Skip to main content
Western Kentucky University

Technology Notes for Teachers - FaCET

Learning How to Learn Computers;
General Principles for the Novice:

by Sally Kuhlenschmidt

Copyright 1997 - Copy only with permission.

TNT - Technology Notes for Teachers

I am a perpetual computer novice. I am not one of those who bow and scrape to the sacred machine (although I see the advantages). I am not one of those who view them as abominations (although I have my days). A computer is one tool for accomplishing my work. If it helps me finish my work, wonderful. If it does not, I abandon it. Over the last 15 years of my career in psychology I have had to learn from scratch nine or ten different ways of talking to computers. The changes have come from moving to new institutions, evolutions in equipment, and changes in the kinds of tasks I need to do. I currently work with up to four different computer systems, each with its own procedures.

Not being a computer professional I do not have the time to learn the tricks of each system so I remain a novice. I have, however, acquired "learning how to learn" skills for the computer as well as a set of beliefs that minimize my frustration with the learning process. Following are hard-won truths and tricks to learning with a minimum of anguish and in the most time-effective manner.

Truths -- Truths -- Truths
1. Don't feel like you must do everything on the computer.

A computer is not necessarily the best tool for a particular job. Yes, they are amazing, awe-inspiring, and the wave of the future. But, often a typewriter or paper and pencil can perform the job more simply and faster.

If you only need to perform some task once (e g, print a Greek letter, arrange a fancy layout) using the pre-computer technique is likely faster. Or find a computer guru to do the task for you. If you cannot find the answer in 10 minutes, stop looking to the computer.

If the task is one you would need daily, or if you are curious and have a few hours, then the time to learn it may be worthwhile. Which leads to the second truth.

2. Don't feel like you must understand everything about the machine.

Learning to use a computer is learning a language. Most adults expect that it will take a good deal of practice to achieve survival skills in a foreign language. Yet, those same people often think they should pick up computer skills overnight.

Repetition and practice, practice and repetition are just as necessary to remember the various commands as to learn any other skill. But cheer up. Computers are incredibly patient and very consistent (despite your first impressions). Eventually, you will get the machine to do something nifty.

3. Don't assume that you are incapable of learning because the manual makes no sense to you.

Computer manuals from the company are often poorly written or written for someone already expert. Blame lack of comprehension on the writer, not yourself, assuming you have taken the time to read the manual. Fortunately, well- written manuals for the novice can be found. [Unfortunately they tend to have derogatory titles, e.g., "for idiots". You are not a computer idiot, you are inexperienced.]

Actually, you ought to blame the circumstances. Once you acquire a computer skill and then try to explain the skill to a novice you will appreciate the difficulty of putting the information into words. The words simply sound idiotic ("Type a c colon backslash. No not an "a" only a "c," "c", no I'm not speaking Spanish . . . "). I have gotten used to manuals and "help" system assuming I know some vital link to understanding what I have to do.

Work toward becoming comfortable with an ongoing state of uncertainty. With persistence I often discover l did not need to worry about the issue or my terminology was different, not wrong. (How many ways can you think of to say "exit")?

4. Do understand that learning a computer takes both trying and quitting.

Try what you can think of and if your success is elusive, leave the computer alone. Accept downtime as a necessary part of problem solving. Leave the computer for a while and look at a sunset (or sunrise if you did not heed this advice soon enough), talk to a human being, watch Wheel of Fortune, and then return. You are likely to have new Ideas.

Or you may not, but at least you will not have high blood pressure or throw the computer through a window. (Which returns to Truth number one, paper makes better airplanes. Computers are not aerodynamic.) Computers are time-sinks. Understand and plan how to invest that time enjoyably or profitably.

5. When you are convinced the problem is the computer's fault - it usually isn't.

A friend says that computers are like a neurotic lover. If you don't say exactly the right thing to them, they freeze up. I have been trying for years to identify a random error by a computer. Every time I think I have succeeded some silly button isn't turned on or I forgot to put in or take out a space.

The moral is, when you 're convinced the computer is behaving haphazardly, most likely you are behaving like a human being--that is to say, inconsistently. Computers are too dumb to interpret what we mean as opposed to what we do. Computers can be so frustrating because they reveal our errors, without even apologizing for doing so.

On the other hand, as computer software becomes more complex (known as "bloatware") it becomes impossible to test every aspect of it and some element may well be the software's fault. You'll know this is the case when you've gotten a different suggestion every time you contact the Support line people, especially if they are telling you to call some other company's Support . Unfortunately there aren't many computer experts who can take the broad view across programs and hardware to understand how different systems interact.

6. It helps to associate with people who know more about the machine than you do.

Learning computers is learning a specialized vocabulary. The best way to learn is to practice the vocabulary, even if you may be saying, "Your mother-in-law reminds me of a burrito" when you meant to say, "Where is the train station?"

Gurus (anyone who knows something you do not know) love to display their knowledge because they spent a long time feeling as frustrated as you do now. They're mostly eager to show off. You need their knowledge (and their good will). The more gurus you have the more likely you are to find a person who can answer your questions (and you will have many questions). You are also less likely to wear out your welcome with any particular person. Guru help comes at a price. You have to listen to lots of incomprehensible sentences.

7. Don't worry about listening to incomprehensible sentences when you ask a guru about your computer.

It's okay to just listen. This is one way to learn about the nature of the computer world language. Just smile, nod your head, and do not worry about understanding every word. Make a note of one or two terms you do not understand and later ask what they mean or look them up.

A sad Truth is. once people achieve a certain level of expertise, they have difficulty thinking about the language needs of the novice. This is okay. When you gain some knowledge, you will likewise have difficulty explaining things. Meanwhile ask the guru who is just a wee bit ahead of you to explain. You'll make a friend for life.

8. On the other hand, you do not have to know everything about every acronym, breakthrough, and fad.

As a non-worshiper, I prefer to pick one thing to learn well. I simply ignore the existence of other stuff until I want or need to learn the material. Denial keeps me from feeling overwhelmed and gives me the illusion of control. Also learning one program well now will later help me to learn other programs better. Finally, I learn more quickly when motivated by the need for a particular task.

If I reach a point where I have to know how to do something new, fine I learn it. Until then I have plenty of other things to keep me busy. This policy has saved me from wasting time on software that quickly becomes outdated which happens often in the computer kingdom. The first thing you ought to pick to learn is a general introduction to the operating system (e. g., Windows ) of your computer. You need to know how the people think who designed the blood-sucking, monster...uh, computer. You have to get inside their heads and their vocabulary.

I always check on one thing before doing anything else in a new system: how to get out of it. Don't laugh. As in Life, the real skill often comes in removing yourself from a problem spot. Getting into the trouble takes no talent at all.

9. Don't blame yourself for not being able to find the answer in the "Help" system.

Vocabulary is at the root of many novice problems with the computer You want a list of all your files and the computer thinks in terms of "directory." If you look for "list files'' in your manuals or the Help system you will not find anything.

At this point, look in a thesaurus (the book, not a file on the computer) and find alternate ways to say what you want to do. Happily, Help systems (Aid? Assistance? F 1 ? F 3 ?) are including "How do I" lists so you can search them without necessarily knowing the language. . . But not always. You aren't dumb. You simply use different words than the people use who wrote the Help.

My personal experience is that help systems are not helpful to the novice. A certain level of system vocabulary is necessary to be able to find information. A novice can only read the incomprehensible information to the end, and then reread it, and then reread it, and then go ask a guru.

10. An awful lot of bluffing is going on.

During a conversation between three or four people who know more than you do, watch the people rather than listen to the conversation. At least one person will be quiet and eventually may change the topic or throw out a short opinion question about an acronym, such as "Do you really think Fidonet will enhance flexibility?" This person likely has no idea what Fidonet is and is fishing for clues.

Knowing the underlying agenda you can (A) not feel so "bottom-of-the heap," (B) use the same technique yourself to fish for information, or (C) not use the technique but feel more confident because you have learned that the great gurus do not know everything.

11. Learning is best accomplished in small chunks, not binges.

(That statement is based on psychological research concerning how people learn). I cannot overemphasize the importance of learning a tiny bit and then going off to do something else. Your brain needs time to adjust to the machine because the machine will not be adjusting to you.

You may choose to get additional reference materials-- ask the computer store clerk or friends for recommendations for a book at your level. A way to evaluate a book is to pick a topic and try to find the topic in the book (using the index). If you cannot find the topic, try another author or publisher until you find an author who uses words like you do.

l 2. Problems will occur.

Adopt a problem-solving attitude. Try to solve a problem yourself first. (You learn more and will build a set of problem-solving skills to help you with later problems when no gurus are available.) Whatever you do, don't randomly jab at the keys. You'll never sort out what happened. Write down what you think you did immediately before the break down. Write down any error messages. Look those up in your manuals or supplemental books. Learn about the problem, even if you don't find a solution.

Then ask a guru. With a prepared mind, you'll more likely understand what he/she does and be able to duplicate it next time. As you accumulate solutions (in a folder?) you'll begin to learn general principles useful with new problems.

13. Remember, the computer is simply a tool.

You can choose to use the tool or not. You can choose how expert to become. You can choose the area of your expertise. If you do not know on what you want to become expert, then study the basic operating system (e.g., Windows) or the key program for which you bought the machine (e.g., genealogy). Trust that as you accumulate many small experiences with the machine you will find your expertise. Finally, do not be surprised when a new computer system comes along to which you must adjust anew. . . but this time you will have a set of skills for learning how to learn.

Some Basic Truth about Learning Computers

1. Don’t feel like you must do everything on the computer.

2. Don’t feel like you must understand everything about the machine.

3. Don’t assume that you are incapable of learning because the manual makes no sense to you.

4. Do understand that learning a computer takes both trying and quitting for awhile.

5. When you are convinced the problem is the computer’s fault -- it usually isn’t.

6. It helps to associate with people who know more about the machine than you do.

7. Don’t worry about listening to incomprehensible sentences when you ask a guru about your computer.

8. You do not have to know everything about every acronym, breakthrough, and fad.

9. Don’t blame yourself for not being able to find the answer in the “Help” system.

10. A lot of bluffing is going on.

11. Learning is best accomplished in small chunks, not binges.

The Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching -- Phone (270) 745-6508 -- Fax (270) 745-6145.
Location: 1783 Chestnut Street, Bowling Green, KY 42101.
Mailing Address: 1906 College Heights Blvd #11095, Bowling Green, KY 42101-1095.
Page created date: c2000; Last modified: April 2003.
Site created: July 1996. All contents © since 1996.

This page is in compliance with Section 508 and W3C Priority-I guidelines.
If you find it to be inaccessible, please contact the Webmaster with the URL.

Note: documents in Portable Document Format (PDF) require Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0 or higher to view,
download Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Note: documents in Excel format (XLS) require Microsoft Viewer,
download excel.

Note: documents in Word format (DOC) require Microsoft Viewer,
download word.

Note: documents in Powerpoint format (PPT) require Microsoft Viewer,
download powerpoint.

Note: documents in Quicktime Movie format [MOV] require Apple Quicktime,
download quicktime.

 Last Modified 9/24/14