At Trent University in Ontario, Canada, I teach The History of Psychology, a fourth year undergraduate course. I view this course as a capstone for students’ undergraduate education — one in which they can use their research and communication skills to contextualize what they have learned during their undergraduate degree.
Admittedly, this is an ambitious goal. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that even the tastiest scandals in our history (e.g., Watson’s affair with Rosalie Rayner) have not been scintillating enough to elicit from most students the Herculean effort required to fulfill the course’s promise.
What to do?
The answer was glaringly simple. It wasn’t the material that was failing to engage the students — they were suffering from essay fatigue and needed a change. So, I gave the students the following option: They could (1) write yet another essay — a paper that only I would see, OR (2) write/edit an article for Wikipedia — a paper that would have a lasting impact and potentially be read by thousands of their fellow students and many professors. The class was quite excited about writing Wikipedia entries and unanimously decided to change the assignment.
Initially, students were assigned to add or edit biographical articles on important historical figures in psychology. Subsequently, I have encouraged students to branch out from simple biographies to the historical development of concepts (e.g., attention) and even social institutions (e.g., APS). Students must follow Wikipedia’s writing guidelines and any contributions they make count towards their assignment (for instance, if they deleted an erroneous fact and noted the reason for deletion this counted towards their assignment grade).
Although writing a Wikipedia entry is similar to writing an essay or a research report, there are enough differences that it can feel entirely new. It turns out that this feeling of novelty was a mixed blessing; although it increased the saliency of many things we attempt to teach students (e.g., using good sources and avoiding plagiarism), the public nature of the final product can heighten students’ anxiety levels.
Most of the students’ fears were easily addressed by showing them how to write for Wikipedia. Fortunately, this task is quite easy because Wikipedia has published a number of fantastic articles (e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Your_first_article) that document their expectations in a clear and accessible writing style — one of Wikipedia’s goals is to enable the public to contribute quality articles. Indeed, there are sufficient hyperlinks to detailed explanations of important concepts and examples that even the most elusive concepts are easy to grasp.
The students described these pages as incredibly helpful, not just for this assignment, but for others as well. In virtually all of their psychology courses it is expected that they will follow APA guidelines for writing, source accreditation, formatting, etc. A problem however, is that when attempting to get the mechanics of APA style correct, students often fail to develop an awareness of why these guidelines are used. Students frequently tell me that learning another set of (similar) conventions, and the rationale behind them, helps develop a better understanding of why certain conventions are followed in academia in general and psychology in particular.
The writing style of a Wikipedia article is very different from a typical essay or research report. Students described adapting to this style as one of the most difficult things about the assignment. Compared to an essay, Wikipedia articles are more to the point, do not include argumentation or original research, and are written for an audience that is going to quickly skim the material for relevant information. Consequently, if it can be said in 50 words it should be said in 50 words. Students were also surprised by the amount of time that they spent organizing and reorganizing the material and choosing appropriate headers to assist with the location of relevant information.
One thing that many users of Wikipedia fail to realize is that it is an online community — a collaborative community dedicated to sharing accurate and unbiased information. It is therefore possible for students to collaborate with other people located around the world and at a timescale that is accessible. The simplest way for students to begin participating is through the discussion pages that exist for each article. Often, other users will have identified critical missing information or other needs for the page. Students described interacting with these discussion pages as reaffirming because they could often address the issues raised.
Interacting with the Wikipedia articles as they are completing their research also results in students noticing and correcting errors. I regularly instruct the students in my classes to start a project by examining Wikipedia. However, I also remind them that the articles, though reasonably accurate, are not perfect. This becomes salient to students once they begin noticing the errors (or ambiguous summaries) themselves while working on their edits to the page. Indeed, interacting with the Wikipedia articles results in noticeably increased awareness about the appropriateness of different sources and how summarizing can inadvertently mislead readers.
Editing articles for Wikipedia is surprisingly easy (much easier than editing html). Indeed, once students create a Wikipedia account, they can copy the Wikipedia article that they are working on into their user account’s “sandbox” to make their edits to the page before publishing their work. Anyone (including other people in the class) that has created a user account will be able to see and comment on the student’s sandbox article, which can be very helpful. If students edit their article in a sandbox, then I have them wait until after I graded the assignment to update the original page. Many of my students are rural and do not have access to the Internet when not on campus. Therefore, I also give students the option of copying and pasting the page into a word processor and using “track changes” (you will be surprised how few of your students know that that their word processor can do this).
Introducing Wikipedia into the classroom has been an overwhelming success. Students are more enthusiastic about the course and they are developing a better understanding of how their education fits into the larger web of research that is psychological science, both in terms of its historical antecedents and contemporary objectives. To keep things interesting, I regularly vary how I introduce the assignment to students. One of my favorite strategies is to ask the question “Why don’t they understand us?”. This refrain, referring to the widespread misunderstanding of psychology by the public (and other disciplines) has echoed through the years (Benjamin, 1986). Using this frame, I discuss how our history could be characterized as a series of attempts to dispel these myths and misunderstandings. Some of these misunderstandings arise from ignorance and others from the transmission of erroneous information (e.g., that people only use 10 percent of their brain; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10%25_of_brain_myth). I then suggest that we have a new weapon — one where the myths of our field can be dispelled for the world to see. Now if we can just get enough people on board….