Instructional theory

The instructor's skill is determined to a large degree by the ability to organise material and to select and utilise a teaching method appropriate to a particular lesson. Of the various teaching methods in common use, only the lecture method, the guided discussion and the demonstration-performance method will be covered here. The pre-flight briefing will be discussed at length in the Briefings section.

There is no definite line of division between these methods; some material requires the use of more than one method or a combination of methods25. For example, a demonstration of how to use the aircraft radio, followed by a thorough explanation, is essentially a lecture.

The use of programmed instruction will also be discussed, as many organisations employ the principles of this type of instruction, primarily through computers when it is known as Computer-Based Training (CBT).

Organising material

Regardless of the teaching method used, you must organise the material in a logical sequence31. One effective way to organise the lesson, and the simplest, is:

  • Introduction
  • Development
  • Conclusion25

Appendix A expands on this sequence.


The introduction serves several purposes:

  • To establish common ground between you and the students
  • To capture and hold the attention of the student or group
  • To establish the objectives of the lesson
  • To indicate what material is to be covered and how this relates to the entire course
  • To point out why the student should learn the material and what benefits the student can expect
  • To establish a receptive attitude toward the lesson
  • To lead into the lesson development.

The introduction should be free of stories or incidents that do not help the students focus their attention on the lesson objective. Also, a long or apologetic introduction should be avoided, as it will dampen student interest in the lesson. The introduction sets the stage for learning by gaining the student's attention, providing motivation and giving an overview of the material to be covered and its relevance to the course goals.


For information to be perceived, it first must be attended to32. Gaining and maintaining the student's attention, therefore, is of prime importance to you. One of the most effective methods is novelty24. For example, a lesson on aircraft weight and balance might start with two students, of obviously different weights, being asked to balance out a see-saw. Or you might make an unexpected or surprising statement, eg, "for most aircraft a rearward C of G increases airspeed!" and then inviting debate by asking why. Or you might begin by telling a true story of an incident that relates to the subject and thereby establishes a background or reason for learning. No matter how you introduce the lesson, the main concern should be to gain the student's attention and focus it on the subject33.


The introduction should offer the students specific reasons for needing to be familiar with, to know, to understand, to apply or to be able to perform whatever they are about to learn. This motivation should appeal to each student personally.


Every lesson introduction should contain an overview that tells the student or group what is to be covered during the lesson. A clear, concise presentation of the objective and the key ideas is absolutely critical, for it gives the student a road map of the route to be followed.


The development of the lesson is the main part. Here you develop the subject matter in a manner that helps the students achieve the desired outcome or objective.

You must organise the material logically to show the relationships of the main points34. Usually these primary relationships are shown by developing the main points in one of the following ways25:

  • from past to present
  • from simple to complex
  • from known to unknown
  • from most to least frequently used.

From past to present

In development from past to present, the subject matter is arranged chronologically. This is most suitable when history is an important consideration, eg, when tracing the development of GPS (Global Positioning System).

From simple to complex

The simple to complex pattern helps you lead the student from simple facts or ideas to an understanding of complex concepts. In studying lift, for example, the student might begin by considering the action of a river as it enters and leaves a narrow gorge – and finish with the lift formula.

From known to unknown

By using something the student already knows you can develop concepts. For example, in discussing the properties of the magnetic compass you could revise the previously learned properties of a simple bar magnet.

From most to least frequently used

Some information or concepts are common to all who use the material. This pattern starts with the most common use before progressing to rarer ones. For example, dead-reckoning techniques for navigation are learnt before applying them to lost procedures.

Under each main point in a lesson the subordinate points should lead naturally from one to another. With this arrangement, each point leads logically into, and serves as a reminder of, the next. Meaningful transitions keep the students oriented, aware of what they have covered and what is to come25.

Organising a lesson so that the students will grasp the logical relationships of ideas is not an easy task. The use of a lesson plan provides guidance on how to link ideas in a logical sequence. This type of organisation is necessary if the students are to learn. Poorly organised information is of little or no value to the student.


An effective conclusion retraces the important elements of the lesson and relates them to the objective. This review and wrap-up of ideas reinforces the student's learning and improves retention. It will generally include some assessment of whether or not the learning has been achieved.

No new ideas should be introduced in the conclusion.

Lecture method

You should know how to prepare and present a lecture and should understand the advantages and limitations of this teaching method.

The lecture is used primarily to introduce students to a new subject, but it is also a valuable method for summarising ideas, showing relationships between theory and practice, and re- emphasising main points35. The lecture method is adaptable and has several advantages.

Lectures may be given to either small or large groups, they may be used to introduce a complete training program or a single unit of instruction, and they may be combined with other teaching methods to give added meaning and direction.

The success of a lecture depends on your ability to communicate effectively as well as the ability to plan, develop and review the lesson.

In other methods of teaching (demonstration-performance, guided discussion) the instructor receives direct reaction from the students in the form of verbal or motor activity. During a lecture, however, feedback is not as direct and is therefore harder to interpret. You must develop a keen perception for subtle responses from the class (facial expressions, apparent interest or disinterest) and be able to interpret the meaning of these reactions and adjust the lesson accordingly.

Planning the lecture

The competent instructor knows that careful preparation is a major factor in the successful presentation of a lecture. Preparation should start well in advance of the presentation.

Four steps should be followed in the planning phase of preparation:

  • Establish the desired outcome and therefore the objective
  • Research the subject
  • Organise the material
  • Plan interactive classroom activities.

Developing the lecture

In supporting key points or ideas in the lesson, you must work on the assumption that the student may neither believe nor understand the points to be covered. In developing the lesson you should use the recommended text for the subject as well as statistics, comparisons and meaningful examples.

After completing the preliminary planning and writing the lesson plan, you should rehearse the lecture to build self-confidence. During rehearsal the mechanics of using notes, visual aids and other instructional techniques can be smoothed out. You should have your supervisor attend the practice sessions and observe the presentation critically. This critique will help you judge the adequacy of supporting materials and visual aids.

Suitable language

During the lecture, simple rather than complex words should be used whenever possible. Errors in grammar and vulgarisms detract from an instructor's dignity and reflect upon the intelligence of the students.

If the subject includes technical terms, you should clearly define each one so that no student is in doubt about its meaning12. Whenever possible, you should use specific rather than general words. For example, the specific words "a leak in the fuel line" tell more than the general term "mechanical defect".

Another way you can enliven the lecture is to use sentences of varying length. Too many short sentences result in a choppy style; long sentences, unless carefully constructed, are difficult to follow. To ensure clarity and variety, you should use a mixture of short and medium length sentences25.

Whatever the style adopted by you, a display of enthusiasm will greatly affect the success of any presentation. "Probably the best teachers of adults are people who are enthusiastic amateurs in their subject – at least, amateurs at teaching it"36.

Delivery methods

You can deliver a lecture in one of four ways, by:

  • reading written notes
  • reciting memorised material
  • speaking without notes from an outline
  • speaking impromptu without preparation.

The lecture is probably best delivered by speaking without notes from an outline. You speak from a mental or written outline but do not read or memorise the material to be presented. Because the exact words with which to express an idea are left to the moment, the lecture is more personalised and provides more opportunity for enthusiasm, than one which is read or spoken from memory. Since you talk directly to the students, rather than head down reading from notes, the reactions of the students can be readily observed, and adjustments can be made to their responses.

You have better control of the situation, can change the approach to deal with any situation as it arises, and can tailor each idea to suit the individual responses of the students. For example, if you realise from their puzzled expressions that a number of students fail to grasp an idea, that point can be elaborated upon until the reactions of the students indicate that they understand.

Overall, this method reflects your personal enthusiasm and is more flexible than other methods. For these reasons it is likely to hold the interest of the students.

Use of notes

An instructor who is thoroughly prepared can usually speak effectively without notes. If the lecture and outline have been carefully prepared and rehearsed there should be no real difficulty. However, if your preparation has been limited, you may find it necessary to use notes.

Notes do have certain advantages. They assure accuracy, jog the memory, and dispel the fear of forgetting. An instructor should not, however, be overly dependent on notes. Use them sparingly and unobtrusively, but make no effort to hide them from the students. Notes should be written legibly or typed, and they should be placed on the lectern where they can be consulted easily, or held if you walk about the platform.

Formal versus informal lectures

The lecture may be conducted in either a formal or informal manner.

Learning is best achieved if students participate actively in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Therefore, use of the informal lecture, which includes active student participation, is encouraged. A formal lecture, however, is still to be preferred on some occasions, such as introducing new subject matter.

You can achieve active student participation in the informal lecture through the use of questions27. In this way, the students are encouraged to make contributions that supplement the lecture. You can use questions for one or more of the following purposes:

  • to determine the experience and background of the students
  • in order to tailor the lecture to them,
  • to add variety and stimulate interest, or
  • to check student understanding.

It remains your responsibility to plan, develop and present the lesson. The students should not be relied on for any significant portion of the lesson development.

Advantages of the lecture

In a lecture, you can present many ideas in a relatively short time. Facts and ideas that have been logically organised can be concisely presented in rapid sequence. Lecturing is the most economical teaching method in terms of the time required to present a given amount of material. It is also a convenient method for large groups.

The lecture can be used to ensure that all students have the necessary basic information background to learn a new subject12. You can offer students with varied backgrounds a common understanding of principles and facts. For example, in learning about aircraft performance, the factors affecting aircraft take-off and landing distances could be covered in a lecture, before moving on to a demonstration-performance on the use of take-off and landing performance charts.

If students do not have the time required for research or access to reference material, information they need can be presented in a lecture. The lecture can usefully and effectively supplement other teaching methods. A brief introductory lecture can give direction and purpose to a demonstration. For example, a lecture on the triangle of velocities could precede a demonstration of the use of the navigation computer. A lecture can also prepare students for a discussion by telling them something about the subject matter to be covered. For example, the effects of fatigue on pilot performance followed by discussion on individual experiences.

Disadvantages of the lecture

As a teaching method the lecture cannot provide for all desired learning outcomes. Motor skills can not be learned by listening to a lecture.

Too often the lecture does not provide for student participation and, as a consequence, many students willingly let you do all the work.

Learning is an active process, and the lecture tends to foster passiveness and teacher- dependence on the part of the students12.

The lecture does not enable you to estimate the student's progress before additional material is introduced. Within a single period, you may unwittingly present more information than students can absorb. The lecture method provides no accurate means of checking student learning.

Instructors find it difficult to hold the attention of all the students throughout a lecture37. The successful lecture relies heavily on your skill in speaking.

Recommended reading

53 Interesting Things to do in Your Lectures33 by G Gibbs et al (1991)
Planning an Instructional Sequence27 by WJ Popham et al (1970)

Guided discussion method

In contrast to the lecture, where you provide information, the guided discussion relies on the students to provide ideas, experiences, opinions and information. An instructor may use this method after the students have gained some knowledge and experience, during classroom periods or pre-flight and post-flight briefings. This method is particularly applicable to CPL and your own instructor training.

Fundamentally, the guided discussion is the reverse of the lecture method. You should aim to draw out what the students know, rather than telling them. You must remember that the more intense the discussion and the greater the participation, the more effective the learning will be. You must be sure that all members of the group follow the discussion, and that all are treated impartially. You must encourage questions, exercise patience and tact, redirect questions to other members of the group where possible, and comment on all responses.

Use of questions

In the guided discussion, learning is produced through the skilful use of questions38. The instructor often uses a question to open up an area for discussion, which may be directed at the entire group to stimulate thought or a response from each group member. Its purpose is to get discussion started. For example, "What can you tell me about lift?"

The rhetorical question is similar in nature because it also spurs group thought. For example, "What is lift?" you answer the rhetorical question, however, and it is more commonly used in the lecture. After the discussion develops, you may ask a follow-up question to guide the discussion. For example, "What is the relationship between true airspeed and lift?" The reasons for using a follow-up question may vary. You may want a student to explain something more thoroughly, or may need to bring the discussion back to a point from which it has strayed. If, however, a response is desired from a specific individual, perhaps to encourage participation, a direct question may be asked of that student. Be certain to acknowledge the response.

Rather than give a direct answer to a student's question, you may elicit the answer by redirecting the original question (or a modified version of it) back to the individual, to another student, or to the entire group.

Questions used to evaluate or measure student learning should require a specific answer relating to the material covered. For example, "If true airspeed is doubled, and everything else remains constant, by how much will the lift increase?" The question, "Any questions?" should rarely, if ever, be used.

Questions should:

  • Have a specific purpose
  • Have a clear meaning
  • Contain a single idea
  • Stimulate thought
  • Require definite answers
  • Relate to previously taught information.

Planning a guided discussion

Planning a guided discussion is similar to planning a lecture. In addition the following suggestions27 may help:

Select a topic the students can profitably discuss

Unless the students have some knowledge to exchange with each other, they cannot reach the desired learning outcomes by the discussion method. If necessary, set assignments that will give the students an adequate background for discussing the lesson topic. For example, "Research factors which may influence the successful outcome of an engine failure after take-off".

Establish a lesson objective and desired learning outcomes

Through discussion, the students develop an understanding of the subject by sharing knowledge, experiences and backgrounds. Consequently, the objective is normally stated at the understanding level of learning. For example, "To explain the factors which may influence the successful outcome of an engine failure after take-off". The learning outcomes should stem from and be related to the objective. For example, "Recognise the value of a pre-take-off emergency brief, develop situational awareness and be aware of aircraft performance limitations".

Conduct adequate research to become familiar with the topic

While researching, you should always be alert for ideas on the best way to tailor a lesson for a particular group of students. For example, a lecture or discussion on the use of the aircraft radio could profitably be combined with a visit to the control tower. During the research process, you should collect (or set an assignment for the students to collect) appropriate background reading material. Such material should be well organised and based on the fundamentals.

Organise the main points of the lesson in a logical sequence

The guided discussion has three main parts – introduction, discussion and conclusion. The introduction consists of gaining attention, motivation and overview. During the discussion, you should ensure that the main points build logically to the objective, minimising the possibility of a rambling presentation. The conclusion consists of the summary and re- motivation.

Plan at least one question for each desired learning outcome

In preparing questions, you should remember that the purpose is to bring about discussion, not merely to get answers. Questions that require only short answers such as "yes" or "four" should be avoided25. Questions framed to encourage discussion usually start with "how" or "why". For example, "Why does altitude affect take-off performance?" rather than "Does altitude affect take-off performance?" The first question invites discussion, the second, an answer of "yes".

Student preparation

"Involving the student so that learning becomes co-operative produces superior results to those achieved by competitive or individual approaches."14 It is your responsibility to encourage students to accept responsibility for their learning, by contributing to and profiting from, the discussion. Students should be made aware of the lesson objective and be given pre-lesson research or study to complete.

If you have no opportunity to assign preliminary work, it is advisable to give the students a brief general overview of the topic during the introduction. Under no circumstances should students without some background in a subject be asked to discuss that subject.

Guiding a discussion


A guided discussion is introduced in the same manner as a lecture. The introduction should include an attention step, a motivation step and an overview of key points. To encourage enthusiasm and stimulate discussion, you should show enthusiasm, "it's infectious"14, and create a relaxed, informal atmosphere. Each student should be given the opportunity and encouragement to discuss aspects of the subject. You must make the student feel a personal responsibility to contribute, and that their ideas and active participation are wanted and needed. "The instructor's job is not as simple as ensuring that the syllabus is presented to the student."14


You open the discussion by asking one of the prepared questions. After asking a question you should give the students a chance to react25. You have the answer in mind before asking the question, but the student has to think about the question before answering. You must be patient while the students figure out the answer. It takes time to recall data, word an answer or think of an example. The more difficult the question, the more time the student will need to produce an answer.

Sometimes students may not understand the question. Whenever you detect this, the question should be restated in a slightly different form. Alternatively, the question may need to drop down a level in Bloom’s Taxonomy for cognitive domain.

Once the discussion is under way, you should listen attentively to the ideas, experiences and examples contributed by the students during the discussion. During preparation, you will have anticipated the responses that indicate the students have a firm grasp of the subject. As the discussion proceeds, you may find it necessary to stimulate the students to explore the subject in greater depth or guide the direction of the discussion and encourage them to discuss the topic in more detail. By using how and why follow-up questions, you should be able to guide the discussion toward the objective of understanding the subject.

Once the students have discussed the ideas that support the objective, you should summarise what the students have accomplished.

In a discussion lesson, an interim summary is one of the most effective tools available to you to bring ideas together. In addition, the interim summary may be used to keep the group on the subject or divert the discussion to another member.

Throughout the discussion it is desirable to record ideas, facts and agreements so that the group can see relationships and the progress that has been made. The whiteboard is suitable for this purpose. Brainstorming is a special version of this process, where all ideas on a subject - no matter how weird - are recorded without criticism and then discussed by the group. This method is useful for creating an informal, relaxed atmosphere. The use of drop sheets in small groups is another useful tool in capturing information that may benefit from longer exposure on the wall compared to cleaning the board.


A guided discussion is closed by summarising the material covered. In the conclusion, you should tie together the various points or topics discussed and show the relationships between the facts brought forth and the practical application of these facts25. As an example, in concluding a discussion on engine failure after take-off, an instructor might give statistical results of the attempted turn back as against other options.

The summary should be brief but not to the point of incompleteness. If the discussion revealed that certain areas are not understood by one or more members of the group, you should clarify this material.

Demonstration-performance method

The demonstration-performance method is used extensively in flight instruction during the air exercise and is based on the principle that we learn by doing. Students learn physical or mental skills by performing those skills under supervision. An individual learns to write by writing, to weld by welding, and to fly an aircraft by performing flight manoeuvres.

Great care must be taken in using this method, to ensure that the demonstration follows the correct steps, in the proper order, so that the student gets a clear picture of each part of the operation. The demonstration-performance method has five essential phases:

  • Explanation
  • Demonstration
  • Instructor supervision
  • Student performance
  • Evaluation.


"If telling was the same as teaching we would all be so smart we could hardly stand it."39

In flight training, the explanation phase is served by the pre-flight briefing. Explanations must be clear, pertinent to the objectives of the lesson, and based on the known experience and knowledge of the students.

You must convey to the student the precise actions they are to perform, the expected result of those actions, and the possible effects of those actions on the student.

Before leaving this phase, you should ask questions so as to determine if there is understanding of the procedure to be followed.


Before the demonstration, you direct the attention of the student to no more than two items to be closely observed during the demonstration. These are the one or two items you consider vital for the execution of the skill. For example, in the steep turn, "note the aircraft nose attitude and bank angle in relation to the horizon". Then you must show the student the actions necessary to perform the skill.

As little unrelated activity as possible should be included in the demonstration if the student is to clearly understand that you are accurately performing the actions previously explained. Therefore, there is no verbal patter during this phase. The demonstration serves as a physical restatement of the objective, "here is what you will be able to do at the end of this lesson".

If, because of unanticipated circumstances, the demonstration does not closely conform to the explanation, the discrepancy should be immediately acknowledged and explained.

Instructor supervision, student performance

Instructor supervision and student performance involve separate actions, but they are performed concurrently, so they are discussed here under a single heading.

During the first phase of instructor supervision, you guide the student through the various components required to perform the skill through the use of patter and follow-me-through. Immediately thereafter you should give the student an opportunity to perform the skill, coaching as necessary.

The second phase of student performance requires the student to practise in order to learn the skills. Therefore, adequate time must be allocated for this student activity. During this phase, feedback should be gradually reduced and finally eliminated40.

Where the demonstration-performance method is used in group instruction (weight-and- balance computations, or use of the navigation computer, for example), before terminating the performance phase, opportunity should be given for the operation to be completed at least once independently, with supervision on an as-needed basis.


In this phase you judge student performance. The student displays whatever competence has been attained, and you discover how well the skill has been learned. From this measurement you determine the effectiveness of the instruction provided.

To measure each student's ability to perform, you require the students to work independently. Therefore, throughout this phase, you must not ride the controls nor offer verbal or body language cues. Any comment as to how well any individual performed the skill must be in relation to the stated objective for the lesson, not necessarily on perfection of the skill or flight test parameters.

Programmed instruction

Programmed instruction is a method of developing self-instructional materials in textbook form or for computers12.

As student's progress through programmed instructional material, they make a response to each increment of instruction. The material offers them immediate feedback by informing them of the correctness of their responses. The successful completion of each of these increments takes the student one step closer to the intended learning outcome.

The major characteristics of programmed instruction are:

  • A clear statement of what the student will be able to do after training
  • Careful sequencing of material
  • Presentation of material in steps which challenge students but do not exceed their ability
  • Active student responses
  • Immediate confirmation of answers
  • Test and revision of material until the desired learning outcome is achieved.

This approach carries students, step by step, to the learning objectives. In this respect, programmed instruction is generally more tutorial than typical classroom instruction. It gives the student not only what they are to learn, but also guides them in how they are to learn.

Types of programmed instruction

Programmed instruction may be branched or linear.


Typically, branched instruction gives more information than linear and then requires an answer to be chosen from the multiple-choice type. Each answer has a reference page to turn to. If the correct answer is chosen, new material will be presented. If an incorrect answer is chosen, remedial material will explain where the student went wrong.

For an example of this type of instruction, read Preparing Instructional Objectives26 by RF Mager. This type of programmed instruction is well suited to use with computers41.


In linear programmed instruction, the material is itemised and presented in very small steps. A student is prompted so that invariably the correct response is given. Materials are carefully designed to offer as much review as needed to assure the degree of retention appropriate to the subject matter, the learning situation and the needs of the student42.

The student responds by writing words into spaces provided for that purpose. Linear programming may also be designed to elicit other types of responses. Answers may be given mentally or orally and simple tasks may be performed. Sequences of more complicated tasks that make up a complete procedure may be required.

After completing the response, the student immediately confirms the correctness of the response by comparing it to the programme answer before continuing. Thus, the student progresses smoothly, with a continuous awareness of being correct giving a sense of satisfaction. If the programme is properly constructed, the student will, at a comfortable rate and almost effortlessly, learn the material presented43.

Proponents of this system14 attribute its success to the reinforcement it provides and the repetition it uses. If a student encounters the same fact, idea or concept in a number of ways, and if reinforcement or reward occurs each time a correct answer is made, learning takes place.

Each block of new subject matter contains obvious cues to the correct response. Thus, a student finds it virtually impossible to make errors. As a student approaches the learning objective, cues are gradually withdrawn until the student supplies complete answers without being cued.

For an example of linear type programmed instruction, see the Climbing and descending briefing - the presentation of the forces acting on the aircraft in a climb. To the casual observer, this sequence may seem unduly simple. To the student who is totally unfamiliar with the subject matter, however, it offers a sort of learning game.