“Chunking” for Effective Learning

Facebook has many fans and detractors but it sure provides a view into a world I never knew existed (Walmart videos anyone?) Some aviation education posts are similarly horrifying in this regard.

In a recent post on an aviation forum, one CFI described a new student he picked up with only two lessons in his logbook: His first flight ever [!] was 3.5 hours with 42 landings (all touch and go’s). His second flight was 4.2 hours which was a cross-country >50nm with 1.5 hours of hood time. There are so many things wrong here I don’t know where to begin. But it certainly highlights the basic necessity in all education (and obviously lacking here) of presenting the right experiences in the correct order with the appropriate level of challenge. Deconstructing large, complex skills or ideas and assembling them into a meaningful, usable form (making sense of it in your personal way) is called “chunking!” This reduces “cognitive load” and allows for faster learning and operation and is one of many tools an instructor may use to facilitate learning.

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All complex learning projects require a reasonable outline or syllabus, mutually agreed upon, for a sensible order of presentation from basic to more complex.  This ensures both progress and incremental mastery while sustaining motivation. Learning to land on lesson #1, with no background skills or preparation, is like bloodying your face by continually running at a high wall and trying to get over it; painful and demoralizing. It is no wonder we have an 80% drop out rate in aviation!

So if “successful flight” is a high wall that new applicants encounter, “chunking” is providing a manageable staircase of appropriate steps to incrementally surmount that challenge.  Each step at the right time with the correct degree of challenge builds skills while maintaining motivation. “Everything-all-at-once” is always wrong–confusing, demoralizing and expensive! Continual progress requires a savvy aviation educator presenting learning challenges for each unique individual at a manageable rate (but also the encouragement and scaffolding to assure success). The correct steps will be different for everyone –and certainly also not by rote from a standard syllabus! Please shred those generic “CFI lesson plans” and embrace each lesson as a personal creative challenge for *you* as an educator.

Those pre/post briefings on every flight add the necessary meaning to the flight experience. This collaboration shares the larger mental model and calibrates performance achieved for anticipation of the next step forward. To this end it is not enough to be only a “flight instructor”. To achieve efficiency and success we must also be an astute, and compassionate fully-fleged “aviation educator” using a variety of tools and resources to assure educational success. (see last week’s rant: CFI vs AE) Ground time and simulators are a critical part of your toolkit as an educator.

Chunking correctly manages “cognitive load” mentioned in previous blogs, and places your learner at the appropriate level of challenge. This is the most effective way to build solid sustainable skills in any learning situation; it generates “broadband for the brain”.  Just flying in your “comfort zone”  does not build new skills and this can be the problem with “scenario training” too early in flight training. This often occurs because of an admirable attempt to “keep it all fun.” Unfortunately, “education by osmosis” fails to adequately engage the learner and build essential skills. Early flight lessons require some hard work at the correct level of challenge- -remember those necessary scales on the piano preceding your amazing Chopin recital? “Fantasy flight training” can’t efficiently build “aviation muscle memory” that precedes higher learning (though it certainly builds CFI hours).  As aerobatic competitors are fond of saying; “to get good, ya gotta go pull some Gs and burn avgas.” A good aviation educator has to achieve an effective balance of the skill building in the “struggle zone” but also integrate scenario/judgment opportunities at the appropriate time (no wonder we are so highly paid!)

In every activity “proper practice makes perfect” and this is also true for aviation educators.  There is a real difference between “one hour 2000 times” and “2000 unique hours of real teaching experience”. Please sign up to follow this blog (and offer your suggestions and comments!) A future blog will deal more with acquiring expert educator skills more rapidly (are we still learning?). Fly safely (and often!)

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

7 thoughts on ““Chunking” for Effective Learning”

  1. If you look up project adventure, much of what you talk about here is covered… The goal of project adventure is self-actualization. While the goal of instruction/education is self-sufficiency. Though I think self-sufficiency is a form of self-actualization.– the aim should be for Self-actualization (as a pilot; being one with the plane) while reaching self-sufficiency.


  2. One goal of flight is self-sufficiency for sure. Another is acquiring all the skills/knowledge/judgment necessary to fly in a complex system with others- – and *that* happens only because of careful aviation education, not self-guided experimentation (hopefully).

    1. The learning is not self–guided… It is direct by facilitation… the facilitator directs the participants to learn on thier own but yet under the guidance of the facilitator, the facilitator whom provides the experience, knowledge… and a safe environment for the participants to gain experience of there own. The only way to learn is to do & experiment in a safe environment.

  3. As a CFI I realize that to keep students you have to make flying fun for them. I find that an hour of touch n goes is about all any student can really profit from and beyond ten performance begins to decline. I alternate sessions of landings with round robins to 6 or more different close airports to practice navigation along with landings at different airports. Always try to push them just beyond their comfort level but if performance begins to slip take back something to lighten the kid or learning does not take place. Take back the radio for example or assist with navigation

  4. David,
    Years ago I asked a young CFI working for me why all his pre-solo stage check students were so good at landing the airplane. It really was phenomenal, every one landed like a pro with only 10 or 12 hours. He looked puzzled as if he was just then understanding that he was doing an exceptional job for his students. He said – Jeeze, I don’t know. I don’t really worry about it that much. I spend most of the first 10 hours focused on pitch, power, and trim. I don’t really work on landings at all. Then a few flights before solo, we start to really focus on landings. –

    I think this is an example of good chunking before we talked about things like chunking. As a DPE I would always flinch a little when I saw an instrument applicant’s logbook with multiple approaches on the first lesson. Usually these unfortunates would demonstrate poor basic attitude flying skills.

    What is puzzling to me is the need to even address these topics. I felt the same when scenario based training became a “thing”. I and most of the instructors I worked with had used both inside and outside scenarios for years before their “discovery” by FITS. Every CFI candidate has to pass tests that include pretty complex stuff – learning domains, hierarchy of needs, building block merhod, and much more. So how do we end up with 42 landings (or five instrument approaches) on the first flight?

    I’m having trouble processing this situation. Maybe I need to break it down …..Chunking!

    1. This CFI you observed obviously had a great technique he came by naturally. For most of us that is an acquired skill and “chunking” is just one tool in that educator toolkit. Interestingly, some form of chunking is an essential tool all pilots use naturally in cases of super-high workload to avoid being overwhelmed. We should all be able to recognize the symptoms saturation and impending crisis (perceptual tunneling, forgetting critical items) It is time to “triage” and prioritize the essentials. Startle and surprise from weather, disorientation (whatever) often precede Loss of Control; the brain checks out first and we stop “working the problem”.

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