Strategies for Reading Computer Manuals
1. Understand Your Reading Goal
When you use a computer manual, your reading goal usually is to find out how to do something or how to complete a task. Preview the material and review your reading goals for this course session. You may be learning how to do a mail merge or how to organize your computer files. Keep the larger task in mind as you follow each of the "hands-on" steps.
The hands-on tasks in computer manuals are often set up in one of the following ways. Review how the information in your text is organized.
- Text presents detailed, sequential directions around tasks to be completed.
- Text presents sequenced illustrations or pictures around task to be completed.
- Text presents the software functions and provides factual details about how they work.
- Text provides general guidelines but not specific steps on how to complete a task.
Will you be guided every step of the way or are you encouraged to experiment or practice using trial and error?
2. Know the Text Structure
Look over the structure of the text. Is there a glossary? Is there a help section? Does the index look exhaustive?
Skim the table of contents and introduction or preface for an overview of the text.
Look at the headings to see where information is located or how the information is organized: the main headings and the subheadings that follow. Thumb through the pages to see where the diagrams are, where the descriptions are, and how the hands-on steps are listed.
Use the table of contents. Look at how the table of contents is structured and get a general understanding of the new technical skills you will be learning.
Use the index to look up a specific command or feature of the software. Study the subtopics and cross-references provided.
3. Begin the Hands-On Work as Soon as Possible
Computer instruction manuals are designed to launch you into hands-on action as early as possible. Go ahead and start on a lesson and do not be concerned if you make mistakes. You will learn as much or more by correcting your mistakes as when you follow the steps correctly.
Focus on just what you need to know in order to get started. You will learn more by doing than by just reading. Think about what you already know about the topic as you begin.
When you have completed a sequence of steps, go back, read the side text, and review the screen illustrations.
4. Use Effective Reading Strategies
Use effective skimming techniques. Skim sections for key words and labels to determine the relevance of the information. The material may or may not provide information you do not need to complete your immediate task.
Turn the headings into questions that require answers.
Mark important information in the margins. Ask yourself questions and note terms not understood.
5. Use the Visual Aids to Help You Understand
Carefully read the callouts, titles, or notes that help explain the illustrations. Stop to think about why the illustration is important.
Try to connect the words with the illustrations and the screen captures. Read a few steps and then examine the illustration. Then continue reading the steps. Returning periodically to the illustration. Ask yourself: "What is this illustration saying that the words do not?"
State the visual information in words. Illustrations provide new information. Try to state that information in your own words.
6. Improve Your Technical Vocabulary
To communicate effectively on the job, you will need to speak the language of computers. It is important to learn the specialized terminology and incorporate it into your own speech and writing.
As you read, estimate the meaning of the word from the context.
Write down new meanings of common abbreviations and acronyms. Compare your definition with the one provided in the glossary.
7. Remember What You Have Learned
Rewrite the steps on note cards using your own words. Read the notes out loud.
Write the steps of a difficult procedure using a visual diagram or flowchart.
Repeat any sequence of steps on an item that caused you difficulty.
Complete the supplementary and end-of-chapter problems. If you really want to master the software steps, work backwards. Complete the end-of-chapter assignments or one of the items that requires you read the Online Help feature. Then write the steps needed to solve the problem for a learner new to the software.
Go back and answer any questions that you wrote in the margins.