An online study boost

SparkNotes may be helpful to students - and parents

SparkNotes may be helpful to students - and parents

April 11, 2003|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

Remember CliffsNotes?

It's OK. No one's watching you nod your head.

Besides, they won't know you're admitting to using the popular study shortcut.

Er, study guide.

After all, who had time to finish every word of every college or high school reading assignment?

Even the purists among us might admit that the little yellow-and-black-striped books were handy for review.

What's that you say? You pull them out every once in a while to help your kids with their homework? Or you wish you still had them?

If that's the case, you may want to log onto, to check out study guides from SparkNotes, a relatively new company in competition with CliffsNotes.


Four Harvard seniors hanging out in a dorm room came up with the idea for online, updated, shorter study guides. They planned to sell advertising so the information would be free in Cyberspace. Their friends could help write the guides.

The company, founded in 1999, now offers more than 1,000 online study guides. The online information is free to read, but there is a $4.95 charge to download and print PDF files. The company was acquired by Barnes & Noble Inc. in 2001. The online files are being made into books.

Some students use the guides to help them understand literature, said Dan Weiss, publisher and managing director of SparkNotes. Others look to the guides as a way to confirm interpretations or to read contrary viewpoints.

"SparkNotes believes the kids should read the underlying book and use the SparkNote as a supplement," Weiss said. "We have found that teachers and kids generally do embrace us."

While the average age of a SparkNotes customer is 17, the guides are also proving popular with parents, Weiss said.

"It's my experience that a lot of parenting today is focused around schoolwork," said Weiss, a father of two.

At times, parents have difficulty helping with homework, Weiss said, because it has been a while since they've had a particular subject. A quick refresher with a study guide may help and might also give the parent an opportunity for interaction with the child, Weiss said. If you're studying the topic they're studying, conversation is bound to flow.

Online SparkNotes topics include literature, drama, Shakespeare, philosophy, poetry, math, chemistry, economics, computer science, history, physics, psychology, health, nutrition, biography, biology and astronomy.

In addition to the online guides and book guides, the company has SparkCharts, two- to six-page laminated review sheets covering 48 subjects.

The geometry SparkChart features diagrams, equations and definitions. The English grammar guide includes parts of speech, punctuation marks, types of sentences and common grammatical mistakes.

"SparkCharts is a great way to become acclimated," Weiss said. "It's a great resource for refreshing your own education."

While most of the products are geared toward high school and college-age students, a line of products for elementary-age students will be launched this summer.

SparkNotes plans to introduce FlashCharts in July, three-ring, laminated guides for 8- to 11-year-olds on topics such as geography, weather and the solar system.

The company also will be introducing a line of activity books for pre-kindergarten through second-grade students. These books will focus on basic skills - the alphabet, shapes, addition, subtraction, handwriting.

The materials are analyzed and approved by teachers, Weiss said.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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