Studying For Pilot Theory Exams – Tips for Memory

Aviatrix West in paid collaboration with 43 Air School

Let's do an exercise together. Read through the following list once:

Electric blue, thirty-one, tulips, Hogwarts, cheesecake, Mac Book Pro and King Air.

Now, look outside your window. Take note of the clouds in the sky. Do you hear birds chirping? Have the flowers started to bloom?

Bring your attention back to this article. Three... Two... One... Here's the test:

Can you recall all seven items from the list in the previous paragraph without reading them back? Probably not.

Why did you fail? This exercise required the use of short-term memory - which is limited in both quantity and duration and is sensitive to disruptions. Short term memory can only retain up to 9 items for approximately 20-30 seconds. Repeating the list a few times in your mind, while following my distracting instructions to look out the window, would have helped you succeed in this exercise. Yet, everyone would fail if I suddenly asked them to recall the items on this list next month.

That's where the danger lies when cramming material into short term memory for exams – it might do the job to pass but, the information studied will tumble out of your brain as quickly as you squeezed it in - and one day when you need those facts inflight to safely get back on the ground, your brain will feel as empty as a high school Amphitheatre during level 5 of the COVID-19 lockdown.

By writing one subject at a time, South African Pilot Theory Exams can be a tempting short term memory trap. However, COVID-19 has changed the norms and student pilots suddenly have more time to prepare for exams and fewer distractions to keep them away from their books. Now, more than ever, it's essential to use this as a chance to store information in long term memory. This will enable you to write multiple exams on the same day, avoid adding to the queue of candidates requiring rewrites and having an instantly accessible pool of knowledge to make you a safer and more skilled pilot.

So, how do you store information in long term memory? It has to be consolidated in your mind. Fortunately, there are no limits as to how much information can be stored in this type of memory. Endless amounts of information can be 'filed' away but the key is to continue revisiting the topics at certain intervals in the future for quick and long-lasting recollection.

To help you, we've put together some tips to commit study material to long term memory:

1) A Good Night's Sleep:

While you may be familiar with the "burn the midnight oil" idiom, you're probably unaware that memory is directly affected by sleep. Late nights and poor-quality sleep reduce one's ability to retain information and make deeper connections between the material. In other words, both your short term and long-term memory is detrimentally affected by lack of sleep. Without adequate shuteye, your brain is unable to consolidate information into long term memory.

Both short and long-term memory are detrimentally affected by lack of sleep.

2) Understand the subjects:

If your goal is to parrot study, you won't get far in this career. Pilots must fully grasp material for it to be readily accessible from long-term memory. Selecting high quality sources of information is the first step to building a strong theoretical foundation. Most schools therefore recommend certain approved textbooks or online courses – for example, 43 Air School offers EASA approved Jeppesen online courseware that is accessible from any location and can be downloaded (in case Wi-Fi access is limited). Since the exam syllabus is regularly updated, borrowing old textbooks from a pilot who already graduated isn’t recommended. Fortunately, online courses (such as the one used by 43 Air School) are immediately updated with syllabus changes to provide you with the latest material. It's good practice to check whether you could explain each concept to a 5-year-old. If you can't, then you don't understand it well enough.

3) Connect the dots

Information is likely to be remembered when you form deep connections between the material. To do this, you should understand concepts and then create opportunities to subconsciously connect the dots between new and old information already stored in your brain. Have you ever found yourself suddenly having a breakthrough when you're not studying, such as when you're out on a walk or in the shower? That's your subconscious mind 'connecting the dots.' Studying with flashcards or mind maps drawn up from key words can accelerate this process. Spending time away from your books is also an essential part of the learning process.

It is essential to form deep connections between concepts to store it in long-term memory.

4) Revision

Make it a daily goal to revise the material you studied the previous day. Assigning 30 minutes per day is a great place to start. However, revising the material only once won't be enough to get the job done. Assign one day a week to revise the entire subject. Then once a month after that. Eventually, you would have seen the material enough times to recall it without any problems.

5) Use case studies

I once watched an episode of Air Crash Investigations that involved the Traffic Collision and Avoidance System (TCAS). The fatal crash was so tragic that the information stuck in my mind for years. When I eventually came across TCAS study material for my exams, I barely had to touch on it because the episode I watched had such a lasting impact. Case studies are therefore some of the best ways to make subjects relevant. It's easier to remember facts when they're not just a bunch of words in a book.

6) Create triggers

While studying, make associations between material and commonly used objects, spaces, sights, sounds, smells... Engaging all your senses allows for best learning after all. For example, I know someone who studied for his degree by associating certain topics with an episode of his favourite show. Another person I know would study each subject in specific location (such as in the garden or in a coffee shop). I have a pin-up board to display facts I keep forgetting or keywords that make me recall information to trigger learning every time I walk past.

Find triggers that work for you. A pin-up board is a great idea to continue learning.

Moving forward

The most important part of the studying journey is not to get discouraged. Think of this type of learning as running a marathon instead of a sprint - the progress is slow compared to last-minute cramming but, the knowledge is retained for a longer period.

Making the shift from studying for short term memory to long term memory can be challenging but, these tips will help. I can also guarantee that you'll be grateful for investing extra time in your education when you have to make quick decisions inflight or when you find yourself at a technical interview for your dream job and they ask you questions from the theory exam syllabus.

So, it's time to dive into your study material with a new approach for your long-term benefit. Start by taking a nap then make yourself a cup of coffee. Your future self will thank you.

Good luck.

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The views presented in this article are solely the author's based on available information at the time of writing. The purpose of this blog is to inform readers, not to provide professional advice. Readers are advised to research further and consult relevant professionals, such as flight training schools. Readers are cautioned when acting on information provided and assume all risk from such actions.