The purpose of this study was to understand how refrigeration, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (RHVAC) service technicians (techs) learned from troubleshooting. This understanding resulted in instructional and curricular strategies designed to help community colleges prepare vocational students to learn more effectively from informal workplace learning. RHVAC techs were studied because they increasingly learn their trade skills through a combination of formal schooling and informal workplace learning, though many still learn their trade almost exclusively in the workplace. Even those with formal training require considerable workplace experience to become fully competent. Troubleshooting is a major job function for RHVAC service techs, and troubleshooting is widely acknowledged as an excellent learning opportunity. The critical incident technique was used to interview 10 recent graduates of a community college RHVAC training program about what and how they learned from troubleshooting.
A majority of the techs reported that they received little continuing education or structured on- the-job training, and relied on informal learning to acquire new skills. They learned from others (in person and via cellular phone networks), by reflection during and after troubleshooting, by using manuals, and by writing in log books or completing work orders. They learned cause and effect relationships resembling symptom-cause troubleshooting charts which they held in memory for use in subsequent troubleshooting. They also improved their use of electrical schematics and electrical test equipment. Pride of workmanship was a significant motivator for learning.
Suggestions for community colleges included: integrating informal workplace learning strategies into technical training, preparing students to learn using cell phone networks, modeling and promoting pride of workmanship, counseling students to consider potential formal and informal learning opportunities available from employers when seeking employment, teaching root cause analysis as a learning strategy, promoting learning from technical manuals, having students keep daily logbooks as a learning strategy, and emphasizing reading electrical schematics and using electrical test instruments in training for electrical troubleshooting. A troubleshooting process that incorporates informal learning in the workplace was detailed.
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