Making sure students read the originalA college-age friend was recently telling me about a professor she has who told a literature class not to bother with looking for a synopsis of the novel they...

Making sure students read the original

A college-age friend was recently telling me about a professor she has who told a literature class not to bother with looking for a synopsis of the novel they are reading. He said that he checks all the online summaries of any book he assigns, and then constructs his tests such that students cannot do well on it unless they have in fact read the book. As a result, his tests are peppered with questions about tiny insignificant details. My friend said that it has totally ruined her ability to enjoy the assigned books, and I can see why.

Is it just me, or is this professor being unnecessarily paranoid? Is there a reasonable middle ground to insure that students are reading the book, without expecting them to memorize it?

Expert Answers
wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I can see why the student would think the professor was being unreasonable, but I can also see the professor's point of view. I did something similar with my high school students. Although, perhaps my tests were more of the middle ground you were asking about. I encouraged my students to read supplementary material, but I warned them that reading this alone would not help them pass my tests. I read the summaries and watched any movies made from the book. Then, I constructed my tests so that you could not make more than a C or D unless you actually read the text. I didn't pepper it with insignificant details, but I did include questions that could only be learned from reading the text. (Of course with my high school kids, they had plenty of class time to read and review, so there was really no excuse for not reading the text.) Sometimes these were subtle themes or character details that weren't discussed in a summary. Sometimes these were differences that occurred between the movie and the book. A question on the Romeo and Juliet test about who was the last person to see Juliet alive is a good example. In the movie, Juliet commits suicide as soon as she wakes and sees Romeo dieing, but in the book the priest returns and speaks with her before she dies. On a multiple choice test, I would often put the movie answer as one option and the text answer as another choice. I don't think it was unfair or unreasonable. Students who didn't read the material usually got a D. Students who read the material usually scored an A or B. I can see where some teachers might take it too far, but there has to be a way to ensure that students are reading the material. A student who didn't read it shouldn't be able to earn the same credit as one who did.
missy575 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I appreciate a summary site when comprehension is not occurring or when something needs to be remembered that you can't easily find. I think those summaries have many functions. I use them myself to find a circumstance when I know something happened in a book, but I need to go back to the exact page to find all of the details.

In my class (AP ENG), I don't even test anymore. I have students write to prompts and discuss BY REFERRING to the text. If they can't refer to the text, if they don't come prepared to class with thoughts they have had about the text (confusion or great insight ... I don't really care), then their grade suffers. This professor is actually on the right track about being a little paranoid, but he may be pursuing it the wrong way. Students today are looking for any and every easy out because they have had it easy their whole lives. I recommend the professor work to find ways to assess their reading that won't just stifle their attempts to look things up in summaries. Isn't it the students' thought about what they read what matters anyways?


bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I feel your pain. The way in which today's students--from middle school through college--take short cuts in order to "save time" on assignments has led me to similar techniques as the college prof in question. Certainly, discovering an area of middle ground is necessary, and I usually try to mix my questions and essays with a few "peppered" questions that won't be found in many online summaries. As a teacher, I have to realize that the temptation to use today's wide range of Internet info is great, but I also feel it's important to stress the need for students to actually READ the text they are assigned. I have spoken with many students who have bragged that they have NEVER read an entire novel, instead relying on summaries--other people's ideas--and they are proud that their grades have usually been satisfactory. The student who sets himself apart by assessing his own original ideas about the classwork he has studied is a rare one today. 

stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's becoming more of a challenge all the time - and eNotes is included in the mix of information sources available to those students who choose to use shortcuts instead of actually reading the entire work for themselves.

When class time allows, I would try having students use actual text to act out scenes from the book. If you make it a safe exercise for everyone, hopefully the actors in your group will "get into" reading the dialogue and becoming the characters of the story. Have someone assigned to the narrator role to read the commentary that isn't directly spoken. Ideally, you'll be able to identify excerpts from the text that will allow you to end the class reading at a "cliff hanger" moment, with the homework assignment being to read and find out "who done it" or whatever fits the story line!

justaguide eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Our discussing this topic seems hypocritical in a way. We all would like students to read the actual texts, which I'm sure to the "tweet" generation seem like long boring tales they'd rather avoid. And then it is we who answer questions for  students, who I've seen many a times actually mention chapter numbers in their posts. This most probably is because they have been told "Read chapter X and answer the questions," by their teacher. With the response from here, the teacher is unable to accomplish what they wanted to.

Guess I, specializing more in Math and Science am saved in a way from the guilt as students have to actually understand things to be able to succeed in any test (though they can try all their tricks in home assignments)

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Um...haha, I do the same thing. I want them to read the text. I don't want them to read summary sites. I do not pose questions which are insignificant though. My tests are all short answer and talk about relationships between characters and imagery, theme, and ideologies.

I must admit though, many students have told me that they have not read an entire book until my class (juniors and seniors). While that saddens me, it makes me feel good at the same time. They are reading!

I don't know if I necessarily answered the question, but choosing the right texts is important. I simply have always thought "outside the box" in regards to teaching and try to incorporate ideas that make the students want to read.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that unfortunately the advent of the internet and sites such as this one and sparknotes and many like them mean that there is now an easy way for students to get out of reading some of the weightier classics. I can completely understand your friend's perspective, but at the same time, I have lost count of the many different times I have given my students a test on a section of a novel and seen them either looking up the synopsis on sparknotes or having a printed out synopsis they are desperately reading last minute. I think it is important for students to read books, and so any way that they can be forced/encouraged/cajoled into reading them is worth a try.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps in eNotes, it would be good if people answered questions in such a manner as to guide the students in reading texts rather than just giving `cheat`answers. Many supereditors force editors to answer with cheats (e.g. giving a group of quotations or a list of themes) rather than rewarding answers telling students how better to approach working through the text on their own. As long as cheaters are rewarded, and people are rewarded for helping cheaters rather than real teaching, the problem will continue. And as it is only by consistent reading of complex prose that students develop reading comprehension and writing skills, this is a real problem.


Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another direction might be to incorporate Internet offerings by assigning a comparison of online summary or synopsis etc to the actual work: e.g., Does the summary etc accurately represent the novel (this chapter; this passage; this character motivation; etc). Fighting the hyper-road of information may become impossible at some point or may drive academics from important literary considerations like critical analysis to minutia in the attempt to avoid the hyper-highway unless Internet information is somehow incorporate to a new view of research and mini-research papers. Thoughts?

wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with post 6 that assigning a mini-research project or some other comparison of summaries is a good idea.  A project highlighting the differences or lack of information in Internet resources and movies can help students understand the importance of reading the original text.  I would often show students the movie of the text and ask them to compare and contrast the movie to the book.  Usually, students who read the text commented that the book was better than the movie.  It helped students see the value in reading the text rather than taking short cuts just to get a grade.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Awww, I can understand the quandary of your friend.  Ironically, I can also understand the frustration of her professor.  I remember making a similar claim to my classes, ... but then always mentioning at the end of an essay question for them to "prove to me that you have read."  The student would always include so many details on their own (without worry while they read, I would hope) in efforts to "prove" they read, that they had no problem.  It was always easy to spot the general, short-answer essay from a summary-reader!  How is that for a middle-ground?

jarumi344 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have this problem too!  I find this especially frustrating in my AP classes where students who truly should be reading are too often overwhelmed by the work in their multiple AP classes, to put in as much effort and time as required. Generally, I given reading check quizzes after a set number of chapters.  These quizzes ask more obscure questions, but then I ask the students to explain why / how these obscure facts help develop the meaning of the text.

I also really like the suggestion offered by #5 ... "prove to me that you have read."

pacorz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Regarding #6: Karen, you are a genius! Comparing a chapter or passage in the summary and the original - what a great exercise in critical thinking, and it gets the summary issue out in the open. What a great idea!

kgopikrishna | Student

University students were academically damaged in their lowest grade levels. They were not taught how to read properly, and this deficiency became a lifelong handicap. The whole-word method created a vocabulary-deficiency handicap, thus making it impossible for students to read serious academic books. This forced the teachers to have to rely upon a "spoon-feeding" approach that necessitated less content-knowledge coverage. The lack of content knowledge made it impossible for students to think critically. Everything is dumbed down.

salimj | Student

I can understand your concern very much. In modern senario not only the students but also teachers take this short cut of reading the synopsis and secondary works instead of reading the original. This is because we are more focused on marks rather than sense. We as teachers should inspire the students to read the original book first and then if they want they can go for the study materials.