New Science: “Overlearning”Locks In Skills!

How many times have you accomplished a new level with your pilot-in-training and heard “got it” on first completion – as if you could immediately lock it up and move on? (Don’t do it; it’s not locked in…) Have you had a new student think they can immediately solo just because they get hit their first good landings? Intuitively, as savvy educators, we know progress is great and motivating but consistency and reinforcement are also necessary. This same situation occurs on a meta-level also when a pilot passes their flight test but stops flying. We intuitively know they must “use it (continually) or lose it.” But there is a brain process that explains all these touch and goes (and IFR practicing) we do as pilots – we finally have an explaination why.

Neuroscience is starting to understand the details of this learning process. It is now proven in studies that unless we immediately reinforce a new skill and put it to use, much is lost right away. Skill mastery requires us to “overtrain” and reinforce every new learning level before progressing for retention. As aviation educators, we need to emphasize repetition, elaboration of each skill and lifetime learning to be safe as aviators.

Once we have successfully accomplished a new behavioral repertoire, it is neurologically essential to “stabilize” it by continued training well past the point of simple proficiency; “got it and onward” is not enough. Scientists call this technique “overlearning” and have observed it in every field where human skill mastery is critical; from first violin to martial arts. A recent study reveals that “overlearning” reinforces a skill and embeds it in a different part of the brain, installing it chemically in an entirely different way so it will not be overwritten by new learning. Critical piloting skills must be impervious to forgetting (and this is also why the initial imprint must be accurate) and fluidly and immediately available. This new study shows that if you stop training a skill as soon as it is first successful, the brain stays in its “ready-to-learn state” and the new skill is highly perishable. Reinforcement changes your actual brain state and chemistry. The study shows that repetitive training beyond the point of proficiency will “hyperstabilize” the skill and prevents”retrograde interference” from newer inputs.

Similar research from a different angle at MIT studies habits and decision-making behaviors; specifically how we develop and store them (also obsessive behaviors and addictions). Dr. Ann Greybeil at MIT is an amazingly prolific and passionate brain researcher (Fortunately she left Florida as a young girl when the only “science” a young woman could study was home economics). She has documented how early skills are reinforced and transformed into habits in an ancient brain area called the basal ganglia/striatum. Once habits and skills are formulated, they are stored, almost like books in a library, in a totally different part of the brain for fluid and rapid recall in action. (This is what we do everyday as pilots) If skills and habits are not fully formed and recoded into the forebrain repertoire, they will be available for fluid recall. The time and effort of serious practice are the necessary elements for skill retention and future aviation safety. Knowing and enforcing this practice is important for educators. Fly safely (and practice often).


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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