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Competency-Based Training: The future of the aviation industry?

It takes more than just passively listening to ‘the sage on the stage’ to become a competent professional in any one industry. Dr. Suzanne Kearns, co-author of ‘Competency-Based Education in Aviation’, explains how this new way can of learning can help.

At some point in our lives, most of us have been in a scenario where an educator has said, “Forget what you learned in the classroom – now we’re going to learn how things work in the real world.” This is no doubt a sore point for training institutions, which invest countless time and money in teaching.

Perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that students may already have forgotten what they learned in the classroom anyway. According to The National Training Laboratories in Maine, traditional teaching methods such as lecturing and reading result in just 5% and 10% retention rates respectively.

Unfortunately, Dr. Suzanne Kearns, an aviation professor at the University of Waterloo, believes the latest educational trend, using laptops in the classroom, isn’t necessarily helping the problem. Research suggests that typing results in lower retention than writing by hand, and that’s if any typing is taking place! Kearns estimates as much as two thirds of classroom time is potentially being spent browsing the web instead of engaging with the task at hand.

She believes a move towards competency-based training (CBT) – sometimes referred to as evidence-based training (EBT) – is a step towards creating more valuable classroom hours. With CBT, the knowledge, skills and attitudes required for professional competence are identified and organised into a series of ‘competency statements’, which themselves become training objectives to be measured against.

This allows for a more holistic approach to learning, which Kearns says is more applicable to the ‘real world.’ While segregating subjects into different topics may be easier to teach, students eventually end up having to learn how to use all their different skills together. Instead, CBT advocates ‘whole task training.’

Interactivity is key to retention, with Kearns highlighting this element of classroom time is key to helping learners move at their own pace. By working on problems in small groups, brighter candidates can lead, explaining their thoughts and ideas to those less confident, who might feel more confident asking questions to a peer rather than a teacher. “Fundamentally, we learn by explaining new ideas to ourselves in the contexts of our own experiences,” Kearns expands.

With the typing and reading completed outside the classroom, students are left to deeply process and engage with the material once they’re with each other. The retention rates after discussion are thought to be 50% (ten times more than listening to a lecturer) while teaching others could result in a retention rate of up to a staggering 95%.

Kearns says ways of encouraging this deeper engagement include quizzing, but not only at the end of instruction. She argues students should be questioned on their knowledge of a subject as soon as possible after being introduced to it, to train themselves to reflect on the content. Furthermore, there is value in asking students to solve a problem they don’t know the answer to, as research suggests that even if they answer incorrectly it results in higher retention of lesson material.

Other methods which are helpful in CBT include case study analyses, high- or low-fidelity simulations, apprenticeships, job-shadowing followed by analysis, and strategic games. Kearns identifies, “The key is to align the activity with a training goal and ensure it creates an authentic and realistic real-world scenario.”

So, what’s stopping people from implementing CBT? “There are so many different understandings of the topic,” states Kearns. “When we were writing Competency-Based Education in Aviation, my co-authors and I had to interview several dozen aviation professionals from around the world to try and nail down a single definition.

“Also, the industry has some who are very strong advocates of CBT and others who are hesitant to adopt new approaches,” Kearns continues. “The reality is that the concept has both strengths and limitations – the best implementation will be considerate of both.”

It’s time to stop teaching people to pass tests and start teaching them to become competent professionals. With shortages projected across aviation professions, it’s no longer an option to teach the 50th percentile (the average student) and then say, “If you can’t learn the way I teach, there are ten more people like you who can.”

Instead, Kearns says we need to retain every student who is capable of reaching competence, and start re-thinking about how they’re going to get there.

This article was originally published by ‘Civil Aviation Training: The Journal for Civil Aviation Training’, June 23, 2017.

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