When learning how to fly, students are generally taught new tasks by simply memorizing procedures. For example, if we were to ask a student pilot after their second or third lesson how they make the airplane climb, we would probably get a response similar to, “Increase the throttle to full power and pull back on the yoke.”

This is a great way to introduce a new concept to the student, but if they don’t eventually understand what is fully happening, they wont be able to cope with any abnormalities that will eventually, and inevitably occur.

By referencing the FAA’s Instructor Handbook, we see that there are four types of learning: rote, understanding, application, and correlation. The above is an example of simple rote memorization.

Learning is obviously an ongoing process and it’s important to ensure that we achieve to the level of correlation. Anything less is cheating ourselves.


Being able to repeat something back or mimic a demonstration is the first step in learning. I like to think of it as “monkey-see/hear, monkey-do/say.” Looking at the example above from the instructor’s point of reference, we can assume the student would be able to successfully increase to the throttle to full power, and pull back on the yoke to obtain a suitable rate of climb. At this point, however, the student may not be able to explain what or how the results are occurring. They will just mimic the input, and hopefully recognize the results.


To reach the next level, the student will start to understand not only the what but the how as well. At this point, they now understand that increasing the throttle and pulling back on the yoke is increasing the wing’s angle of attack and initiating a climb. They see the result as a gain in altitude.


By this level, the student now has the information, understands how it works, and can now apply it. If we were to ask the student to climb to four thousand feet, he or she should be able to initiate the climb by recalling and applying the procedure completely unassisted.

Unfortunately, this is where many instructors stop teaching.

Without reaching the next level of learning, the student may not be able to efficiently adapt to cope with any inevitable curve-balls that they will one day find themselves faced with.


After the student understands all the information and can apply it they reach the final step of learning. The process of correlation means that the student can now relate that information with all of their other knowledge to gain an understanding of “the big picture.”



A lot of this information may seem like common sense, and it should. In the bigger picture, the concept that I really want to emphasize here is the importance of learning all the way to the level of correlation.  As a pilot you have to be able to constantly be able to adapt; to be able to adapt you have to understand the big picture. No two flights are ever the same and you need to able to quickly adjust when you get thrown a curve-ball. To do that, you have to be able to understand and interpret all the available data.

What are the pros? What are the cons?

A great example of this is while teaching a new student traffic patterns and working on their approach to landings. Initially, you teach them a step by step procedure to give them a good, consistent sight picture. After some practice, the student can hit the numbers every time using that procedure.

The curve ball comes into play when they have to extend their downwind for an aircraft on a straight in, instrument approach. If all the student understands is that rote procedure, they won’t be able to adjust to the situation. To successfully cope with the curve-ball and still reach their goal of a successful approach to landing, they will have to understand the big picture. Consistently ask yourself, do I really understand what’s happening? Whenever in doubt, ask questions!


Throttle On!

Mathew Young
Cincinnati, OH

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