Developing Communication Skills

Communication skills need to be developed; they do not occur automatically. The ability to effectively communicate stems from experience. The experience of instructional communication begins with role playing during training to be an instructor, continues during the actual instruction, and is enhanced by additional training.

Role Playing

Role playing is a method of learning in which learners perform a particular role. In role playing, the learner is provided with a general description of a situation and then applies a new skill or knowledge to perform the role. Experience in instructional communication comes from actually doing it and is learned in the beginning by role playing during the instructor’s initial training. For example, a flight instructor applicant can fly with a flight instructor who assumes the role of a learner pilot. In this role, the flight instructor can duplicate known learner responses and then critique the applicant’s role as instructor. A mentor or supervisor can play the learner AMT for a maintenance instructor applicant.

It is essential for the flight instructor to develop good ground instruction skills, as well as flight instruction skills to prepare learners for what is to transpire in the air. Likewise, the maintenance instructor develops classroom teaching skills to prepare the maintenance learner for practical, hands-on tasks. In both cases, effective communication is necessary to reinforce the skills that have been attempted and to assess or critique the results. This development continues as an instructor progresses in experience. What worked early on might be refined or replaced by some other technique as the instructor gains more experience.

A new instructor is more likely to find a comfortable style of communication in an environment that is not threatening. For a prospective maintenance instructor, this might take the form of conducting a class on welding while under the supervision of a maintenance supervisor; the flight instructor applicant usually flies with a flight instructor who role plays as the learner.

Current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) training emphasis has moved from a maneuvers-based training standard to what is called scenario-based training (SBT). SBT is a highly effective approach that allows learners to understand, then apply their knowledge as they participate in realistic scenarios. This method of instruction and learning allows learners to move from theory to practical application of skills during their training. Instructor applicants, flight or maintenance, need to think in terms of SBT while they are learners. Not only does it prepare them to react appropriately in the situations they encounter in the workplace, it also helps them as instructors when they are responsible for creating scenarios for their learners.

For example, James (the flight instructor applicant) designs a scenario in which Ray (the flight instructor playing the role of learner) is performing stalls to Airman Certification Standards (ACS). James briefs Ray on the maneuver before the flight, demonstrates the stall, and then talks Ray through the maneuver. Ray pretends to be an anxious learner pilot, replicating reactions he himself has experienced with flight learners. After the flight, James critiques their instruction period. As increased emphasis is placed on SBT, there will be a corresponding increase in the importance of role playing.

Instructional Communication

Instruction has taken place when the instructor explains a particular procedure and subsequently determines that the learner exhibits the desired response. Even so, the instructor can improve communication by adhering to techniques of good communication.

One of the basic principles used in public speaking courses is to encourage participants to make presentations about something they understand. It would not be good if an instructor without a maintenance background tried to teach a course for aviation maintenance. Instructors perform better when speaking of something they know very well and for which they have a high level of confidence.

The instructor should not be afraid to use examples of past experiences to illustrate particular points. When teaching the procedures to be used for transitioning from instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) to visual cues during an approach, it would be helpful to be able to tell the learner about encountering these same conditions. An instructor’s personal experiences make instruction more valuable than reading the same information in a textbook. The instructor should be cautioned, however, to exercise restraint with this technique of illustration, as these types of discussions frequently degrade into a “war story” or “there I was” discussion.

The instructor needs some way of determining results, and the method used should be related to the expected outcome. In the case of flight training, the instructor can judge the actual performance of a maneuver. For a maintenance learner, the instructor can judge the level of accomplishment of a maintenance procedure. In both cases, the instructor determines whether the learner has actually received and retained the knowledge or if acceptable performance was a one-time event.

The aviation learner should know how and why something should be done. For example, a maintenance learner may know how to tighten a particular fastener to a specified torque, but it is more important to know that the security and integrity of any fastener depends on proper torque. In this way, the learner would be more likely to torque all fasteners properly in the future. For a flight learner, simply knowing the different airspeeds for takeoffs and landings is not enough. It is essential to know the reasons for different airspeeds in specific situations to fully understand the importance of proper airspeed control. Normally, the instructor determines the level of understanding by use of some type of evaluation. See Assessment, for more information.


Instructors should know something about their learners in order to communicate effectively. As discussed earlier, an instructor needs to determine the abilities of the learners and properly communicate, and one way of becoming better acquainted with learners is to be a good listener. Good instructors work to master listening ability and frequently self-evaluate in this area. Instructors can use a number of techniques to become better at listening. [Figure 1]

Developing Communication Skills, aviation instructor
Figure 1. Instructors can use a number of tools to become better at listening

Just as it is important for instructors to want to listen in order to be effective listeners, it is necessary for learners to want to listen. Wanting to listen is just one of several techniques that allow a learner to listen effectively. Instructors can improve the percentage of information transfer by teaching learners how to listen. [Figure 2]

Developing Communication Skills, aviation instructor
Figure 2. Learners can improve their listening skills by applying the steps to effective listening

Listening is more than hearing. Most instructors are familiar with the concept that listening is “hearing with comprehension.” When the learner hears something being communicated, he or she may or may not comprehend what is being transmitted. On the other hand, when the learner truly hears the communication, he or she then interprets the communication based on their knowledge to that point, processes the information to a level of understanding, and attempts to make a correlation of that communicated information to the task at hand. The increased level of motivation of typical flight and aviation maintenance learners makes this process much easier.

Remind learners that certain emotions interfere with how they listen. For example, an instrument learner pilot anticipating drastic changes in requested routing becomes anxious. In this frame of mind, it is very difficult for the learner to listen and process the new route. If a learner who is terrified of the prospect of spins attempts to listen to a lesson on spins, the emotions felt might overwhelm the attempt to listen. This requires a means to allay the anxiety and fear. If the instructor or learner knows that certain areas arouse emotion, they may consider additional conditioning that prepares the learner to listen.

Listening for main ideas is another listening technique. Primarily a technique for listening to a lecture or formal lesson presentation, it sometimes applies to hands-on situations as well. People who concentrate on remembering or recording facts might very well miss the message because they have not picked up on the big picture. A listener should always ask, what is the purpose of what I am listening to? By doing this, the listener can relate the words to the overall concept.

The instructor should ensure that the learner is aware of the danger of daydreaming. Most people can listen much faster than even the fastest talker can speak. This leaves room for the mind to get off onto some other subject. The listener who is aware of this problem can concentrate on repeating, paraphrasing, or summarizing the speaker’s words. Doing so uses the extra time to reinforce the speaker’s words, allowing the learner to retain more of the information.

Nobody can remember everything. Note taking allows the learner to use an organized system to reconstruct what was said during the lesson. Every learner has a slightly different system, but no attempt to record the lecture verbatim should be made.

In most cases, a shorthand or abbreviated system of the learner’s choosing should be encouraged. Notetaking is merely a method of allowing the learner to recreate the lecture so that it can be studied. The same notetaking skills can be used outside the classroom any time information needs to be retained. For example, copying an instrument clearance word for word is very difficult. By knowing the format of a typical clearance, learner instrument pilots can develop their own system of abbreviations. This allows them to copy the clearance in a useful form for read back and for flying the clearance. By incorporating all or some of these techniques, learners retain more information. Instructors can vastly improve retention of information by making certain their learners have the best possible listening skills.


Good questioning can determine how well the learner understands what is being taught. It also shows the learner that the instructor is paying attention and that the instructor is interested in the learner’s response. An instructor should ask focused, open-ended questions and avoid closed-ended questions.

Focused questions allow the instructor to concentrate on desired areas. An instructor may ask for additional details, examples, and impressions from the learner. This allows the instructor to ask further questions if necessary. The presentation can then be modified to fit the understanding of the learner.

Open-ended questions are designed to encourage full, meaningful answers using the learner’s own knowledge and perceptions while closed-ended questions encourage a short or single-word answer. Open-ended questions, which typically begin with words such as “why” and “how” tend to be more objective and less leading than closed-ended questions. Often open-ended questions are not technically questions, but statements that implicitly ask for completion. An instructor’s ability to ask open-ended questions is an important skill to develop.

In contrast, closed-ended questions tend to evaluate the learner’s understanding only at the rote level of learning. Closed-ended questions can be answered by “yes” or “no.” When used in a multiple choice scenario, closed-ended questions have a finite set of answers from which the respondent chooses. One of the choices may be “other.” It is a good idea to allow respondents to write in an optional response if they choose “other” because developing the learner response may lead to insights into the learning process.

One benefit of closed-ended questions is that they are relatively easy to standardize and the data gathered easily lend themselves to statistical analysis. The down side to closed-ended questions is that they are more difficult to write than open-ended questions, generally lead the learner towards the desired answer, and may under certain circumstances direct the conversation toward the instructor’s own agenda.

To be effective, questions, regardless of the type, are adapted to the ability, experience, and stage of training of the learner. Effective questions and, therefore, effective communications center on only one idea. A single question should be limited to who, what, when, where, why, or how and not a combination of these. Effective questioning presents a challenge to the learner. Questions of suitable difficulty serve to stimulate learning.

Two ways of confirming that the learner and instructor understand things in the same way are the use of paraphrasing and perception checking. The instructor can use paraphrasing to show what the learner’s statement meant to the instructor. In this way, the learner can then make any corrections or expansions on the statement in order to clarify. Perception checking gets to the feelings of the learner, again by stating what perceptions the instructor has of the behavior that the learner can then clarify as necessary.

Since it is important that the instructor understand as much as possible about the learners, instructors can be much more effective by using improved listening skills and effective questions to help in putting themselves in the place of the learners. Questions should be phrased to focus the learner on the decision-making process and the exercise of good judgment.

Knowledge of the subject material and skill at instructional communication are necessary to be an instructor. Increasing the depth of knowledge in either area makes the instructor more effective.

Instructional Enhancement

An instructor never stops learning. While professional development is discussed in greater detail in Aviation Instructor Responsibilities and Professionalism section, the more an instructor knows about a subject, the better the instructor is at conveying that information. For example, a maintenance instructor teaching basic electricity might be able to teach at a minimally satisfactory level if the instructor had only the same training level as that being taught. If asked a question that exceeded the instructor’s knowledge, the instructor could research the answer and get back to the learner. It would be much better if the instructor, through experience or additional training, was prepared to answer the question initially. Additional knowledge and training would also bolster the instructor’s confidence and give the instructional presentation more depth. Technically qualified instructors, however, consider the level of the learner and present relevant information to enhance understanding or to stimulate the interest of the learner.

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