Teaching Through a Learning Plateau

3 min read
Jun 13, 2017

“Why can’t I get this?
“I’ve never had this much trouble learning something.”
“Maybe I’m not meant to be a pilot.”

Flight students at all levels have these worries and concerns when they reach a learning plateau. And, probably in many cases, our lack of worry as instructors only causes these students to wonder even more.  As flight instructors, we seldom worry when our student is challenged by landings, or when she has difficulty flying a familiar approach while reviewing for a check ride. We don’t worry because we are aware that these plateaus are perfectly normal, and we’ve seen them often. We don’t worry because we know that except for a few rare occasions, students get through them with a little extra attention.

But our students worry. They don’t know what’s happening. They don’t know why they’re not progressing. They’re frustrated. They never thought it would take an additional eight lessons to learn how to land. They couldn’t possibly understand that the mental workload during a cross-country flight would set them back an extra flight or two while they absorbed the ATC environment and simulated emergencies at the same time.

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Students panic about learning plateaus because they don’t expect it to happen to them. But then it does. They’re working hard, studying, listening to their instructor’s feedback. And they just can’t get it. They worry that they’re inept. They begin to question whether they’re cut out to be pilots. Maybe they question their level of instruction. They’re watching their bank account dwindle and they’re seeing friends go off on their first solo flights and pass check rides while they go out for yet another loop in the pattern. They don’t know why they’ve hit this plateau, and they don’t know how to get out.

So what do you do with a student who just isn’t progressing? What do you do when they get so frustrated they want to quit? It’s not always easy to determine the appropriate thing to do, but here are a few things to try.

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  • Tell new students about learning plateaus before they experience one. They should know that plateaus during flight training are a normal part of learning, and to expect them.
  • Ask the student what they think. Sit down and talk to the student about why they think they are stuck. They may have no clue, or they may have some ideas. They may say, “I just don’t know. I’ve been studying all the time. I chair-fly constantly.” That might be your cue that they’re trying too hard and need to take a break. Or they may say, “I know what’s happening. Every time I get close to the ground on landing, I just panic.” Their response to this chat might give you enough feedback to really hone in on the problem area.
  • Take a break, figuratively and literally. Encourage the student to get enough rest in between lessons. Have them skip studying for a week. Taking a week or more off can give the mind a rest. Or take them on a fun flight. Grab that $100 hamburger they’ve been hoping to get.
  • Change the scenery a little bit. If landings are causing anxiety, practice procedures like pitch and power profiles in the simulator to ease the pressure, or get out of the pattern and move on to cross country flights. Sometimes a vote of confidence is all they need, and they may be able to build confidence by excelling in another area like flight planning or ATC communications.
  • Go back to basics. Try to break down the maneuver or topic into the simplest steps possible. We sometimes forego briefings on the simplest topics because we assume the student already knows about them. In some cases, they may have demonstrated knowledge of a topic successfully, but we didn’t catch that it was actually pure luck, and they really don’t have the piece of the puzzle they need.
  • Encourage your student to fly with another instructor. This helps your student by giving them a fresh perspective and maybe some new techniques to add to their tool box. And hearing what the other instructor might have to say about your instruction will help you grow as an instructor. You might learn that you missed something or have encouraged a bad habit, or the other instructor might just reinforce your thoughts on the matter.

When a student experiences a learning plateau, it can be frustrating for both of you. Our job is to make sure the student knows that it’s a normal part of training, and then do what we can to mitigate the frustration. 

How do you help your students through a learning plateau?