Primacy and Recency are two concepts in human memory that dictate how information is remembered and forgotten. Primacy states that what is learned first is best remembered, whereas Recency states that what was learned last is best remembered. This article explains how the primacy and recency effect apply to flight training and how they can affect the performance of a pilot.
Are you a pilot that has that one bad habit that you were taught years ago, that you keep falling back on when task-saturated, and you don’t know why? What about how you can’t seem to remember what was taught several weeks ago, despite its ongoing importance in your training?
The primacy and recency effects are to blame for such phenomena, and in this article, we will be discussing both in great depth, including their roots in human memory and information processing, and their impact on flight training.
What is primacy?
Primacy is the idea that what is learned first, is best remembered. A basic example of this principle is learning to tie your shoes. When you were a young child, your parents likely would have taught you one of two ways to tie your shoes: the “easy, bunny-ear” method where you make a loop with each shoelace, or the traditional method where you make one loop, and wrap the other shoelace around.
Similarly, were you taught to tie your shoes with double knots or triple knots? It is not an exaggeration to say that whichever method is taught, for most people this simple habit will stay with them for a lifetime, not necessarily because their method is better, but simply because it is “what they’ve always known.”
The second half of the principle of primacy is that what is learned first, is often hardest to unlearn. Consider another mundane, everyday task as an example: driving home from work. Let’s say, you have lived at your current house for 10 years and worked at the same job for that time. Then, you move house, staying in the same town, but on a different street. It is highly likely that during the first weeks post-move, you will inadvertently take the turnoff to your old house several times.
“Primacy in teaching and learning, what is learned first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable impression and underlies the reason an instructor needs to teach correctly the first time.”faa.gov/regulations_policies/handbooks_manuals/aviation/aviation_instructors_handbook4
The principle of primacy is deeply linked to cognitive psychology and neurology. In the modern world, our brains are required to process and filter through thousands of pieces of information per second. It is no wonder, therefore, that our brains tend to take shortcuts. The primacy effect, from a scientific standpoint, means that our brains tend to store items learned first in our long-term memory more easily than items learned afterwards.
This is particularly evident when learning new things in a state of fatigue or distraction. While neurologically different, our brain has an ancient mechanism similar to this for forming habits (think, “old habits die hard”). We never really unlearn habits as humans, we just learn to suppress or adapt them. Author Charles Duhigg1 goes into more detail in his book, The Power of Habit.
All this to say, primacy is essentially the principle that first impressions matter most, and these old impressions (and habits, too) are very difficult to break or change!
What is recency?
Recency is the principle that what was learned last is best remembered. Think back to your school or college days. When your teacher or professor asked you to recall the content of yesterday’s class, this was probably an easy task. However, had they asked you to recall what was taught 2 weeks earlier, unless you had been studying very hard you would likely have had a more difficult time remembering.
This ties into the second component of the recency effect, which states that the more time has passed since something was learned, the more trouble one will have recalling it. Picture trying to recall a cellphone number told to you 5 minutes ago, without writing it down, versus trying to recall one told to you 5 hours ago.
Like primacy, the recency effect has its links to the science of human memory. Our short-term memory only lasts for up to 30 seconds, and can only store between 5-7 items at a time. The American Psychological Association has a study on short-term memory and information processing on their website2. As more time passes and more learnings are presented to us, we are likely to forget the earlier learnings, and recall the most recent, particularly if tested immediately. Interestingly, even if something learned is significant enough to us that it makes the jump into long-term memory, a large amount of time passing can cause items in our long-term memory to be difficult to recall, too. This phenomenon is known as “fading.”
How are primacy and recency different?
Primacy and recency, while similar in their scientific roots have the obvious difference of the former stating that things learned first are remembered best, and the latter stating that things learned last are remembered best. This presents the obvious question: which one is it? Surely both of these principles can’t be correct at once, so therefore one must be wrong?
If only it were that simple. One thing is for sure, those items learned in the middle certainly don’t have much hope of being remembered! If you’d like a more detailed answer, however, then read on.
Does primacy or recency have a greater effect on learning?
While primacy and recency5 directly oppose each other, there is one key consideration that we are yet to discuss in this article that will usually determine which one has more of an effect on our learning, and that is meaningful connections. This is the idea that new information being presented to us must mean something in relation to the existing information stored in our brains for it to be remembered. This process of connecting new information to existing information in a meaningful way is the essence of all learning.
“Instructors recognize the principle of recency when they carefully plan a summary for a ground school lesson, a shop period, or a postflight critique. The instructor repeats, restates, or reemphasizes important points at the end of a lesson to help the learner remember them. The principle of recency often determines the sequence of lectures within a course of instruction.”flight-study.com/2021/06/thorndike-and-laws-of-learning5
So, what does all this have to do with flight training, you may ask? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The principles of primacy and recency dictate that people respond under stress, for example under a high workload while flying, according to their last learned response or their first learned response. Which one takes precedence would depend on the weighting each has in the pilot’s mind, in other words, which one presents a more meaningful connection. Is the last learned response best understood and trusted, or is the first learned response more appealing?
If first-learned skills are wholly satisfying to the student, they will stay with them forever and be the first choice under stress, which is when accidents are likely to happen should the first-learned response be incorrect. However, if a student was taught incorrectly the first time around, and never quite grasped that concept, another CFI who re-teaches the student a different way, and practices it repetitively, so that the knowledge gap is closed is utilising the recency effect and the student is likely to call upon the newly-learned response under stress.
Is primacy or recency more important for flight training?
As one can see after learning about both principles, primacy and recency are both incredibly important to flight training and each can play a crucial role in fine-tuning the ability of novice students and experienced pilots alike.
It is safe to say that neither is more important than the other, and the significance of both can be determined on a case-by-case basis with the appropriate context. This is an important part of a flight instructor’s job; does the private pilot who has just arrived at his or her flight school have good habits or bad? Do they have a deep understanding of, rather than having rote-learned, important concepts? If so, the student has good primacy, which will make the flight instructor’s job much easier.
If not, though, the instructor has a potentially difficult road ahead to formulate new connections that are meaningful enough to the student to override his flawed primacy and the instructor will need to focus on repetition to truly take advantage of the recency effect.
Flight instructors must therefore keep these effects in mind when designing training programs for new students, too. They should aim to make the correct response the first learned response, and also reinforce it regularly through repeated practice. Additionally, they should ensure that the most recent training focuses on the correct response so that in high-stress situations, the recency effect can work in the pilot’s favor.
The application of this principle, therefore, also demands self-sacrifice of the instructor, requiring him to become conscious of the student’s needs and only teach what he requires at the time, not what he’d like to teach; and flexibility – otherwise he’d miss rare opportunities to teach elements he wouldn’t have planned to teach when they are presented.
In closing, primacy and recency are two important concepts in the field of human memory that have significant implications for flight training. Pilots must be aware of these principles and understand how they can affect their performance under stress.
By making meaningful connections between new information and existing knowledge, pilots can ensure that the information they learn is stored in their memory for a longer period, and instructors can ensure they get the best out of their students.
Can you think of an example of a learning episode and what you were able to more easily recall? Verbal learning and verbal behavior is not the same for everyone and people have different ways of learning too. What’s your experience with learning and free recall?
- ‘The Power of Habit’, Charles Duhigg. Accessed online at https://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/ on Feb 17, 2023.
- ‘The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information,’ George A. Miller, APA PsycNet. Accessed online at https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1957-02914-001 on Feb 17, 2023.
- ‘The Primacy/Recency Effect’, Dataworks Educational Research. Accessed online at https://dataworks-ed.com/blog/2014/08/the-primacyrecency-effect/#:~:text=The%20Primacy%2FRecency%20Effect%20is,information%20presented%20in%20the%20middle, on Feb 17, 2023.
- ‘Aviation Instructor’s Handbook – Chapter 3’, FAA. Accessed online at https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/handbooks_manuals/aviation/aviation_instructors_handbook/media/05_aih_chapter_3.pdf on Feb 17, 2023.
- ‘Thorndike and the Laws of Learning’, Flight Study. Accessed online at https://www.flight-study.com/2021/06/thorndike-and-laws-of-learning.html on Feb 17, 2023.