Reflections of a driving instructor Pt 2 Ep 1 The Dream
5th August 2023
Reflections of a driving instructor Pt 2 Ep 3 The End Goal
2nd September 2023

Reflections of a driving instructor Pt2 Ep 2 How we learn


Reflections of a driving instructor Pt 2: Ep 2 How we learn 


You might say that the importance of how people learn is equally important as what is taught, because in our line of work, if we pay little attention to how our pupil to the side of us learns, what they learn can be negatively affected. Our regulator places emphasis on this point by stating this link: What ADIs teach their students and how (  which is pointed to directly from the Standards Check information. The skill of learning to drive on roads is not intended to be a matter of possessing a certain intelligence level that makes one safe. Driving is a practical skill. For sure, the thoughts and beliefs and attitudes of a pupil can affect their driving behaviours and that can affect safety. But at its core, driving on public roads should be attainable by the masses.  

So the question comes as to how as instructors we can adjust our training programme and the way in which it is presented to our pupils, that will accommodate a wide range of differing needs. The pupil is supposed to be at the centre of everything we do: ‘lesson planning’, ‘risk management’ and ‘teaching & learning strategies’. If a driving instructor has a fixed approach to the providing of training, then that is only going to appeal to a certain proportion of pupils. This is why we must make every endeavour to utilise the constituent parts of the training programme to FIT THE PUPIL as opposed to expecting all our pupils to adapt to the training programme. Our regulator tells us in the above link that this impacts how likely our pupil is to retain knowledge and skills, as well as continue learning.  

Likewise, when training driving instructors, trainers should be developing working relationships that are focused on what the PDI needs. It is still a fact, unfortunately, that much instructor training is predicated in the belief that all PDIs require the same training programme. It is not very smart to have an expectation that instructors are going to possess the awareness and willingness to adapt training for individual pupil’s needs if they have personally been subjected to training that is generic and fixed. 


Looking at it from the regulators point of view for a moment, extra care is needed because the quality of the training provided can have real consequences to road safety in the long-term. Imagine for a moment starting a new job that has a physical element to it where you are interacting with machinery. You can be sure that the training provided to safely handle the machinery will be detailed and thorough. For sure, with the passing of time, when a person has picked up experience and deeper knowledge they may be in a better position to be able to assess the worth/value of every little detail initially provided. But our regulator is wanting all newly qualified drivers to come on to using the roads with a very good, thorough grounding of key safe driving concepts. What it therefore comes down to is how we can develop these habitual actions and mindsets into all the different types of learner that we come across in our working day. 


There are many ways of looking at what makes for effective learning but seeing as we are referring to learning that ‘sticks’, as opposed to learning that stays in the short-term memory for a while and is quickly forgotten, then the smarter trainer is attempting to tap into the pupil’s brain to seek access to the long-term memory. Is this affected by intelligence levels? That might depend on how one assesses intelligence or how one defines intelligence. Looking for a moment at how the American psychologist Linda Gottfredson decribes intelligence, she says: 

“Intelligence is a very general mental capability that among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test taking smarts, rather it reflects a broader and deeper comprehension of our surroundings – “catching on”, “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.”  [13/12/1994 Wall Street Journal] 


Considering the fact that this definition, although being originally quoted in the early 1900’s, is still being referred to in educational discussions to this day, it would seem that there may well be key points in the definition for us to pay attention to.  Pupils with higher IQ are not necessarily going to find any greater ease in attaining meaningful learning as is required to safely drive a car. As instructors we are trying to develop habits or as the DVSA like to refer to them, ‘routines’. Conversely, it is necessary to have at least some understanding of a topic relating to driving to have the opportunity to practically progress on that topic. Psychologist Robert Sternberg said, “one cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply.” [Perspectives on Psychological Science 3 (2008)] 


I am pretty sure that if you were to canvass thoughts of the ability to learn with a bunch of driving instructors, the ideas of catching on, making sense and figuring out would feature high in their opinions. When a pupil effortfully practices, a mixture of ideas and motor skills combine to form what is referred often to as a ‘mental model. A mental model is a form of deeply ingrained, efficient skills or knowledge structures. So take the act of practising a manoeuvre as an example, to begin with the pupil may have virtually no mental model to fall back on but with time (and repetition),, pupils start to develop ideas and motor skills for reversing with control of pace, keeping things safe with effective observations, the timing and extent of steering. It is this combination of head and hand (cognitive and motor skills) that creates the complexity and effort. Some pupils possess more mental models (past learning) or are able to develop and utilise mental models than others, and this will impact on Gottfredson’s thoughts on how quickly a pupil learns and learns from experience.  


And there are techniques such as interleaving, retrieval practice and scaffolding that are known to aid learning – all of which are easily discovered and can be incorporated into our driving lessons with ease. But it is fair to say, the common theme with all of these strategies is the engagement, motivation and willingness of the pupil to effortfully practice. It will be the number of hours of quality practice that creates learning. Remembering of course that in our line of work, many 17 or 18 year olds might be experiencing these increased effort levels required for the very first time. The degree to which pupils will naturally be biased towards cognitive activity rather than motor activity will be personal to the pupil. Some of us are naturally doers rather than thinkers. And this can pose a challenge for a driving instructor, because there may be very good reasons relating to previous experiences for these differing attitudes. The amount of “grit” that we possess to ‘stay the course’, keep on trying and eventually overcome any barriers to progress is highly individual.  And of course this holds true as PDI’s and once qualified as ADI’s. It is a fact that some pupils are going to be more challenging to work with than others, and the personal capacity of driving instructors to accommodate these more demanding pupils is not a given. Interestingly, I have found myself being attracted to work with more challenging pupils as my experience has increased. I am finding that pupils with natural aptitude to driving are becoming increasingly rare in my diary, but oddly, I find myself quite enjoying this, although the people in my inner circle would probably be surprised to hear me say that. 

Learners may have a natural aptitude for working the car, clutch control, dropping gears for hills, using a declining gradient with no biting point used, but that does not necessarily mean they have a natural aptitude for road safety driving techniques. It of course works the other way too, pupils can have an excellent attitude to safety but really struggle with car control. Although it may appear obvious to the reader, it is not a given that a pupil will make a connection with properly learning the theory study in order to then use that knowledge when driving on the open roads. So you can find yourself working with a pupil who can drive a car, but they don’t know when they should be giving way to others, or not appreciate the benefit of being able to identify the type of approaching pedestrian crossing.  

Unfortunately, the context for learning is often missing in younger learners of today. The need for example to start learning to drive on slower moving roads, with fewer distractions and gradually increasing the complexity – this may seem obvious, but not necessarily for your learner. A learner will very often place more importance in quickly getting out of the way of traffic, rather than following the rules of the roads or pausing gradually to prevent sudden shocks to others.  

We should not under-estimate the effect of internal or external pressure on the pupil for affecting learning. The source of the pressure can be varied and unintended but in order to facilitate learning, a driving instructor will spend time helping a learner to put pressure into context too.  

Often it is the fact that our pupil does not appreciate the importance of their practice and how that will inevitably affect road users but that is ok. If a learner has little experience of learning a practical skill, they simply do not know that it pays to have an approach of slow and steady (but technically good), rather than quick and technically bad. Many pupils seem surprised when I suggest to them that their financial investment and time taken to practice puts their needs on the roads only behind emergency services on a call. 

The sooner that we can communicate to our pupils the need to think of the “syllabus” as more than controlling the car the better. The invisible skills of planning, defensive driving, anticipation, spatial awareness, courtesy, self-awareness, risk management, hazard awareness, effective observations, anxiety coping mechanisms are all key skills for good drivers. The reason I make this point is that unless we communicate the greater goal early on, the eagerness of pupils to get their licence will mean they would be bitterly disappointed if you started, to what they consider, unnecessarily delay the taking of the test while these invisible skills are developed. This point is huge, managing expectations is a very important skill. Having been a PDI, I have the experience of appreciating what it is like; the end goal is ever present in mind. Just like it will be for your pupils who are learning to drive. So the sooner we can raise their awareness of the end goal as being more than simply passing the driving test, the better. A personal view of mine is that this is what has been missing greatly in driving instructor training for a long time. The training is test centric and limited to only the criteria the DVSA set on the qualifying assessments. But having gone through the experience of test centric driving instructor training myself, I am in a better position to understand the experiences of other PDI’s. And so it is with your learners – the more experiences in life you have of being a learner, will undoubtedly assist you in understanding what experiences your own learner drivers are going through. 


A few other key elements that reinforce learning are our use of feedback to pupils and the pupil’s ability to reflect and self-evaluate. All three are big topics and worthy of some mention here. The idea with feedback to our pupils is that it is going to be more useful to them if it is accurate and well-timed. I would emphasise again though how important the working relationship being built on trust is when it comes to giving feedback. Pupils need to know that an instructor is providing feedback for ‘the greater good’. Everyone benefits from being reminded that what they do is good but of course, too much of that, and it loses its impact. Likewise, with feedback designed to help raise awareness for improvement, there can be too much of it, and immediately telling pupils what they have done wrong each and every time they make a mistake can be devastating to the working relationship. Another alternative negative effect of constant immediate feedback is that a pupil can come to depend on it. A.W. Salmoni, R.A. Schmidt & C.B Walter make the following observation in Knowledge of results and motor learning: A review and critical appraisal [Psychological Bulletin 95 (1984): “The guidance hypothesis of feedback effects on motor learning is that frequent immediate feedback can be detrimental to long-term learning (even though it does help with immediate performance), because it provides a crutch during practice that is no longer present on a delayed test.” 


On assessments (Part 3 and Standards Checks), the DVSA do like to see evidence of an instructor identifying an error and systematically dealing with it, as they put it in the driving standard: “You must be able to: give feedback to learners that helps them identify, understand and overcome obstacles to competent application of skills.” Some pupils are going to be able to recognise a mistake but not necessarily the reason for the mistake. And if you leave it too long to try to raise their self-awareness of an issue, they literally cannot remember what you are referring to. I recall a pair of brothers who I taught to drive who represented England in martial arts. They were very practised in making errors and receiving feedback; they positively encouraged hearing my feedback while also demonstrating an ability to reflect on their competencies – and in that, they were very accurate which is certainly not a given with pupils. It was noticeable how well they could listen to my advice – I had their full attention, again, because they were used to listening to their coaches. The experiences that learners and PDI’s bring with them will positively or negatively impact on learning outcomes.  I always find it sad to see a pupil who having considered their previous experiences in life so far (which may be quite limited relatively speaking), have come to the conclusion that they are useless and suffer with very little self-belief. Our guidance to help them to deeply think about how they can overcome hurdles can be extremely beneficial. 

The extent to which an instructor should be providing an opportunity for the pupil to self-discover was a topic in itself on a coaching course I undertook. I think if I personally was subjected to some of the techniques it would drive me mad, which underlines the point that how we interact with our pupils should be aligned to their learning preferences. I am not for one second intending to be critical of such techniques, I am sure for some pupils they would be highly effective. 

It is quite common though for an instructor to immediately give their opinion of competence when a pupil practises a particular skill and that can deprive the pupil of developing the skill of self-evaluation. With the best of intentions, when a pupil completes a reverse bay park, the instructor without any delay from the pupil applying the parking brake, hurtles in to a critique of different elements of the manoeuvre. The pupil is sat there, perhaps at this stage not entirely sure even of the position of the vehicle in the parking bay and yet the instructor is ‘providing feedback’ of the steering element, the observations, the clutch control etc. Often I find myself deliberately pausing when a pupil completes a practice drill, take a deep breath in and turn to the pupil without any words. This is active listening: listening to better understand our pupils thoughts rather than listening to discover the timing of a fixed response that does not relate to the pupil’s verbals. Often the pupil will identify that as a prompt for them to reflect on what just happened. “Am I in the bay?”, they ask. “How could you know for yourself?”  That may trigger an opening of the drivers door, a good look in the side mirrors or even getting out the car and they walk around to check. My point is, if we just routinely keep telling our pupils what is good and not so good, how are they going to cope once they are driving independently? The scaling technique used by some instructors is a means by which awareness levels can be raised in a more measured way than a pupil saying: “that was goodish”, “I think that was kind of alright”.  By inviting a pupil to consider why a 6 out of 10 was not a 10 out of 10, we may well tap in to deeply held doubts of self-belief, or perhaps a pupil’s ego requiring absolute perfection every time. 

As I say, an instructor may well have the best of intentions, but a constant repetition of driving faults while the pupil is driving, becomes really nothing more than the sensation of a tap dripping drops on the forehead or a dull toothache or if extreme, the constant battering over the pupil’s head with a baseball bat. It is mentally unhealthy to just keep saying the same thing to a pupil in the name of ‘feedback’. If a pupil understands the why and how of a driving action such as use of mirrors for example, the act of an instructor just repeatedly feeding back missed mirrors is not just reckless to the pupil’s wellbeing (and arguably the instructors), but it erodes trust in the working relationship and just as importantly, isn’t helping to discover why the pupil is not using mirrors. Confidence will soon ebb away if a pupil is constantly told about errors. Better to pause, take stock of the situation and consider some of the following: fatigue levels of the pupil, ability of the pupil to focus for prolonged periods, ability of the pupil to work on more than one thing at a time, how suitable the location is for the ability of the pupil, the inner beliefs of the pupil, the presence of any obstacles to learning, the pupil’s attitude to learning e.g. effort levels, grit, attention, understanding of why things happen. 

Rather than defaulting to the routine of immediately telling a pupil how well they have done, if instead with some careful wording of questions we can encourage the pupil to evaluate competence for themself, then we are developing an important skill post-qualification. The way in which questions are posed can have a significant effect on the learning potential. It is possible to ask questions of pupils that are leading and only offer thoughts in a certain pathway, likewise, a far more open question could be asked that will require more depth of thought and have potentially, far wider possibilities for an answer. It can be very useful for a question on the use of mirrors for example to be asked that is sufficiently open that it requires the pupil to really consider how meaningful their answer is. This opportunity to think deeply is helping to make the learning personal and permanent by tapping into subject material that is far more detailed and unique. Care must obviously be taken to not make learning to drive become purely academic and cognitively-loading, but helping a pupil to consider why we do driving actions and how they are done efficiently is much more beneficial than simply requiring the pupil to “now check this mirror” while pointing to the nearside mirror. 

Likewise the amount of verbal instruction matters. Many DVSA publications mention the 5 phases that pupils will go through when learning new topics. It is always very helpful to consider which phase a pupil is in for any given topic as they can excel in one rather than others. If an instructor keeps doing “full talk through” (Level 1) when the pupil is capable of more independent practice it could demotivate pupils and irritate them. Similarly, if an instructor leaves a pupil to work independently at too high a level for their current ability on a topic it could result in not achieving goals, being demotivational and unsafe. It really matters. By having open communication with a pupil as to the level they are at, not only will it help to raise their awareness and evaluation levels, but it keeps the learning environment safe too. 

I won’t expand on this subject any more for this episode as it is a big topic and I am attempting to keep these episodes at a bite-size length for lighter consumption rather than a minutely detailed analysis, but if I was to summarise by saying that the soft-skills required to nurture a trusting, open, respectful working relationship with a pupil are just as important as the ‘performing skills’ for assessment criteria ticky boxes, then you will begin to see how I personally value heart skills over head skills; although clearly, a balance of both would be ideal.