Web-based reading guides do no harm

You’re sitting at a table, idly watching a pencil spin between your index finger and thumb. The drone of some TV show is streaming on your laptop screen, but you’re not paying attention. Papers with unknown titles, numbers and pictures are strewn in front of you. You’re not paying attention to those either. You rub your eyes. You sigh.

You decide to compromise to save yourself time and stress. You type “SparkNotes,” “GradeSaver” or “GradeBuddy” into your address bar. Though SparkNotes is commonly known, GradeSaver and GradeBuddy are the new kids on the block. GradeSaver charges for in-depth summaries, reviews and essays. GradeBuddy, on the other hand, departs from study guides about course materials and instead offers day-to-day lecture notes and detailed study guides for tests that can be bought with just a click of the mouse.

For years, teachers have cautioned against these kind of shortcuts, the academic equivalent of fool’s gold highways: websites that provide free study guides or summaries of canonical reading. Incredibly easy to find and access on the Internet, such websites bypass the paralyzing and overwhelming path of required reading and actual attendance.

The presence and popularity of these websites raises two questions: Are SparkNotes and its peers useful, and are they ethical to use in the first place?

SparkNotes and the like are widely used for good reason: They work. They do their job, which is helping students squeeze out the most content in the least amount of time. For instance, SparkNotes condenses the verbose language of the 500-page Great Expectations by Charles Dickens to a list of one- or two-paragraph chapter summaries.

The ethical viability of the websites is a trickier issue. It depends on how we, the students, use them.

Students who have used such websites know the feeling of getting a decent grade on a test without much preparation or personal effort. You feel a rush. You feel as if you cheated the system. You did not read the book, yet you find yourself doing as well as someone who did.

You are rewarded for your lack of preparation without facing any consequences. Sure, it’s not as good as actually reading the book, but how could reading a summary not be at least slightly useful? With limited time, isn’t reading a summary better than not reading at all?

Beyond using these websites as a crutch before daunting tests, students could also use them as supplementary resources. Even if you have your own lecture notes, another perspective never hurts. It might be revolutionary to consider such websites a “perspective,” but that’s what they are — sources that can reinforce and even improve upon what one has already learned.

SparkNotes and GradeSaver offer free study guides.

Still, some websites, like GradeBuddy, charge money. At a cost of $1.99 for a day’s lecture notes, or $29.99 for a course packet over an entire semester, GradeBuddy and its peers are not free sources, making them less accessible to some students.

But who are we kidding? An equal playing field never existed in the first place. Everyone will always have different resources and different levels of access.

By this point in their lives, college students should be comfortable with the idea that in life, money does translate into more and better opportunities. Our very enrollment in USC reaffirms that idea.

Remember taking the SATs? The test was supposed to make it easier for colleges to judge us fairly, but at the end of the day, some of us bought Kaplan books; others took entire classes for the purpose of doing well.

Moreover, these websites aren’t selling anything that isn’t already being sold. As a basic principle, GradeBuddy isn’t any different from a private service that charges students for tutoring. Both operate as a supplementary resource for students who need something extra to get them through a paper or test. There is a stigma attached to these websites, and it needs to be erased.


Tyler Zhang is a freshman majoring in biochemistry.