Visual Problem Solving and Self-regulation in Training Air Traffic Control

The main objective of this study is twofold: Firstly, to conduct a task analysis to identify which visual skills are important for ATCOs, and secondly to develop instructional guidelines that will contribute to preparing ATCO students better for lifelong learning.

To improve instruction it is important to determine which visual strategies are used by the various levels of ATCO expertise. The first research question in this study addresses this and states: Which visual ATC strategies are used by beginners, intermediates and experts?

Apart from the notion that ATC is visually complex, it appears the domain is in continuous development. Therefore ATCO students should not only learn the domain-specific skills, but also to respond adequately to changes in their work in order to maintain their expertise. Instruction in ATC must therefore train air traffic control skills in such a way that it will enable them to keep up with the constantly changing work environment.

The second research question of this study is: What regulation skills are – according to various actors in ATCO training – important for ATCO-students?

Since the goal is to teach students regulation skills as an integrated part of their training, the following question must be answered: What are the requirements for a learning environment that is designed to teach the developments of domain-specific skills and self-regulation skills in an integrated manner in a cognitively complex domain as ATC?

To verify the feasibility of integrated training of regulation skills in the ATCO-training, the final research question is: What is the effect of an integrated training of self-regulation skills on the development of these regulation skills on students, and on their domain-specific performance? 

Four studies 

In order to achieve the above objectives four studies were conducted. The first study meets the purpose to understand the visual problem solving strategies of experts, intermediates and beginners. It is clear from previous research that people with different expertise also use different strategies to solve complex visual problems. To design an instruction that stimulates the development of visual expertise in ATCOs, it is important to understand the strategies experts, intermediates and beginners use to process complex information from a radar screen. How do they determine which objects are relevant to obtain information from (e.g. aircraft with their speeds and altitudes, etc.)? The results provide insight into the different visual strategies that experts, intermediates and beginners use to solve air traffic situations.

The last three studies are 1: A focus group study aimed to determine the learning characteristics that are required to engage students in a successful ATCO learning process. These characteristics are then ranked in order of importance. 2: Subsequently, in another study a training system is described that gives students the opportunity to learn to regulate their own learning. 3. Finally, an integrated training condition was built based on theoretical insights in which students were challenged at set times to regulate to prepare for a learning task selection. The learning outcomes in this condition were compared with a control condition. The results showed a better development of self-regulation skills and ATCO skills in the integrated condition. Hence, the results of this study are a promising and important step in the direction of a fully adaptive training environment within a complex cognitive domain as ATC. 


Regarding the visual strategies it can be concluded that important insight has been gained about the development of visual expertise. These insights may help in further development of instruction for direct training of visual expertise for beginners, intermediates and experts.

As for the integrated development of self-regulation in the ATCO training, the conclusion is that students can learn to regulate as an integrated part of their ATCO training. Moreover, it appears that an integrated approach encourages the development of ATCO specific skills and self-efficacy. The results argue that students should be given more control over the selection of their learning tasks to enable them to train their self-managing skills. The deployment of a training system with shared responsibility for the task selection process requires a development portfolio that can offer support in selecting learning tasks that match individual learning goals. 


It can be concluded that with this series of studies are an important step in the development of knowledge about the training of complex cognitive skills in a visually oriented domain. The findings show that it is possible to improve the air traffic control training by expanding the training methods for visual problem-solving strategies on the one hand; and on the other hand to ensure the integration of the development of self-regulation and domain-specific skills. This will help air traffic controllers even better to prepare for their future work activities. 

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