I think that SparkNotes and Cliff’s Notes are useful as a supplement to reading the material. In my experience with using them in my own education, they reinforce important ideas and themes that can sometimes be missed, despite how closely you read a text. In particular, Sparknote’s No Fear Shakespeare actually helped me understand and become a fan of Shakespeare, no matter how much that may upset Shakespeare purists.
In regards to “lazy” students using them, I think they can only be misused on fact-based exams on the text. Sparknotes gives you enough information to understand setting, plot, main characters, etc, which is all of the basics that would be on a objective text. However, usually literature tests are essay-based. Often, just reading the Sparknotes is apparent in the student’s writing. I’m not ashamed to admit that I ran into a time crunch in my advanced Lit class in high school and only read the Sparknotes, and was called out by the teacher for only knowing the “surface” of the novel.
If Sparknotes is combined with a thorough, critical reading of the text, I believe that they can enhance the understanding of the novel, and make it easier to dissect and fully understand. Besides, at least the student is actually reading rather than watching a horrible film adaptation (ex. Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter).
Has anyone else used these improperly and not receive a good grade? Or am I off, and it's possible to do well by only reading the summaries?