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THE PAGE: Is SparkNotes just cheating? - The Sun Chronicle : Features

THE PAGE: Is SparkNotes just cheating?

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Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 12:00 am

Years ago, a lot of students didn't have a computer at home to assist them in homework assignments. Having a computer was a luxury and a privilege. Nowadays, most students have access to one or many computers.

With the Internet, there is a world of knowledge at our fingertips. Some people may argue that this open access to technology is a positive supplement to a student's learning. Others say that having access to sites like Wiki, Google, and SparkNotes, inspires more cheating than studying.

With SparkNotes.com, students can search the name of almost any work of literature, and the information they receive is endless. SparkNotes, advertised as "Today's Most Popular Study Guides," provides the context of a book or play, plot overview, character list, analysis of major characters, themes, motifs and symbols, and individual chapter summary and analysis. It also explains important quotes and key facts, and provides study questions and essay topics. The only thing it doesn't do is write the essay.

On the surface, SparkNotes appears to be a well-intended website to assist students struggling to understand reading material. At the same time, it is easily abused. The chapter summaries make it easy for a student to skip over their assigned reading, and the list of themes, motifs and symbols opens the door to the typical high school essay assigned on symbolism of themes in literature.

SparkNotes was originally created by Harvard students, and was called The Spark. It was bought by Barnes and Noble in 2001.

"SparkNotes originally began as a tool for cheating, but the site tries to justify its existence by selling itself as a study guide website. Ironically, this attempt to clean up its image has actually turned it into a strange combination of the two: a website meant for cheating that actually serves as a decent study guide," said Attleboro High English and history teacher Larry Carpenter.

Another controversy over SparkNotes is how much or how little a teacher should encourage their students to use it. Teacher expectations clash with the student's ability to decide for themselves how much is too much.

"It is futile to attempt to forbid students to use the site," said Carpenter. "To attempt to do so creates a needlessly adversarial relationship between the students and teacher.

"As teachers we need to teach students to utilize all of the tools at their disposal in a responsible way. Students can use SparkNotes to better understand difficult text that they may not have understood on their own. In this way it is being used as a supplement to better understand a difficult reading that the student would otherwise not be able to access."

The foolproof way a teacher can monitor the site's use is by creating assignments with questions that cannot be easily answered by just visiting SparkNotes. Teachers must assign literature and corresponding assignments that dig deeper than the surface information that SparkNotes provides. It is up to the teacher to make sure that using SparkNotes to complete an assignment is not a possibility.

"My responsibility as a teacher is to design meaningful assignments that can't be mindlessly completed by not reading the text and using SparkNotes instead," said Carpenter. "I also know to read the SparkNotes myself so that I can recognize if a student is not analyzing the text for himself but rather simply parroting the analysis on SparkNotes.

"Essentially, if my assignments can be completed without the students needing to read the book, then I need to change my assignments."

It is not solely that teacher's responsibility to discourage the use of SparkNotes. In the end, it is up to the student to draw the line between studying and cheating. If a student is not reading a book assigned in class, and is instead reading the chapter summaries online, SparkNotes is being abused.

"SparkNotes is abused by run-down students looking for an easy way out," said AHS senior Katelynn Tucker. "Even the most avid learner is tempted at some point to take the shortcut and save themselves a few hours worth of reading. In doing this, however, they miss out on the work of the literary masterpiece that is the novel."

When SparkNotes is used in place of actual text, students do not receive the same effect they may find while reading the novel. Browsing the SparkNotes page of "Great Expectations" cannot be compared to actually indulging in the classic novel, following Pip through his hardships.

"SparkNotes' value depends on how it is used," said English teacher Cathy Kaiser. "I turn to SparkNotes if I want to review quickly a chapter previously read.

"Of course, many use SparkNotes in place of reading the original work. Here the value is relative - it's perhaps a way to pass a quiz or enable a student to discuss a work they haven't read - so no doubt the student considers it valuable. However, students who rely solely on SparkNotes are only cheating themselves."

One SparkNotes feature that has been assisting students is "No Fear Shakespeare." This shows the actual text from any work of Shakespeare, next to the modern day "translation" of the text. This tool is very helpful for students reading Shakespeare because the real text is beside the modern interpretation. Without using "No Fear," many students would be unable to understand what they are reading.

SparkNotes, similar to College Board, also provides students with SAT, ACT and AP exam preparation services. It provides a section where students can research colleges, and a non-educational Spark Life section for entertainment.

Tools like "No Fear Shakespeare" and practice quizzes are helpful for students who struggle with difficult material. In this way, SparkNotes is not abused, but taken advantage of responsibly.

"Many English teachers are incorporating more obscure books into their curriculums, which cannot be found on SparkNotes," said senior Gabe Amatruda. "Even for novels that students can easily find on SparkNotes, English teachers test comprehension by assigning guided reading questions, or by quizzing students on specific points from the literature that was assigned. The abuse of SparkNotes is becoming obsolete."

Today's advanced technology has provided students with resources that were unavailable to students in decades past. Students may find it difficult to sift this overload of information, and make responsible choices as far as how to utilize the information given. With a joint student and teacher effort, the abuse of online educational supplements can be avoided.

THE PAGE runs every Tuesday in The Sun Chronicle and is written by area high school students. If you go to high school in this area and are interested in writing for The Page, contact Features Editor Ken Ross at kross@thesunchronicle.com.

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