The manual for my coffee maker starts on page two with the words “IMPORTANT SAFEGUARDS” in very large print. This section cautions me against touching the hot parts, or swimming with the coffee maker, and also advises “Do not place this appliance… in a heated oven.”
The first part of page three lists what not to do to the carafe (“Avoid sharp blows…”). The second half concerns the dangers of extension cords, and ends by offering the helpful advice that if the plug won’t fit in the electrical outlet, you should turn it over so the big prong goes in the big hole.
Page 4 is the Table of Contents, page 5 covers features (“Comfort Fit Carafe Handle,” “Lighted ON/OFF Indicator”), and finally on page 8 it gets around to the coffee-making process.
There are 17 pages, and the only part I ever paid much attention to is the instructions for cleaning the coffee maker. I only looked those up because the coffee maker has a “Clean Cycle” button, suggesting that my usual non-automated procedure might not apply.
So, let’s review. I haven’t read the manual for my coffee maker cover-to-cover because:
- I deemed the first several pages as not useful to me, and I concluded that the majority of the manual was likely to be that way.
- I know what I’m looking for, so I quickly scanned the manual to find those details, and filtered out everything else.
- It is 17 pages long.
I suspect that these points also sum up the reasons why my students won’t read the course syllabus. I haven’t electrocuted myself [with the coffee maker], so my assessment in point #1 was likely a reasonable one. Not so for my students who don’t read the syllabus.
The ones I’m most concerned about are taking introductory physical and historical geology courses through the Centre for Continuing and Distance Education (CCDE) at the University of Saskatchewan. Their syllabi describe procedures that are unique to the distance education format, such as having to submit an application to write the final exam. More than one student has assumed that he or she could simply show up at the right time and place, and be permitted to write the exam, as with on-campus classes.
For my face-to-face classes, I’ve designed a syllabus to address point #1 by putting the details that students are most likely to look for (e.g., textbook, grading scheme, contact information) as close to the beginning as possible. I’ve addressed point #2 by using sidebars with interesting images, facts, and quotations, to disrupt the scanning process. As for point #3, my syllabus is seven pages long, and that was a very tight squeeze.
For my CCDE courses, the CCDE puts together most of the syllabus following a modified version of the U of S syllabus template. They specify what information I am to supply, and indicate where I have the option to make additions or modifications. Whatever isn’t on the list stays as is. This arrangement allows me to add content, but it does not permit the kinds of modifications that I think are necessary to address points #1 and #2. The syllabi are 13 and 29 pages long, so there’s no help for point #3.
These syllabi are not working, and I’m not allowed to fix them. I fumed about this for a while, and then came up with an idea. Back when computer hardware still came with paper manuals, manufacturers often included a quick start guide. These were posters or pamphlets that showed simply and clearly the most basic steps needed to get up and running. I decided that my syllabus needed a quick start guide.
The quick start guide I came up with has some key features:
- Fonts and layout that invite browsing, including images, plenty of white space, and text blocks of limited size
- A place for key information (dates, contact information, assignment submission procedures) that is scattered throughout the syllabus
- Details that are too important to leave to a chance encounter in the syllabus
- Motivation to read the syllabus, including a “Top Ten Reasons to Read the Syllabus” list. The list combines humour with items in the syllabus that students usually ask about.
It is two pages long, so printable on a single sheet of paper. It doesn’t look like any of the other course materials, and this is good, because curiosity motivates inquiry far better than obligation does. I’m trying it out for the first time this term, so we’ll see how it goes.