Flight instructors know that learning plateaus are a natural part of learning a new skill. It’s happened to all of us at one point during our training.
Whatever it is, everyone else seems to get it except for you. It’s a terrible feeling, and you aren’t sure what to do about it when it’s happening.
All students will have the occasional hangup every once in a while, but it’s seldom a cause for concern.
Set Realistic Expectations
The best way to prevent learning blocks is to set your students up for a positive training experience early on in their flying careers.
If you train younger, career-path students, they are far more likely to worry about their progress and compare themselves to their peers than adult learners.
But no matter the age of your student, they will have a learning plateau at one point or another.
When you first meet with your students, plan a conversation about the phases of flight training and what they can expect. Point out that they will likely experience a plateau at some point and that it’s a natural part of the learning process.
Your goal is to set realistic expectations and reduce their anxiety before they ever even have any.
An equally important point of this conversation is to convey that everyone learns these skills differently and that it’s perfectly normal for some to progress faster than others.
It may sound a small thing to the instructor, but what you’re doing is laying a foundation for a positive culture among your students. And, in case there was any doubt, your students are comparing notes and talking about their flying when you’re not around.
Accept the Challenge
The first thing to do when you see your student plateau is to tackle the thing head-on.
Start by ensuring that your student has a positive attitude about it; you do not want them giving up too quickly or getting discouraged early on. Break the task, maneuver, or ground lesson into smaller, more attainable goals.
Remember the building blocks you learned in the fundamentals of instruction? Start putting them to good use.
Make sure they’ve mastered all the skills leading up to this point, and break the problem-making task into as many baby steps as you can. The great thing about smaller goals is that they can help you transition a level plateau into a slow and steady ascent.
Try Something Completely Different
So you’ve tried explaining it every way you know how, you’ve taken the controls and demonstrated the task, but it’s still not clicking.
Try turning the table and make your student play flight instructor. Have them do more talking, and see if you can find in the gaps their understanding.
If none of this is working, starting asking senior instructors if they’ve ever had this same problem. You’d be amazed at how one innocuous little tip can completely change the entire scenario.
If nothing in your toolbox is working, it’s time to step back.
Your student can’t keep going up and doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. It’s time to take a break, so skip the lesson and come back to it later.
Let them excel at something different to rebuild their enthusiasm and confidence.
Or just have them take a mini-vacation with a week off from flying.
Have Them Fly with Another Instructor
Flying with a different instructor is a fantastic way for your students to learn something new. Don’t let your ego get in the way here.
It says nothing about your skills as an instructor; no instructor has ever been able to teach every student everything.
Sometimes instructor changes are simply for personality reasons, and sometimes their just because you need a little advice on how to handle an individual student’s training.
It might help not to let on that the change is due to the learning plateau—but do brief the other instructor on the situation. Then tell your student that they’ll have to fly with whatshisface on the next flight due to a scheduling conflict.
You don’t want them worried about their performance or stressing about the change. You just want them to have a positive flight with another instructor.
Invite Them to Backseat
Another thing you can do is have them backseat with a more advanced student. If that student is working on the same task, that might be good or bad.
The purpose of back seating is to just get your blocked student out of their headspace for an hour or two. It’s not just to say, “See, this guy can do it!”
Let them observe another student learning something.
Probably the best scenario is if that other student is having trouble with some other task. Show them that other pilots have these same problems and that with perseverance and hard work, they will get over them.
What other tips do you have for flight instructors to help their students through learning plateaus?
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Liz Brassaw is a first officer for a regional airline and the former Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Operations Officer for Thrust Flight. She holds an ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, AMEL, ASES with over 2,500 hours of flight instruction given. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the Utah Valley University School of Aviation Sciences. She’s passionate about flying and enjoys instilling that love in the instructors on her team and the new students she trains.