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David Ratledge 


Can Computer Troubleshooting Be Taught?

David Ratledge

When a computer is not performing correctly it requires troubleshooting to determine the cause. This process of identifying and testing possible causes begins with a consideration of the many possibilities, then as likely ones are tested and discarded, the number is reduced more and more so that each new attempt to solve the mystery has a greater and greater likelihood of succeeding. But how does one learn to troubleshoot computers? Is it more an art that depends heavily on an innate talent honed over time by practice, or is it a skill that can be taught to anyone?

In order to troubleshoot computer problems, it is necessary to have an understanding of at least the “basics” that apply to almost all computers. There are one or more hard drives, one or more processors, a way to connect to a network and communicate with other computers and devices, a way to generate and play audio output, a way to generate video output and display it on a screen, one or more ways to accept input commands and information from users, an operating system and software to control the hardware and use it to perform work, and so on. Ideally a troubleshooter will have expert-level knowledge about computers, but even that is not enough to be a successful troubleshooter. This is because there is something about troubleshooting that transcends knowing what all the parts are and what they do.

I was never taught to troubleshoot computers. This was a skill I discovered I had when I quickly resolved a problem I was confronted with on my first personal computer. At first I thought I was probably just lucky, but then I worked on the next problem that came up later on and found I was able to easily resolve it as well. And the next. And several more after that. Eventually I began to help other people with their computer problems and found I could always successfully troubleshoot problems on any computer, even if I knew very little about how it was set up and configured. Eventually this mysterious ability turned out to be an important cornerstone of my soon-to-start career in the library and information profession, and it still serves me well today. It was the closest experience I have ever had to what it must be like for people who have never been musically trained to one day pick up an instrument and begin to play.  

How could this be, I wondered? Over the years, I have met others with similar stories so it is nothing unique, although it does appear to be uncommon. There have also been those I have tried to teach how to troubleshoot computers. While I have been able to teach others a lot ABOUT computers, I have not been very successful at teaching the troubleshooting skill itself. Perhaps I have just not figured out how to do it. Frequently I will fix a problem and not be able to explain, even to myself, exactly how I did it. The best explanation I am usually able to come up with is that I threw logic out the window and followed my intuition. Besides this being vague and unhelpful, it also appears to be the opposite of what one should do given how prominent a role logic plays in the computer field. I can say with certainty, however, that it always works.

I think the secret to successful computer troubleshooting can be found in the fact that a computer is much more than the sum of its parts. It is a system that transcends all of its individual components while in operation. When troubleshooting a computer, it is the complex array of ever-changing interactions occurring in the system that must be analyzed to determine where a fault lies. Not only are there many variables in play at once, but the variables are constantly changing over time. This means the primary challenge for computer troubleshooters is not about having sufficient knowledge of computers, which is easily taught, but about having sufficient ability to intuit the correct path to a resolution that is rarely ever the same path or resolution twice, which seems impossible to teach.



David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Technology Infrastructure at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. He can be reached at




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