Enliven Students’ Assignments With Wikipedia

Lori Hoetger

Lori Hoetger

According to Wikipedia.org, the online encyclopedia has over 26 million pages that cover topics from Britney Spears to the Pythagorean theorem. Students, laypersons and academics alike have turned to Wikipedia for quick answers to everyday questions. Despite the breadth of knowledge on Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, founder of the website, has warned against using Wikipedia in academic papers, because of the great variability in article quality and reliability (Young, 2006). To address this variability for psychological-science topics, APS announced an initiative for academics to take charge of the scientific information posted on Wikipedia. As part of the initiative, we asked 40 students in an upper-level psychology course on human memory to do the one thing we had previously told them never to do: turn to Wikipedia.

In past semesters, the students were responsible for three short papers: an analysis of a personal flashbulb memory, a review of a scholarly research article, and a critique of movies dealing with memory (e.g., Finding Nemo, Memento). We replaced the second paper, the research-article review, with an assignment as part of the APS Wikipedia Initiative (APSWI). We assigned students a partner, provided a list of potential article topics and helpful websites (provided by Wikipedia and APS), and worked closely with each pair during their research and writing. Because this was our first time leading this type of assignment, we learned a great deal. The following is a list of tips, based on feedback students gave us while working on the assignment and in their end-of-the-semester course evaluations, which may help other instructors who wish to pursue a similar assignment.

Do realize you may have to convince students that this assignment is a good idea. Initially, some students expressed doubt as to whether this assignment was worthy of an upper-level psychology course. It may be a good idea to point out the skills this assignment will enhance, such as research, communication, and Internet skills. Some students liked the idea that they would be “publishing” an article. Plus, one student noted in her evaluation that she enjoyed the Wikipedia assignment because it helped the psychological science community as a whole. These are all good points that you may want to highlight so you can show students that this assignment is more than just another paper for your teaching assistant to read.

Brian H. Bornstein

Brian H. Bornstein

Do save the assignment for a smaller, upper-level class. This tip is based on practicality — a smaller class is ideal for this assignment because the assignment requires the instructor or teaching assistant to work closely with individual students. Also, because the articles will probably be about specific, narrow topics, students should have at least a rudimentary grasp of basic psychological-science principles.

Do provide a list of topics that are not yet covered on Wikipedia. Creating this list requires a fair amount of time to research topics. Wikipedia already has entries for a good number of topics related to psychology, but there are many topics that do not yet have their own pages. Roughly half of the topics we provided to students were people, such as notable memory researchers. Students seemed to enjoy writing about people, and they could easily access faculty websites, journal articles, and curriculum vitae that provided them with insights into their topic. One student pair even e-mailed the subject of their article to see if the researcher wanted any particular information included (unfortunately, the researcher did not respond). An alternative to having students write articles from scratch would be to have students edit articles that have already been written. We chose not to do this because of the difficulty in creating comparable grading criteria for original versus revised articles, but as the number of topics that have not been written about diminishes, in future semesters we may have to allow students to update and correct articles.

Do actually try posting an article yourself first. We were both unfamiliar with the process of writing and posting Wikipedia articles, but some of the students had more experience than we did. Wikipedia makes posting articles as easy as possible; however, there will always be problems with technology. Most of the questions and concerns from students throughout the process focused on the technical aspects of posting articles to Wikipedia. One student noted at the end of the semester, “If I hadn’t had a background in computer programming, [the Wikipedia assignment] would have been frustrating and impossible.” Two other groups noticed their articles were removed shortly after being posted without explanation. Not all students had this much trouble, but if you go through the process yourself, you will be able to answer most questions that students come up with. Additionally, posting your article first will help you identify potential problem areas for students. Some of the students had difficulties figuring out how to include citations in their Wikipedia article. Wikipedia uses footnoting, and not all students could figure out how to use this feature.

Don’t expect the assignment to be like an average research paper. It may be helpful to make clear to students the difference between writing an academic paper to be read by other scholars, and posting an article to be read by individuals who may have no previous knowledge of psychology. It is a good idea to provide a clear grading scale to students to set expectations for the assignment and  provide ideal examples of Wikipedia articles on scientific topics, to show students the proper tone and style they should use.

Don’t be too rigid in the assignment. This assignment required quite a bit of flexibility from us and our students. We did not assign a minimum length or number of sources because the papers varied greatly depending on the individual topics. By working closely with students throughout the process, you can help them shape the article and determine the correct number of sources as they go.

Do make use of resources that are available. Wikipedia posts a number of articles that provide step-by-step guidance on how to write, edit, and publish articles. There are also articles that detail the correct tone and subject matter for articles. These are valuable resources to both instructors and students as they navigate this assignment. We provided students with a list of relevant articles and websites. Additionally, the APSWI is an extremely valuable resource for determining how to craft your assignment.

Don’t end the assignment by simply posting the article on Wikipedia. The APSWI makes it very easy for students to find articles written by other students. You can register your course and assignment on the APSWI and provide students with a special code that identifies them as part of the course. Once articles are posted on Wikipedia, they can also be searched via the APSWI. Students can log on to the APSWI and view the articles that were written for the class. Having students critique and/or edit other students’ articles may be a good extra credit or follow-up assignment. This approach also makes students learn about the process of peer review.

At the end of the semester, we asked students to evaluate the assignment as part of course evaluations. The reviews were not uniformly positive. Out of the 32 students who responded, one said the assignment was “among the worst” he or she had done in a class, two said “a lot worse than average,” and six said “a little worse than average.” However, seven identified the assignment as “among the best” he or she had ever had, and four said “a lot better than average.” In comparison to the two other paper assignments in the course, students rated the Wikipedia assignment slightly lower. Hopefully, this was due primarily to the fact that this was our first time using the Wikipedia assignment, and it will improve in future semesters.

Six students, in the open-ended evaluations, listed the Wikipedia assignment as one of the worst things about the course as a whole. Two of these students, however, said that this was solely because the assignment was a partnered assignment. Five more students recommended changing the assignment to a solo one, and not assigning partners. We had assigned students to work in partners for two main reasons. First, we could not identify enough important topics that did not already have articles for each of the 40 students in the class. A smaller class may not need to work in pairs. Additionally, we assigned partners because there were many technical aspects of this assignment to work out, and we did not want to burden individual students more than necessary. It may be worth considering changing the assignment to an individual one because it seems many students do not enjoy partner work (unfortunately it was not a social psychology class, so we could not have them write articles on topics like cooperation and diffusion of responsibility).

On a more positive note, two students stated that the Wikipedia assignment, and four more students said the three paper assignments together, was one of the best things about the course. In future semesters, we hope to address students’ concerns and improve on this assignment. The APSWI is a valuable way to improve the information that is disseminated on Wikipedia. It is also a great way to increase writing and researching skills in your students, and to provide a break — for both students and the instructor — from the “normal” research paper.

Observer Vol.25, No.4 April, 2012

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