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Literature notes make for easy reading

Educators stress the guides should be used only as supplements to the text.
Wednesday, October 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:42 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

To study or not to study.

That’s the Shakespearean question that is facing students today because of the widespread availability of study guides that can replace the need to read a book altogether.

A pressing concern is whether study guides such as Spark Notes and Cliffs Notes are being used as companions to texts assigned in class or replacements to those texts.

The popularity of study guides, particularly Spark Notes, is without question. Spark Notes has increased its production of print literature guides from 50 in September 2001 to 1.75 million today. In December 2002, Spark Notes’ Web site recorded 24.4 million hits, the highest mark for that year. Today it receives over 800 million hits per year.

USA Today released a study last month stating Cliffs Notes’ best seller, their version of “The Scarlet Letter,” sold 3 million copies, more than the sales of the actual novel. Dean Stover, a Hickman High School English teacher for 18 years, stresses to his students that guides like Cliffs Notes can be a good supplementary tool. He doesn’t see a difference between a student reading a study guide or asking a friend or teacher for help in understanding a text.

“I’m not one of those teachers that says you’re going to burn in the eternal flames if you touch a packet of Cliffs Notes,” he said. “The question becomes how dependent on study guides are you and for how long? If you’re in college and still depending on Cliffs Notes to do all your thinking for you, then it can be crippling.”

One way Stover believes teachers can prevent students from relying too much on study guides is to create higher expectations in class.

“I think the students who are being held to less rigorous standards and who do use Cliffs Notes and Spark Notes to get by, probably think, ‘Hey, what a great deal here. I don’t really have to do the work,’” he said.

Stover also believes teachers should require students’ assessments to show in-depth knowledge and sophisticated analysis versus straight regurgitation of the material being taught.

Still, the temptation among students to use study guides has increased with the number of products available from both Cliffs Notes and Spark Notes.

Barnes and Noble entered the fray when it acquired sparknotes.com during the Web crashes of the 1990s, and the bookstore chain stopped selling Cliffs Notes. Last month Cliffs Notes launched a redesigned Web site offering its study guides for free and for sale on the Internet.

Both companies stress the guides are meant to be companions to the texts and Cliffs Notes officials said their products tend to be written by teachers.

Barnes and Noble and Spark Notes spokeswoman Stephanie Kamol said the company’s goal is to increase student learning and that sparknotes.com is the number one educational Web site.

“The study guides are a complement to the literature,” Kamol said. “It should never be used as a replacement. We create all our products to help kids. We help them understand and appreciate literature.”

Sharon Slater, an English teacher at Rock Bridge High School, supports the use of study guides and believes they are just aides. She said teachers at Rock Bridge avoid the problems of students solely relying on study guides by creating assessments that are performance based: not book reports but a project that incorporates class work, analysis of the text and students’ thoughts.

“It has been my experience that if students read the literature and also the notes from outside sources, they understand the material better and therefore can apply that information together with historical information to a better understanding of what we are learning in class,” she said.

Slater also believes that the students who read only Cliffs Notes and Spark Notes to get by are usually the students who can or will not try to “apply history or classroom knowledge together with the literature to discover a new truth that has become their own.”

“Truly higher level thinkers can demonstrate this skill and isn’t that what we want of our future leaders?” she said.

Stover believes there are ways to prevent students from using the study guides as the sole source of reading. One way is to pick obscure texts for class reading lists because Spark Notes and Cliffs Notes offer study guides to classic and popular literature.

“If teachers expect in-depth critical thinking, then Cliffs Notes and other like companies aren’t going to do the students a lot of good,” Stover said. “They’re a starting point, but they won’t close the deal when it comes to learning.


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