Spark Notes: The Good and the Ugly

Carrie Schmelkin : Gossip from the Hallways
Carrie Schmelkin
Web Editor, TMC

Spark Notes: The Good and the Ugly

Last week, I referred to Spark Notes, one of the most popular study guides for students as they navigate through English classes, as a “cheater’s best friend.”

After all, before your big AP Lit paper is due, it is pretty easy to go to, type in themes for “Jane Eyre,” and come up with a rocking thesis that the novel is all about the quest to be loved.

But talking about how Spark Notes can be a catalyst for cheating got me thinking further about the online educational platform and whether I am being too hard on it.

Here’s my dilemma. For those who struggle in English class, have English as a second language or have verbal and reading disabilities, Spark Notes is a wonderful teaching supplement. By turning to it, students can read succinct chapter summaries online before attempting to get through the more obtuse, lengthier verbiage found in the book – and, in so doing, they are already on the lookout for important quotes, themes and motifs in the book.

On the flip side, for those kids who excel in English – or who can get by getting good grades without expending much effort – Spark Notes can be one of the easiest tools to abuse.

Let me give you an example:

In my AP Lit class senior year of high school (at a time when I was more of a sheep following the herd than a lone wolf), we were assigned to read “Jane Eyre” in the spring.

The spring.

Second semester senior year.

A time when our entire AP Lit class had already been accepted to college and senior slump was effectively in full swing. After all, as long as we got decent enough grades in the class and on the AP exam our acceptance letters wouldn’t be revoked, right?


So, how did we keep ourselves in slump mode but still survive the endless class discussion on Jane’s social status and love life?

We decided to put our faith in good ol’ Spark Notes and forgo the actual book; and it worked like a charm… for about three weeks, that is.

Then one day, our teacher was walking around the classroom lecturing about how Bertha is really a symbol and a manifestation of Jane’s subconscious feelings (duh, that’s on Spark Notes under “Symbols”), when she suddenly stopped short.

She picked up my friend’s book, opened it and heard that glorious creak-crackling noise a book’s spine makes when it is opened for the first time.

Had she not been our teacher, I’m sure she would have cursed. Instead she exclaims, “We are almost done with the book and you haven’t even OPENED it?!”

She must have seen the rest of us shifting with discomfort and guilt, because she proceeded to open each and every one of our books. It must have sounded like nine bowls of Rice Krispies.

We were caught red-faced. But had we successfully managed to outsmart our teacher up until that point? Of course.

Most of us, after all, had taken AP Lit in the first place because English was an “easy A” for us. And in second semester senior year we were more focused on beach trips, ditched classes, and yearbook signings than Victorian England, and we knew we could fake our way through class discussions without ever reading a word that Bronte had even written.

However, in doing so, we abused one of the best learning tools out there.

Here’s who should use Spark Notes: kids who actually want it to be a SUPPLEMENT not a REPLACEMENT; those who want to make sure they don’t miss important things when they read the book; and students who find reading challenging and need the extra guidance. Students who are lazy like we were should not be turning to this tool.

But here’s some karma for you. First semester freshman year of college what book was I assigned in ENG 101? “Jane Eyre.” And you can bet that I read the book that time! And twice more in college, to boot…


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