemisphere may recognize a face, while the left associates a name to go with the face. The term dominance is probably misleading when applied to brain hemispheres; specialization would be a more appropriate word.

Learning style differences certainly depend on how students process information. Some rely heavily on visual references while others depend more on auditory presentations. For example, visual students learn readily through reading and graphic displays, and auditory students have more success if they hear the subject matter described. Another difference is that some learn more easily when an idea is presented in a mathematical equation, while others may prefer a verbal explanation of the same idea. In addition, where hands-on activities are involved, students also learn by feel. This is sometimes called kinesthetic learning.

Information processing theories contain several other useful classifications. As an example, in the holistic/serialist theory, the holist strategy is a top-down concept where students have a big picture, global perspective. These students seek overall comprehension, especially through the use of analogies. In contrast, the serialist student focuses more narrowly and needs well-defined, sequential steps where the overall picture is developed slowly, thoroughly, and logically. This is a bottom-up strategy.

Two additional information processing classifications describe deep-elaborative and the shallow-reiterative learners. Testing practices which demand comprehension, rather than a regurgitation of facts, obviously encourage students to adopt a deep-elaborative learning style. Detailed information on testing procedures, as well as curriculum design and instructor techniques, is included later in this handbook.

As indicated, personality also affects how students learn. Dependent students require a lot of guidance, direction, and external stimulation. These students tend to focus on the instructor. The more independent students require only a minimum amount of guidance and external stimulation. They are not overly concerned with how the lesson is presented.

Students with a reflective-type personality may be described as tentative. They tend to be uncertain in problem-solving exercises. The opposite applies to impulsive students. Typically, they dive right in with enthusiasm and are prone to make quick, and sometimes faulty, decisions.

The social interaction concept contains further classifications of student learning styles. Like most of the other information on learning styles, these classifications are derived from research on tendencies of undergraduate students.

Some generalizations about these classifications indicate that compliant students are typically task oriented, and anxious-dependent students usually score lower than others on standardized tests. Discouraged students often have depressed feelings about the future, and independent students tend to be older, intelligent, secure, and comfortable with the academic environment. Attention seekers have a strong social orientation and are frequently involved in joking, showing off, and bragging. In contrast, silent students usually are characterized by helplessness, vulnerability, and other disconcerting behaviorisms.

Other studies identify more categories that are easily recognized. Among these are collaborative, sharing students who enjoy working with others, and competitive students who are grade conscious and feel they must do better than their peers. Participant students normally have a desire to learn and enjoy attending class, and avoidant students do not take part in class activities and have little interest in learning.

The existing learning environment also influences learning style. In real life, most students find it necessary to adapt to a traditional style learning environment provided by a school, university, or other educational/training establishment. Thus, the student's learning style may or may not be compatible.
Instructors who can recognize student learning style differences and associated problems will be much more effective than those who do not understand this concept. Also, these instructors will be prepared to develop appropriate lesson plans and provide guidance, counseling, or other advisory services, as required.

Principles of Learning
Over the years, educational psychologists have identified several principles which seem generally applicable to the learning process. They provide additional insight into what makes people learn most effectively.

Individuals learn best when they are ready to learn, and they do not learn well if they see no reason for learning. Getting students ready to learn is usually the instructor's responsibility. If students have a strong purpose, a clear objective, and a definite reason for learning something, they make more progress than if they lack motivation. Readiness implies a degree of single-mindedness and eagerness. When students are ready to learn, they meet the instructor at least halfway, and this simplifies the instructor's job.

Under certain circumstances, the instructor can do little, if anything, to inspire in students a readiness to learn. If outside responsibilities, interests, or worries weigh too heavily on their minds, if their schedules are overcrowded, or if their personal problems seem insoluble, students may have little interest in learning.

The principle of exercise states that those things most often repeated are best remembered. It is the basis of drill and practice. The human memory is fallible. The mind can rarely retain, evaluate, and apply new concepts or practices after a single exposure. Students do not learn to weld during one shop period or to perform crosswise landings during one instructional flight. They learn by applying what they have been told and shown. Every time practice occurs, learning continues. The instructor must provide opportunities for students to practice and, at the same time, make sure that this process is directed toward a goal.

The principle of effect is based on the emotional reaction of the student. It states that learning is strengthened when accompanied by a pleasant or satisfying feeling, and that learning is weakened when associated with an unpleasant feeling. Experiences that produce feelings of defeat, frustration, anger, confusion, or futility are unpleasant for the student. If, for example, an instructor attempts to teach landings during the first flight, the student is likely to feel inferior and be frustrated.

Instructors should be cautious. Impressing students with the difficulty of an aircraft maintenance problem, flight maneuver or flight crew duty can make the teaching task difficult. Usually it is better to tell students that a problem or maneuver, although difficult, is within their capability to understand or perform. Whatever the learning situation, it should contain elements that affect the students positively and give them a feeling of satisfaction.

Primacy, the state of being first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable, impression. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time. For the student, it means that learning must be right. Unteaching is more difficult than teaching. If, for example, a maintenance student learns a faulty riveting technique, the instructor will have a difficult task correcting bad habits and reteaching correct ones. Every student should be started right. The first experience should be positive, functional, and lay the foundation for all that is to follow.

A vivid, dramatic, or exciting learning experience teaches more than a routine or boring experience. A student is likely to gain greater understanding of slow flight and stalls by performing them rather than merely reading about them. The principle of intensity implies that a student will learn more from the real thing than from a substitute. In contrast to flight instruction and shop instruction, the classroom imposes limitations on the amount of realism that can be brought into teaching. The aviation instructor should use imagination in approaching reality as closely as possible. Today, classroom instruction can benefit from a wide variety of instructional aids to improve realism, motivate learning, and challenge students. Chapter 7, Instructional Aids and Training Technologies, explores the wide range of teaching tools available for classroom use.

The principle of recency states that things most recently learned are best remembered. Conversely, the further a student is removed time-wise from a new fact or understanding, the more difficult it is to remember. It is easy, for example, for a student to recall a torque value used a few minutes earlier, but it is usually impossible to remember an unfamiliar one used a week earlier. Instructors recognize the principle of recency when they carefully plan a summary for a ground school lesson, a shop period, or a postflight critique. The instructor repeats, restates, or reemphasizes important points at the end of a lesson to help the student remember them. The principle of recency often determines the sequence of lectures within a course of instruction.

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