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How taking a knowledge test en español reminded me how to study

In 2021 I became a mental casualty of the pandemic and did something crazy. Ground-bound for months, and without access to a reasonably priced airplane to rent, I decided to learn how to fly a gyroplane. The catch? I was training in Costa Rica, and I’d have to take a knowledge exam in Spanish.
Illustrations by The Red Dress
Illustrations by The Red Dress

Full disclosure: It wasn’t entirely crazy. I have a rotorcraft rating, and gyroplanes are in the same category. And here in this small country in Central America, the weather lends itself to open-cockpit flying, and the distances lend themselves to gyro speeds. Plus, gyros are available to rent, and inexpensively at that. Everything was going to plan until a few flights into the course when the instructor informed me he had checked with the DGAC (local version of the FAA), and they were going to require me to take a knowledge test. My Spanish is basic, at best.

At first, I did what any student would do and simply put it off. If you’ve been putting off your knowledge test, take heart. You’re not alone. Many students wait until the last minute when the threat of the checkride is looming. I had thought as an instructor maybe I held myself to a higher standard, but in this case, I was no different.

Finally, when I thought I could no longer put it off, I got to work. Meaning I picked up the book, read the first page, got frustrated, and put it away for a week. My kids mocked me—in their perfect Spanish no less—and wondered unironically why I couldn’t read it.

Eventually, when I knew I could no longer put it off, I brought out the book, started reading, and completely dove in. Along the way I researched how to study, tried different methods, and in the process remembered what it feels like to have to climb the mountain that is your first knowledge test. Here’s what worked for me.My kids mocked me—in their perfect Spanish no less—and wondered unironically why I couldn’t read it.

  1. Do the work. This may come as a surprise, but studying is difficult. Unless you’re the rare person who truly enjoys learning about the common types of fog and what light gun symbol you’ll receive after landing, acquiring the knowledge necessary to pass the test will be a chore. There are no shortcuts or tricks. There is only effort, some time, and a few strategies to make the process a bit less painful.
  2. Focus on the basics. Test preparation materials like those produced by Gleim Publications strip down all the knowledge required to pass, and present it in a digestible, chapter-by-chapter format. These books typically include basic information and rote knowledge, followed by sample questions. Some lament that when using these books, students aren’t learning what they need to know to fly safely, and instead are focusing only on checking a box. Exactly. The knowledge test is primarily one of rote information, and a way for the FAA (or in my case, the DGAC) to verify for its file that the future pilot at one time knew where wind comes from and how to calculate a weight and balance problem. It tests only the most basic knowledge, so why not learn only the most basic knowledge to pass? Practical knowledge, decision making, and all those other skills required to be a good pilot are evaluated on the practical test.
  3. Don’t skip the information section. It may be tempting to skip the learning section of the chapter and go straight to drilling sample questions. Don’t do it. Although the topics aren’t covered in depth, they are logically organized and provide a good flow that builds in order to gain a better understanding and help with learning and retention. Context is vitally important to learning, and that’s impossible to gather from the test questions alone. You can find countless examples of this in your own life. Things such as investments, home buying, learning a new skill, or even cooking require broader context before we can understand the basics. So, read about light gun signals and cloud types and pilot in command authority, even if it seems like you could just memorize the information through the questions and answers.
  4. Read and understand the questions. Once you’ve read the information section, take an initial pass through all the questions in that chapter. Don’t go straight online and start taking practice tests. Simply read through all the questions and correct answers, and make sure you understand why the most correct answer is the right choice. Even better, check for close answers and understand why they are wrong. Do this one time through the whole book.
  5. Take an initial practice test. Take one, or at the most, two practice tests, focusing less on the score and more on your weak areas. There will be topics that you nailed and those where you failed miserably. For me, it was meteorology. Since my private pilot days, I’ve struggled to give rote answers to questions such as which clouds types exist at which altitudes, in part because I failed to properly commit it to memory during my initial training. It’s no surprise then that when I tried to learn some of the same topics in Spanish it was a disaster. Don’t get discouraged. This is only an interim step.
  6. Reexamine all the questions in your weak areas. Now go back and drill yourself on all the questions in your weakest chapters, and drill down on your problem areas. Maybe you understand cloud types, but not fronts, for example. Identify all those weak areas.
  7. Re-read the information. Once you’ve identified the weakest areas, re-read those sections of the chapters. Most likely you’ll discover immediately why you got the questions wrong. Take the time to read and better understand the topic, re-reading it as many times as necessary. If you’re still struggling, ask your instructor. You can seek out other training materials, but sometimes broadening the search for information turns into a rabbit hole that can be difficult to extract yourself from. And it can quickly become confusing. Remember that we’re going for basic knowledge here.
  8. Drill the tests. Now you can graduate to the step where so many people improperly start. Go online and find a free site that drills knowledge test questions, and take practice tests. Your instructor will tell you when you are ready to take the test for real, but most are happy to give the endorsement when their students are routinely scoring in the 90s on practice tests.
  9. Plan ahead. Give yourself some time. There are good weekend courses intended to shove the information into your brain with the expectation that you will shove it back out onto a test immediately after. And they work. But assuming you’re studying on your own, this process will take a few weeks. I studied sporadically for a week, and then more intensively for about two weeks in the time leading up to my test.
  10. Set a goal. Schedule your test, even if you’re not ready. Like many people, I’m externally motivated, and for me that meant having a goal and a deadline. I didn’t feel ready to take the test when I scheduled it, and you may not be either. That’s OK. Use the date as a motivator and a way to organize your study schedule. And when someone suggests pushing it back because you’re not ready, ignore them and focus.

I didn’t feel completely ready for my test. I was getting in the 90s on some of the sections and in the 70s on others (I’m looking at you, stupid weather questions). Prior to the test I put my chances of passing at about 60 percent.

Imagine my surprise when the score came up on the screen at the end: 98.

¡Eso!

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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