Using Cliffs Notes in the Classroom

As a straight "A" student in high school and college, I used to look down my nose at other lower ranking students who would use Cliffs Notes to finish their assignments in writing classes or to study for their tests in literature classes. But then, two college degrees and six years later, I became a teacher of what else but English and Language Arts.

It was actually as a teacher that I developed an appreciation for the little yellow books and some of their more obscure companions. It was as a teacher that I realized that these books can actually serve as an aide to my students if used correctly. And it was as a teacher that I actually began to encourage the use of these books in my classroom so that students would learn how to use them appropriately.

One of the primary ways that I used a Cliffs Notes guide in my lesson plans was as a companion reader for more difficult texts. For example, Nathaniel Hawthorne's text The Scarlet Letter is exceptionally hard for mid-level and struggling students in the tenth grade. (To be honest, that text can be difficult for adult readers.) To help my students, we would keep both texts on our desks side by side.

Alternating texts, we would read a paragraph of Cliffs Notes summary followed by a page or two of Hawthorne's complex text. Then we would discuss any vocabulary or syntax that made the original text difficult to understand. We would read the original out loud after the discussion to solidify the sound of the various structures and the new vocabulary in the head of the students. Then we would press forward.

As the students became more comfortable with the more complex text, we would switch up the process, reading Hawthorne's original text first, discussing it, and then checking our understanding by reading summaries in Cliffs Notes. I found that many of my students became more comfortable with stopping and exploring a text rather than just trying to breeze through it to say that it was done.

I also found that using the Cliffs Notes as a companion text modeled the necessary skill of keeping a dictionary or other research materials nearby to help you dissect a complicated passage or to help you understand outdated syntax and vocabulary.

The second way that I would encourage the use of a Cliffs Notes guide in the classroom is as a review guide. After you have read the original text, explored the text on your own and in study groups, and taken notes during your discussions, you will probably be preparing for an objective (multiple choice or short answer) or subjective (long answer or essay) exam if you are still in school.

As a teacher, I used to encourage my students to scan the Cliffs Notes guide in order to refresh their memories on specific events and details in the book. I explained to them that it was more time efficient when studying to re-read the summaries rather that trying to re-read large sections of the book.

If helping students prepare for a written essay, I would encourage them to use the summaries and discussions in the Cliffs Notes to mark passages of the book that they could use as concrete examples during the course of their writing, rather than having to go search for quotes during their writing and testing time.

Above all, I would encourage students to use the handy question guides in the back of Cliffs Notes to help them practice their test-taking skills. I would warn them that the questions that are in the back of the yellow study aide probably wouldn't show up on the test (although I did usually stick in one or two), but I would advise them that answering those practice questions helped warm up the brain and helped charge the thought processes necessary for finding the literary nuggets that they had stored in their brain during studying.

Now, given these two excellent uses for Cliff Notes in the classroom, here's the rub. Many students will (and did) want to replace reading the original text with reading the Cliffs Notes guide. That choice is cheating and is inappropriate. But can a teacher control that? While students read in the classroom, yes; however, many reading assignments occur outside of the classroom, and therefore, the teacher ultimately has to trust the student's own intuition and reason. If the student chooses to circumvent the learning process by reading the study guide without the original text, then unfortunately, the student is cheating himself and his brain.

However, if an educator uses these two teaching methods in the classroom...if he or she actually teaches the student how to learn rather than what to learn, then the students will hopefully develop a better understanding of how and when to use not only Cliffs Notes or other similar study guides, but also research materials in general. And that is learning not for the moment, but for life.

What do you think about the use of Cliffs Notes in the classroom?

  • They should not be used at all. Students should concentrate on reading the original texts.
  • They should be used in moderation--as study guides and research assistants.
  • There's nothing wrong with reading them instead of the actual text. Students have too much on their plate today as it is.
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