Pilots need to learn throughout their professional careers, but learning to remember is quite a complex process. Each procedure that a pilot needs to learn goes through a multi-step memory system. At each step the brain decides whether to take information further or to delete it, which is dependent on the content quality, presentation, and a person’s receptiveness at that moment. When information reaches the final step it can be stored and used in practice to enable pilots to act safely whatever the situation may bring.
Stimulation happens from all angles 24/7 where information hits the senses before it passes to the brain, the memory process then filters information to avoid over stimulation. Some information is just glanced at, some is used for a short action and some is stored:
Step one - Sensory memory All external stimuli that are picked up by the five senses are caught by the sensory memory. Information is screened for up to half a second to decide which stimuli are relevant to pass on and which are deemed irrelevant to be deleted. For example, pilots will take in the changing weather during a flight but not every detail of the landscape when approaching to land.
Step two - Short-term memory (also known as working memory) The passed-on stimuli are consciously assigned meaning here. There is some time to reflect and group information, as it can float around for up to 30 seconds. Information that is considered interesting/useful is sent to the final memory stage.
Step three - Long-term memory Here, information is stored and can be retrieved without being lost. It can hold infinite information for a very long time. To be able to store information it needs to be prioritised, repeated and made sense of to create real understanding.
There are two types of long-term memory:
- Declarative/explicit = to know what something is: learning facts and events that have to be consciously recalled
- Non-declarative/procedural = to know how to do something: manual skills that become second nature, like riding a bike, which are stored unconsciously after initial learning through repetition
If a student takes time to learn and understand information it may reach the long-term memory, but there are numerous factors that influence this process, such as time pressures, stress, emotion, a person's mood and needs. In aviation there are so many protocols and actions to memorise that learning to remember is important, but the influencing factors can make this process a challenge. The challenges need to be understood and effective learning techniques should be found.
Needs & Emotion
Meaningful learning methods can motivate students to learn. However, motivation is not always straightforward and is influenced by what else a learner needs at that time. This 'needs' concept was famously developed by Abraham Maslow (1943) known as the 'Hierarchy of Needs', which still holds true today. It explains the importance of satisfying human needs before being motivated to do something. These needs go from basic, such as thirst and sleep, to more sophisticated, such as confidence and self-actualisation. If a student is tired they are less able to focus on learning to remember, as they are distracted by the lack of a need i.e. sleep in this case. The more needs that are met the more likely a student is motivated to learn. The same applies to memory retrieval, so if a pilot is fatigued they may not be able to recall an action as easily, which can potentially have significant ramifications.
Emotion also plays a key role when learning to remember. A student would feel encouraged to learn if the topic and presentation of the content is relevant to them so they can relate. A person looks to make emotional connections between concepts where they attach their own feeling to create meaning. This highlights the need for visuals within training, as design visionary, Don Norman (2003), put it "attractive things work better", because it engages people at the emotional level.
Evoking emotion helps with learning, but a person's emotion can also interfere with the retrieval of information, as it can lock the memory. Flight crew could experience a memory block during an emergency, which is an emotionally stressful event. This makes engaging training and thorough learning all the more important.
The intangible learning influencers play behind the scenes to allow the act of learning to remember, but tangible learning methods are needed to make learning happen.
There are countess procedures for aviation professionals to learn, so to follow are some tried and tested learning techniques:
- Pace learning - if a learner can take their time to learn then deeper understanding is created
- Building on existing knowledge - alternating between 'add-on' learning and new learning will ease the information 'load', so that new information can be learnt in stages. Equally, a learner should seek out teaching methods that break-up the load through mixed training content, by combining visual and text (Mayer and Moreno, 2003)
- Learning at the right level - training should match the learners' skills to avoid boredom or finding training too challenging (Kövi and Spiro 2013)
- 'Overlearning' information - repetition is important to avoid forgetting, which is especially key during a stressful in-flight situation. (Nowinski, Holbrook, Dismukes, 2003)
- Microlearning – to revise a very small amount of specific content that is ideal for learning a new procedure or a list. A learner can incorporate this method themselves by writing sticky notes of key information. These memos can be stuck around the house for example for quick revision each time
- Collaborative learning - for engaging and emotion-evoking learning. Students learn deeper if they can directly apply knowledge while learning (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2008). This includes:
- Cooperative learning - when different minds come together the varying perspectives give a deeper understanding of the subject, and group learning heightens motivation
- Problem-based learning - when faced with a problem the learner's existing knowledge will become apparent. The student will be encouraged to study in-depth to find a solution, and the autonomy to come up with new ideas will give a sense of achievement and empowerment
- Scenario-based learning - the style of training should match an individual's personality or a group's collective traits. Aviation professionals would find action and variation orientated-training the most effective
- Specific memory aids include:
- Rhymes/melodies - the flow of rhyming and/or melody makes memorising lengthy protocols easier, which is helped along with the happy emotions linked to tunes
- 'Chaining' technique - this is based on creating simple stories that include a list of keywords to be memorised
- Mnemonics and acronyms - these are sentences where the first letter is a cue to remember something else, for example:
- In Clear Deep Rivers And Hot Springs, Fish Swim.
ID, Cleared to, Departure, Routing, Altitudes, Hold instructions, Special, Frequency, Squawk
Detect, Estimate, Choose, Identify, Do, Evaluate
The UK CAA has published best-practice guidelines for memory checklists, however, it should be emphasised that these are useful learning tools only. A real-life situation must be analysed in real-time according to its specific attributes.
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- Aviation Instructor's Handbook, U.S. Department of Transportation. Federal Aviation Administration. Flight Standards Service, Airman Testing Standards Branch.
- [https://www.easa.europa.eu/system/files/dfu/Final_Report%20EASA.2013-01.pdf European Aviation Safety Agency (2013). Checklist Memory Items.