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Teaching Students to Troubleshoot a "Fail"

It's Saturday morning. I'm awake, coffee in hand, blinds open, feet propped up, laptop situated just perfectly for optimal viewing, ready some long-awaited free time cruising the Internet and looking at stuff that interests me. Fun stuff—no work involved this morning. I click. And wait. And wait. Then the dreaded icon appears, and I read, "Server not found."

Unless you are an IT wizard, you are probably like most of us who try any manner of random fixes that worked in the past. Sometimes it takes a click; other times it takes hours of grappling with cable modems, wireless routers, and internal settings. I put my troubleshooting skills to work and start wondering why troubleshooting is so bothersome.

Reflecting on this process, I began to think about my students. What do they do when they lose their internet connections? I wondered.

Earlier in the week, I had handed back essays to my freshman writing students. I really hate giving F's. I don't like the look of failure on the faces of otherwise bright and hopeful students. And having received an F or two in my own college work long ago, I remember the shoulder droop and the stomach churn that accompanies receiving such bad news.

Yet even with the pain of failing, I know that some of the same students will likely receive F's on their next papers, too. A few of them quickly cram their papers into their backpacks, and some walk straight to the trash can and drop in their work.

As I reflect on their reactions, I think about troubleshooting. If they lost their Internet connections, would they put their computers down and find something else to do? I cannot imagine that would be their reactions. Maybe they don't realize that the very same skill set required for getting back online can be used for making higher grades. Maybe they simply don't know how to troubleshoot an F.

So instead of troubleshooting my online problem, I have decided to write a note to my students.

Dear Student:

What do you do when you receive an F on a college assignment? Your reaction to the problem is crucial, and there are several types of reactions you can have. One type of reaction is the "out of sight, out of mind" game plan. The student who throws away her paper or crams it somewhere never to look at it again will simply make the same mistakes next time. (Yet she would not likely throw away her computer if she couldn't get online!)

Another type of reaction is the existential crisis. Students with this reaction make the mistaken assumption that the "F" means they—not their work—are flawed. Their fragile self-esteem plummets, and they can barely make eye contact with me. Because they see the paper as a measure of their personal worth, it is too painful to take out the paper and troubleshoot. Result: a failing grade again, next time, followed by even more loss of self-esteem.

A third reaction is the indignant response. The indignant group use anger as a way to deal with frustration. They see the grade as unjust—often before they even know why they received the failing grade—and put the blame on their instructors. Psychologists tell us that anger is often a reaction to fear. A failing grade can cause fear deep down in the psyche: we start to fear failing the class or we may fear that we are inadequate. Responding with anger allows us to temporarily trump those fears. The problem is, anger doesn't get anything done. In fact, it makes troubleshooting an even more difficult task. If I throw my laptop across the room and break it into a million pieces, I may temporarily feel better, but my problem will be compounded.

The best type of response to a "fail" is the "turning point" reaction. This happens when students see an "F" as a troubleshooting opportunity. Instead of anger, these students have determination. Instead of self-loathing, these students know they can figure out the problem. Instead of thinking the grade is unjust, they are open to figuring out why they received the grade in the first place. This self-confidence does not always come naturally. Such students (and I include myself in this group) have to fight down the negative voices that say, "See, you're not college material," or "Drop this class. You can't do it!" Students in this group are successful at blocking out the negative thoughts, keeping an open mind, and remaining optimistic.

Part of successful troubleshooting is willing yourself into participating in the process. It's like getting back online. I have to first resolve that, okay, it is going to take some work. I won't immediately be able to fix the problem. So I have to calm myself down, adjust my plans, and come to peace with the realization that my day's agenda is going to change. The same is true with figuring out the "F". It will take time. It will require changes of plans. It will make the semester more difficult. Calming down and not being resentful about the extra time required is the first step. To really learn something, you have to invest in it.

Second, I know from my own experience with troubleshooting that figuring out where to start and the best resources to use is crucial. A student who decides to read his textbook to figure out what went wrong with his paper is making a start, but it is not the best start. The best start is to go to the source: the instructor. Ask for help. Your instructor knows exactly what you need to do to improve. Let him or her guide you to the resources that will work best.

Third, you have to follow through. This is the hard part. For me, it sometimes means sitting all day in my study trying to figure out how to get back online, or making three calls to the cable internet folks for their assistance. It has even meant using another person's computer and internet connection to figure out what is wrong with mine.

The follow-through for students means doing the hard work of learning. But this is where the real progress is made. Whether it's working with a tutor, your instructor, or a lab teacher, the work they guide you through will be what makes the difference in your failing paper and your next paper. This is the hard part, but it is also the empowering part. Slowly you realize that the material really is learnable. You start understanding, and with that understanding comes a bit of amazement. The tasks which used to be so puzzling become easy. Instead of confusion, you have clarity. Terms become more meaningful, processes start to develop, and you begin to feel like you truly are capable of fixing the problem.

The last part of troubleshooting is the next "moment of truth." After I have spent an hour reading about internet connectivity, fumbling through computer lingo, and changing settings, the moment of truth occurs when I click the "connect" button. I either connect or do not. If I don't, it's back to the drawing board. And it takes a great deal of energy to go back to troubleshooting.

The same thing should happen when troubleshooting an "F." The next moment of truth is the next paper. If the paper comes back with yet another "F," the process repeats. And yes, it is frustrating. It takes time. It takes a major amount of energy. But this is the process we use when things don't work. It's not a process reserved exclusively for college students who make occasional F's: it's what we all do to succeed in tasks that are important to us.

I have finally figured out the Internet connection problem. Now, with my internet connection restored, I can sit back and mindlessly visit all of the frivolous Web sites I've yearned for during the work week. I also feel some pride—just a bit—in knowing that I can do something that computer geeks can do. I can wade through their lingo and figure out how to fix my own problem.

And I have a lesson to share with my students on Monday.

My coffee is cold, but I'm back on track. And I have a bit more confidence now that if my connection goes down again, I can handle it.

About the Author

Lisa Hoeffner earned a PhD in English with a specialization in rhetoric from the University of Houston. Since 1998, Dr. Hoeffner has served in two positions—professor of English and professor of reading—at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. She speaks nationally on the topic of preparing students for college-level work and has served as a private consultant for high schools and colleges seeking to improve their college preparedness programs. She also presents nationally on the topic of embedding emotional intelligence development in the classroom. Her current research focuses on the importance of teaching critical thinking in a post-truth world, and she is writing a composition textbook that facilitates such teaching. She is the author of Common Places: Integrated Reading and Writing (McGraw-Hill, 2018) and Common Ground: Integrated Reading and Writing Basics (McGraw-Hill, 2018).

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