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Damage Control: What To Do When Things Don't Work

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Best of the NEE

Tagged Division

New Engineering Educators

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.349.1 - 13.349.12



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Paper Authors

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Edward Gehringer North Carolina State University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Damage Control: What to Do When Things Don’t Work

Edward F. Gehringer North Carolina State University


What should you do when your software breaks, when your labs don't work out, when your tests are bombed, when your homework has errors? These are questions every instructor has faced. This paper brings together a set of tips from dozens of experienced educators in dealing with these awkward situations. They tell us that it is best to be honest with students and admit your mistakes. Students will recognize that you are human, and besides, errors and changing requirements crop up on the job too, so learning how to handle them is good experience for real life. Often a mistake in an assignment or lab can be turned into a learning experience. There are many options in dealing with test questions that don’t work out for some reason. The weighting of questions can be adjusted in various ways, or homework assignments can be given to give the students a second chance to learn the material.

1. Introduction

As any new engineering educator knows, there are a lot of things that can go wrong in class. A lecture may leave a class totally confused, or totally bored. Homework assignments may take the students much too long—or they may turn out to have no solution. Labs may yield experimental results far different from what the theory predicts. Tests may be too long, or they may contain errors that waste students’ time. When confronted by any of these situations, what’s an instructor to do? This paper is based primarily upon responses to questions posed on two mailing lists, the Engineering Technology listserv,, serving ASEE’s Engineering Technology division, and the SIGCSE members list, SIGCSE- members@LISTSERV.ACM.ORG, serving the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education of the Association for Computing Machinery. The author posted to these lists twice, in October 2007 and again in January 2008. More than 50 engineering and computer-science educators shared tips in these discussions.1 The published literature was also consulted, via Google Scholar and ERIC, the Education Resources Information Center database. These turned out to be much less useful sources, since it proved impossible to come up with search terms that would return information on the desired topic without also returning reams of extraneous material. In general, when things go wrong, the best policy is to admit your mistakes: “… even professors sometimes make mistakes, and this was one of them.”2 Never try to fake the students out. As

1 Instructors were asked if they wanted to be quoted in the paper. If so, they were asked whether their name could be used. According to their wishes, some of the quotations identify the author and some do not. 2 Doug Baldwin, SUNY Geneseo

Proceedings of the 2008 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition 1 Copyright © 2008, American Society for Engineering Education

Gehringer, E. (2008, June), Damage Control: What To Do When Things Don't Work Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3891

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