Thursday, August 20th, 2009...12:41 pm

More Troubleshooting Labs from Breakaway

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Earlier this month I wrote about some great hardware troubleshooting labs that Kelly Campbell of Ozarks Technical Community College demonstrated at CompTIA’s Breakaway conference.  He was a wealth of information and good advice.  Here are some of the operating system lab ideas he shared the same day.

Campbell says students first need to understand that operating system troubleshooting is platform dependent - your process definitely varies based on whether you’re using Windows (and what version) or Linux or whatever.  Troubleshooting software or the OS involves critical thinking and logical troubleshooting, so “The more we teach them to use a logical approach, the less frustration they’ll have.”  He says one way to start building this is by making sure they have a thorough understanding of the boot process, what OS files are involved in it and their purpose. Teach them to watch the screen as the machine boots up, looking for error messages that might provide clues, and learning to identify when in the process something goes wrong. Does the problem occur before the boot loader or after?

Here are his steps for preparing the lab for troubleshooting exercises:


Have the following in place:

  1. Boot disk
  2. NT Loader and boot.ini
  3. Floppy/CD with OS files - A+ still requires students know how to make boot disks for Win2000 and XP.  So we should teach it.
  4. OS disk - some files (like the kernel file) will be compressed and can’t be copied directly over.  Teach students how to find these, identify them, expand them, put them in the right spot.
  5. Prepare Recovery Console and make sure students understand how it works.  (Campbell goes through all of this before troubleshooting.  How to get into it, how to use commands, etc.  You need four commands to use RC properly, so this is critical.)
  6. Backup preparation. Troubleshooting could get nasty if they don’t do this.
  7. System Restore and/or ASR.  You can use System Restore, but only if you have created a restore point.  He only lets them use System Restore and ASR one time.  System Restore doesn’t solve all that many problems anyway, so students don’ t need to let it become a crutch.
  8. Registry backup.  Shows them how to export the registry somewhere.  If you corrupt the registry, which can happen, will be very glad you have a backup. Puts the responsibility back on the students.


  1. If you have them use it, you need to cover Recovery Console in advance of troubleshooting labs.
  2. It’s up to them to install in the loader menu.
  3. They need to understand the basics of search and location of files.  Many don’t know how to do this, don’t know where boot files reside etc.
  4. Make sure they know how to use Safe Mode, MSconfig, and boot disk.
  5. Teach commands such as Fixboot, Fixmbr, Expand, Copy, Services, and Ren.  Even though fixboot and fixmbr may not fix most problems, they’re easy to try and worth doing because they could save a lot of time if they do fix the issue. In troubleshooting, try the easy thing first.

He gives a total lab value (ex. 25 pts) to each lab.  He has instructor checkpoints throughout the labs, requiring students to get his initials and approval at various stages to ensure they don’t move ahead in the wrong direction.  He makes them answer questions that are built into the lab and type these up.

Some other tips:

  • Once troubleshooting starts, he won’t answer questions about what step to take. When the student says they’re ready, they’d better know what they need to know to get started.
  • He has them first identify the malfunction and get him to verify it (in case there’s another problem that’s cropped upand they’re working on that instead).  Before they work too long he should verify they’re working on the right issue.
  • He doesn’t let them talk about the problems between sessions.. that’s cheating and he’ll give a zero for it.
  • Formatting the hard drive isn’t allowed.
  • If they get hung up on one problem, he’ll let them go on to others but they have to come back.
  • Give students a chance to succeed first with a couple of relatively easy labs that build their confidence.  “If you start out too hard you’ll probably destroy some of them.”
  • Consider tougher labs for those who come in thinking they know everything. That’ll help prove what they really do or do not know.
  • Teach customer service - do not let them talk down to others about tech.  Make them understand. Teach them that most  customers they deal with will not have set restore points, or backed up data. Make then sensitive to the need to be helpful without being condescending or surly.
  • Include some sort of pressure or time constraint.  This is real-world

Campbell says when designing and selecting labs, he tries to stick with A+ objectives.  “My job is to get them certified,” he says.  That said, he’s working now to incorporate more Vista labs in order to prepare students for the updated 2009 A+ exams.  He gives students a pre-exam to help them figure out what all they’re going to need to learn.  He says this also takes care of most of the ‘expert’ issues of students who think they know everything but don’t.

So what do students need to troubleshoot OS issues effectively?

  • They must understand OS processes
  • They must know file locations
  • They need the ability to access and utilize backup media
  • They need the three P’s - Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance.  MUST HAVE ALL THREE to be successful as a computer technician.  Patience to deal with customers and help them, persistence to make their problem your problem, perseverance to keep trying when things fail.
  • They need to know how to follow a logical process, backtrack as necessary, and TRY SOMETHING!


  1. Carefully monitor the boot process.  Where doe sit fail?
  2. If there is an error message, respond to it.
  3. Prior to boot.ini, just the boot disk.
  4. Start checking for missing or corrupt files.
  5. Advanced Options Menu
  6. Windows repair from disk.
  7. Registry replacement. BE CAREFUL
  8. After desktop load, respond to error messages (this would be application level).
  9. System Restore
  10. ASR

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