Once a student learns the skill, it is important to continue some practice to improve retention, but the power law of practice raises the question of whether or not there is a point at which continued practice no longer leads to improvement. Since athletic coaches, among others, are very interested in maximizing performance, much research has been done on the subject. Within the last few years, research has shown that how practice is structured makes an important impact on how well people retain what they have learned.
There are three types of practice, each of which yields particular results in acquiring skills: deliberate, blocked, and random.
In order for a student to gain skill knowledge and learn how to perform the skill on the automatic level, a student must engage in deliberate practice. This practice is aimed at a particular goal. During deliberate practice, the student practices specific areas for improvement and receives specific feedback after practice. The feedback points out discrepancies between the actual performance and the performance goal sought. During deliberate practice, a student focuses on eliminating these discrepancies. [Figure 2-18]
Studies of skill learning suggest a student achieves better results if distractions are avoided during deliberate practice. When feedback is needed to correct student performance, it should be brief and explicit. Examples of individual skills for pilots are landings, stalls, steep turns, and procedure flows. Examples for maintenance technicians are correct installation of piston rings on a reciprocating engine, setting timing on an aircraft engine, and installing a tach generator.
Unlike the acquisition of knowledge, skill learning does not benefit from the instructor introducing the student to new ideas or prompting the student to think about old ones in different ways. On the other hand, instructors should not confuse distractions during skill learning with the legitimate use of distractions to help a student learn how to manage his or her attention while coordinating several tasks that have been mastered to some degree.
Blocked practice is practicing the same drill until the movement becomes automatic. Doing the same task over and over leads to better short-term performance, but poorer long-term learning. It tends to fool not only the student but the instructor into thinking the skills have been well learned. While blocked practice enhances current performance, it does not improve either concept learning or retrieval from long-term memory. [Figure 2-19]
Random practice mixes up the skills to be acquired throughout the practice session. This type of practice leads to better retention because by performing a series of separate skills in a random order, the student starts to recognize the similarities and differences of each skill which makes it more meaningful. The learner also is able to store the skill more effectively in the long-term memory. Students are then required to retrieve steps and parameters from long-term memory which helps students recognize patterns between tasks.
Blocked practice performance scores well during the actual practice when compared to random practice performance. But on a test given the next day, random practice does better than blocked practice. For long-term retention of aviation knowledge, the instructor who uses well-written SBT which encourages random practice and leads to better retention of information.
How much practice is needed to attain proficiency? In planning for student skill acquisition, a primary consideration is the length of time devoted to practice. A beginning student reaches a point where additional practice is not only unproductive, but may even be harmful. When this point is reached, errors increase, and motivation declines. As a student gains experience, longer periods of practice are profitable.
Another consideration is the problem of whether to divide the practice period. Perhaps even the related instruction should be broken down into segments, or it may be advantageous to plan one continuous, integrated sequence. The answer depends on the nature of the skill. Some skills are composed of closely related steps, each dependent on the preceding one. Learning to pack a parachute is a good example. Other skills are composed of related subgroups of skills. Learning to overhaul an aircraft engine is a good example.
One way to structure practice to get the most from learning is to expose the student to the same knowledge and skill in different contexts. For example, after practicing the short field landing in the aircraft, return to the classroom and rehearse the procedure using the toy airplane. Then, watch a video that shows a variety of back-to-back landings and have the student describe what went right and what went wrong. Each of these learning methods gives the student the chance practice the maneuver while adding new perceptions and insights to his or her skill base.