Does Sparknotes inhibit learning or enhance the reading experience?

Technology has become increasingly helpful to students as a resource over the years, but some believe it has developed into more of a crutch than a handy tool. Students are no strangers to websites such as Sparknotes and CliffsNotes, but perhaps these sites make it too easy for students to give up on finishing a book they ought to read for a class. In fact, they may even encourage people to drop reading altogether, so long as there’s a summary available online. On the other hand, there’s that group of people who use such resources responsibly, only to review the books they’ve already diligently finished. In this way, these websites have become a popular topic of moral debate: Is using a site like Sparknotes for school justified?

Sparknotes can be an extremely helpful tool for students, and as it’s public and free to everyone online, it’s tempting to use. And why not use it, when it provides decent summaries and analysis for pretty much every book studied in schools? Students can refresh their memories by reading an overview of a plot they read a long time ago the night before a test, take multiple choice quizzes to see how much of the book they really know, and can even remind themselves of the names of minor characters they’ve forgotten. Basically, the site can serve as a great review for students who have have read the book they were assigned to read, and can even expand one’s knowledge of the book by providing a new perspective.

Graphic: Dorothy Weiss

However, it’s easy to take advantage of such a helpful resource and decide to skip reading the original text altogether. It makes sense; it’s the choice between reading a 600-page book or a 100-word summary. It’s pretty clear that Sparknotes saves students a lot of time, but the disadvantages may be worse than they first appear. For one thing, the summaries online are fairly brief, vague, and broad; they can never replace a full understanding of the story that can only be achieved through reading the actual text from cover to cover. While Sparknotes does provide some lists of themes, symbols, and important literary devices used in various books, it might not provide students with anything truly insightful. The fact that it lays everything out takes away opportunities for students to come up with ideas on their own. Additionally, the lack of real connection with the text is not only evident in a student’s essay, but also weakens their writing and demonstrates to the teacher that an effort was not made to actually read the book. If you replace reading with Sparknotes, you’ll get an overall summary, but will remain completely unaware of the particular phrases the author might tend to use, the subtle moments of character development, the quirky quote you might’ve really enjoyed had you actually read it. Students miss the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the entire experience of a novel.

Admittedly, Sparknotes has proven to be useful for me. I did read all the books, but later on, I looked them up on Sparknotes. The website reminded me of all the events that happened in The Odyssey chronologically, but from reading the text, I already had images of wine-colored seas and rays of dawn in my head. While Sparknotes could boost your quiz grade by telling you which character was with Macbeth in a certain scene, it’s not going to let you experience the kinds of emotions you might’ve felt or the connections you could have made if you had read one of the tragic hero’s monologues. And so the debate continues—is saving time worth declining to read an assigned book? At the end of the day, I suppose it’s all a matter of deciding between thorough completion and something a little less than the best. Sparknotes has been able to take students pretty far, but I’d say that without having read the book itself, students can’t quite go the distance.

Leave a Reply

Please use your real name and email. Your email address will not be published.

Any comments containing the following material will be removed:
  • Hostility or insulting language directed towards other users, authors, Tower staff, or a specific group of people
  • Any type of harassment
  • Profanity, crude language, or slurs
  • Personal information about yourself or anyone else
  • Discussion unrelated to the article