Supplement or Substitute?

Students and teachers are divided over the role of online literary summaries

Rachel Morrell, Junior Co-Editor

It’s 10:45 PM, and you still have about 60 pages of assigned reading due for tomorrow. Do you sacrifice your sleep to read the assigned pages or use the common cop-out — an online summary source?

This is a situation that many AP and Honors English students find familiar. The works of literature that are required for these advanced classes are often lengthy, confusing, and (according to more than a few students) just boring. While some students stick to the assigned reading from the book, other turn to sites like Sparknotes or Shmoop to complete the assignment. But does the use of SparkNotes and similar sites constitute cheating?

Let’s take a look at the mission statement on Sparknotes site: “Sometimes you don’t understand your teacher, your textbooks make no sense, and you have to read sixteen chapters by tomorrow… We help you understand books, write papers, and study for tests. We’re clear and concise, but we never leave out important info. As SparkNotes editors, our mission is to help you make sense of confusing schoolwork… We work with experts to create books, blogs, quizzes, and flashcards that will help you master hard material…We’re here to help you learn, not to help you cheat. Our literature guides are meant to be read along with the books they analyze. They are not intended to be copied on tests or papers.”

SparkNotes claims that it exists to help along with understanding literature, not serve as a replacement for reading books. However, despite the creators’ intentions, the site is often used for quite the opposite purpose.  

Pullquote Photo

I don’t think online summaries can ever replace the content of a novel, because you have to read the book to actually get what is going on in it.”

— Mrs. Walters, Honors English 3

Many students who are enrolled in Honors or AP classes often take the easy way out of assignments and read the online summary. In fact, many students think that using Sparknotes or Shmoop is just fine.

“I don’t find that it’s cheating,” Aleni Antalis, a junior, said. “These resources help enhance our reading. You might read something differently than what the author intended, and learning what something actually means will help you in the long run.” 

Students often feel justified to use these sites because some teachers encourage the use, though others are strictly against the practice.

When asked about North Allegheny’s stance on this issue, Assistant Principal Mr. McGahee said, “There is no uniform standard, it really is contingent upon what teacher you have, if they support the use or not.  Teachers can give instructions to not use Sparknotes, but then the next period a student can go on their laptop and pull up Sparknotes without the teacher’s knowledge.”

Yet, according to senior Max Gunn, online summary sites are an important tool.

“Using SparkNotes as a resource is not cheating,” he said. “At one point or another you will have to look back through the book for details or quotes. I think you’re missing out on the book’s minor details that may come handy later for an essay or test on the chapter, but that’s your choice.”

However, when a student doesn’t even open up the assigned book and instead jumps straight to the short cut, is it a case of academic dishonesty? 

“I would find that not reading the book completely is cheating,” Antalis said. “[Students who do that] are not even putting in an effort to even read the actual material.”

Honors English 3 teacher Mrs. Walters believes that these sites can be helpful, but only in the correct context. “I think that they are useful in some respect,” she said. “I don’t think they can ever replace the content of a novel, because you have to read the book to actually get what is going on in it, and most people wouldn’t pass my quizzes by just reading a summary.”

McGahee offered additional insight on this issue.

“When I was in college, Sparknotes didn’t exist yet,” he said. “We actually had to buy CliffsNotes, an actual book. The same thing applies.  There is a difference between a supplement and a substitute. It’s like taking a vitamin supplement. You eat normally but then you take vitamins to supplement that to make sure you’re getting all of the nutrients. But you take those vitamin supplements in addition to food, not instead of the food. So when it comes to Sparknotes, I would never have an issue with students using it, as long as it was a supplement, not a substitute.”