Five reasons a Wikipedia assignment is better than a term paper

1. People read it.

With a term paper, a student is spending a term preparing to write a paper they print out, submit for a grade, and then throw away. How many envelopes with graded papers are left in your mailbox at the end of every term? Think about research as a fuel. Students are expending energy on projects only to abandon them.

With a Wikipedia assignment, students have an opportunity to put that energy into a public resource: Wikipedia. Rather than just burning fuel on a car that goes nowhere, they let others hitch a ride. They generate free knowledge for those people around the world that don’t have access to a university education, or a public library. And they make the task of finding better, more reliable information about their field simpler for everyone.

2. Students have to think twice.

Students in any field are also students of the ropes of academia. Many of them have learned how to bang out a paper overnight and achieve exactly the grade they need to get the desired GPA from your class. It’s not cynical, and we believe in the idealism of students (see point 3).

It’s just that the traditional five point essay is something they’ve been writing since high school. It doesn’t engage them in creative thinking or re-processing of information. Writing in a new medium requires reframing their learning for a real, living audience. They have to think about the knowledge and repurpose it — that is, they have to reproduce that knowledge in their own words, in order to communicate the concept to the millions of potential readers on the other end of the article.

Wikipedia’s policies discourage direct quotations, even when cited. That means students can’t copy and paste material from their readings. They have to digest it, think about it, and restate it in an original way that contains the same information. That’s an exercise that encourages ownership and internalizing learning.

3. A term paper is rarely a force for good in the world.

A Wikipedia assignment is a public service. It taps into a student’s idealism by offering an avenue for information advocacy. We’ve seen tremendous student motivation emerge from editing articles on topics that they’re passionate about, especially when these student Wikipedians are made aware of the gaps in Wikipedia’s coverage. This is particularly true of topics such as the environment, and biographies from underrepresented communities. Writing a paper informs a student. Writing for Wikipedia informs the world.

But with this power comes responsibility. A student Wikipedian has to think carefully about presenting clear, factual information without championing a particular point of view. This is an opportunity to explore information advocacy, and the value of presenting complete information that allows readers to draw their own conclusions. They’ll also see that factor at work when they read Wikipedia, which is a crucial media literacy skill. In other words, students will engage with the internet — the medium where they’ll be spending most of their lives.

4. Wikipedia has real and fascinating flaws.

Yes, that’s a strength. Students have the opportunity to study gaps in knowledge and see first hand how knowledge is created and disseminated. They’ll learn to understand the decisions that go into every Wikipedia article, and what those decisions are based on. They’ll learn why Wikipedia isn’t reliable, but they’ll also learn how to tell when it is. This is an exercise in comparative reading — flexing the knowledge muscle that empowers a critique.

With traditional academic sources, it can take years of practice to compare one researcher to another. With a Wikipedia article, written not by academics but by volunteers, students have an opportunity to practice comparative reading and analysis of articles to see what’s missing. It’s a rare opportunity to develop that academic skill as undergraduates. And it’s an opportunity to improve Wikipedia — which, regardless of its flaws, continues to be the most-accessed online educational resource in the world.

5. The technology is just about the same.

A lot of people think Wikipedia writing involves a lot of code or technical skills. But the site has changed, and there’s now a simple tool called VisualEditor that makes contributing content as easy as a Facebook post. That means students can focus less on technical skills development and more on the skills required to write a quality Wikipedia article: evaluating reliable sources and citing good ones, and writing in a clear, neutral way. We have online training tools that can get students going in about an hour.

There’s no reason why Wikipedia has to become the focus of your course. You can continue to teach your subject the way you want to teach it. Our tools take care of the Wikipedia side, and we have staff on hand to tackle problems and questions about writing on the site. You’ll have access to metrics to track student work. We simply ask instructors to take a brief online orientation to talk more confidently about Wikipedia with their students, but the end level of your engagement is up to you.

Interested? Check out our resources, or get in touch. Interested in teaching with our Year of Science initiative? Check out our special Year of Science page. And if you still need to be convinced, check out what our instructors have to say.

To connect for more information, e-mail

Image derived from 5NumberFiveInCircle by Andre666 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia


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