What a Flat Tire Can Teach You About Learner Experience
On motivation, cognition, retention, shame, and pride
The other day I was running errands in town when I realized my car had a flat tire.
I am neither young nor fit, and while I do know how to change a tire, I have zero interest in doing so. So, I called my husband Joe at home (one hour of driving away) and whined.
“Do you want me to come change it for you?” he asked.
The answer to that was obvious (YES), but I do have some pride. And I don’t want to take too much advantage of my husband, who never fails to rescue me when I need it. So, I said I’d do it myself and let him know when it was done.
What’s this got to do with learner experience? I’m a classic novice when it comes to changing a car tire. I’ve been taught the skill and I’ve done it a couple times under supervision. It’s not a very difficult thing to do, but it is important to get it done right (life and death, in fact).
On the other hand, I have a lot of expertise with instructional design. My instructional design mind couldn’t help but observe what went on while I blundered through my tire-changing activity. In the end, I had a spare tire on my car, the tools and flat back in the trunk, and some interesting perspectives on practicing a skill as a novice.
Lesson #1: Learner Frustration Can Be Valuable, and Intervention Can Be Harmful
If anyone with tire-changing confidence had been watching me, they would have been rolling their eyes and sighing in frustration at the way I went about changing that tire. Thank goodness no one was watching me. (I’m sure I had a “get the f*** away from me” vibe while I was doing it.)
The fact is that a novice practitioner is never going to be smooth or speedy. It was frustrating from my perspective, too; but at a certain level, that learner frustration has a purpose.
On the surface, it looked like me fumbling around with the tiny jack that comes with my car. I remembered that it had to go in a certain spot under the car. In fact, the jack itself has an awesome little job aid showing where to put it. The tool also has a clever combination of pieces that allows one (if one is my husband) to quickly and easily spin a doo-hickey around to raise and lower the jack. I eventually remembered this combination, put them together, and managed to operate them, though awkwardly and slowly.
What would have happened if a kindly instructor had been standing by? That person would have seen me struggling to figure it out and would have jumped in to show me how to do it.
If that had happened, my experience as a learner would have ended with that feeling of ineptness. I wouldn’t have felt any sense of accomplishment in that moment, since my success was still dependent on someone showing me how to do it. But since no one was there, I kept fumbling in all my frustration until I figured it out, got it done… and felt a sense of pride from my accomplishment.
Lesson #2: Be Prepared to Forgive Yourself for Mistakes
When a person is still learning something and practicing a skill, there’s a lot of cognition going on. Your brain is busy and may not have the bandwidth to notice when you’re making a silly mistake.
After I got the car jacked up, the flat tire off, and the new tire wrestled onto the bolts (experiencing another glow of pride that I remembered Joe’s tip of putting the tire on my foot to help lift it into position), it was time to thread the lug nuts back onto the bolts.
I spent the next hour (okay, minute or two) trying to get this done. No matter how carefully I placed the nut, or which one I tried, I could NOT get those darn things to catch on the bolts. Talk about frustrating! Can you guess what I was doing wrong? Yes, I was trying to twist them on by twisting them off. Duh! Right tighty, lefty loosey.
After that revelation, I got the nuts on, lowered the car, tightened everything, and all was well.
My learner experience? It didn’t kill me to spend a few minutes feeling frustrated, because I had the knowledge to fix the problem. Having made this silly mistake, figured it out, and corrected it myself, I’ll figure it out sooner next time I make that same mistake.
If an expert had been watching and pointed out what I was doing wrong, I would have felt stupid (no matter how kindly done). That feeling would have remained with me every time I thought about changing a tire. Instead, I felt a little dumb but smart enough to get it right in the end.
It’s essential to recognize the power of emotion when it comes to learner experience and memory! Use it to support the learner, not undermine.
Related to this: Whether you’re an instructor or a learner, find ways during practice to celebrate small accomplishments.
Lesson #3: Problem-solving Requires a Foundation of Subject Knowledge
In this tire-changing scenario, I was able to access previous training on the topic. I had memories from performing the task previously, although it was some time ago.
What would have happened if I didn’t have that knowledge or basic experience?
Rewind a couple of years. Same car; same tire went flat. That time it happened on the long empty highway home, where there’s no cell service.
At that time, I knew enough about tire changing to get the jack out, get the little spare out, and to work on loosening the lug nuts before jacking the car up. But that was about it. I didn’t have enough knowledge or experience to figure out what those extra doo-dads that seemed related to the jack were. I was too overwhelmed with the task and the situation to even notice the awesome job aid on the jack that told me how to position it in a specially reinforced spot under the car.
And when it came down to it, I couldn’t even get the lug nuts to budge. I know how I would do it now, because Joe showed me. At that time, I tried and gave up because I assumed it was beyond my strength and ability.
It was a long, hot walk and a long wait for my husband to rescue me after I finally managed to contact him. Once he arrived, he changed the tire and presto, I was headed home again.
Why couldn’t I problem-solve my way to success that time? It’s because I didn’t have enough base knowledge to put the pieces together (literally or figuratively).
I knew what needed to happen: Replace the flat tire with the spare. I knew basically how it worked: Wheel attaches to car with those bolty things. But faced with the tiniest obstacle — the lug nuts were very tight and required force to dislodge — I didn’t know how to solve the problem. I didn’t know I could solve the problem using the tools available.
That moment of frustration turned into a failure, even though the obstacle was relatively small. In that moment, I stopped being a learner. I became a searcher, searching for a solution to my problem using the tools that I did understand. Instead of figuring out the tire problem, I figured out how to get help from my husband (always my knight in shining armor).
That’s what is likely to happen during “discovery” learning or “inquiry” learning when there’s insufficient instructor support. While I did eventually find a solution to my problem, I did it without learning anything about changing a tire. Instead, I did what I know how to do, which is to ask for help from a trusted expert.
The Takeway Lesson
Here’s the instructional-design takeaway from my experience.
1. If you see a learner (or are a learner) fumbling and practicing a learning task slowly, inefficiently, or awkwardly, just let that happen. Let your learner succeed in their own way and under their own power. You won’t expedite their understanding by jumping in and showing them how to be less slow or awkward. That can come with time, practice, and when the learner thinks to ask the question.
2. Practicing an unfamiliar skill takes brain power, which means it’s easy to make seemingly silly mistakes. Ignore those and forgive them. As long as you know the learner has the knowledge and tools to recognize what’s happening and correct it, let them experience the momentary frustration. Allow them time to resolve that obstacle on their own, even if the wait seems excruciatingly long. The end result is much more positive for the learner, no matter how silly the mistake.
3. Don’t abandon a learner who doesn’t have sufficient foundation in the subject matter to problem solve. That won’t lead to a better understanding of the subject matter. Always use direct instruction and modeling to lay that foundation. Give the learner opportunities for supervised practice and feedback before giving a problem-solving challenge.
The best instructors know that learning lies within the learner, not with the instructor. The instructor’s job is to provide the support and guidance necessary to allow learning to take place, and then to stay out of the way when no longer needed.
And my life lesson takeway is this: If you travel on empty rural roads, know how to change a tire, keep a full-sized spare in your car, and make sure it’s properly aired up. You won’t be sorry.