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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Learning How to Learn How to Fly

In 2015, the FAA counted 590,093 people as pilots. (That means that if you become a pilot, you'll do something that 99.8% of people have never accomplished!) That's well over half a million people, which seems like a pretty large number.

That is, it seems like a large number until you find out that there is a class on the internet that has had twice that number of students: "Learning How to Learn".

In college, the largest class I ever had was Psychology 221, "Educational Psychology", which had about 200 students, and it was in the largest lecture hall on campus. Most classes ranged anywhere from 6-30, so a class with over 1,000,000 students is a little out of the ordinary. Imagine how big a lecture hall you'd need for that many students!

Fortunately, there is no classroom required for this class, thanks to the internet and the technology it enables: the MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course. If you want to join that number, you can take it yourself for free at your own pace. After you register at Coursera's site, you can enroll in it or hundreds of others.

It is taught by Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor, and Terrence Sejnowski, who specializes in neuroscience. Oakley's lectures make up most of the course, and the class is based on her engaging and easy-to-read book called A Mind for Numbers. While you don't have to have the book to follow the course, the does go into more detail than she can go into in the series of brief lectures that makes up the course, so it is a useful and inexpensive companion.

Buy it and help support us at no cost to you!

While it is designed more toward learning math, science, and engineering, many of its lessons apply to flying as well. It is also packed with a world of other advice that is applicable to learning almost anything else, such as a new language. She also spends a lot of time explaining how to defeat procrastination by understanding how procrastination works. Sejnowski also contributes some modern research showing that exercise does indeed improve learning and explains how it does its magic, which is another reason to do it for those of us who need to get our medicals renewed to fly.

There are several main takeaways from the book and/or course. Here are some of them that are very important in learning how to fly or becoming a better pilot:

1. Chunking: Taking small units of learning and combining them into larger units called chunks. These chunks can themselves be combined into even larger chunks. Once a chunk becomes big enough, you've mastered a particular maneuver. Even something that seems simple like a takeoff requires a lot of smaller chunks items to be learned first: how to use the rudder pedals to steer, how to stay on centerline and correct for the various right-turning tendencies, how to use the elevator, and so on.

2. Practice alone doesn't make perfect: perfect practice makes better. Just practicing for the sake of practicing doesn't accomplish much—you must practice with focus. Your CFI will give you feedback when they are in the plane, but you must observe your own performance as well in order to understand that feedback. When you're in the practice area or getting ready for your checkride in the post-solo stage, there will be no one to give you feedback besides yourself.

3. Interleaving: Don't just practice the same thing over and over. Practice what your major objective for that lesson is a few times, then mix in something else for a couple of attempts. Go back to your major objective for a little bit longer, then try something else for a bit. It may seem like it might not be as efficient, but there is a lot of research demonstrating the power of interleaving.

This is just a very brief overview of these concepts. Giving them the space they deserve would take up several blog posts. So that's exactly what I intend to do for the next several weeks: go into each of them in a more useful level of detail.

A final piece of excellent advice from A Mind for Numbers is the "Law of Serendipity":

Lady Luck favors the one who tries.

If you've been putting off learning to fly for any of the dozens of reasons people always seem to have (not enough time or money are the two most popular), you won't become Lucky Lindy until you take that first step and set up a discovery flight at your local flight school.

Next week, I'm going to start expanding on how to apply each of these highlights to your own flying. See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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