Compiling a bibliography is “fun,” and other things student Wikipedians say

Here’s some student feedback you don’t see every day:

“The most fun part about this project is how it forced me to study more and read more science articles.”

That’s real student feedback given to Dr. Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, whose Plant Physiology and Development course at the University of Washington-Seattle asked students to contribute knowledge to Wikipedia articles. This student explained that engaging with Wikipedia encouraged them to study up. That way, they could trust themselves to make a meaningful contribution.

One student editor described the effort that went into their 3-sentence contribution. Initially, they said, they weren’t confident enough to think they could add something meaningful. But as they read the article and compared it to their source texts, they made the leap.

“I kept worrying that this person would be upset,” the student wrote about the previous editor of the article, “because he or she might have a higher level of education than I do, or more experience in biology. But the (article) was … missing many key molecules and completely lacked citations. It was fun for me to find a reliable source to back up my sentence.”

We saw this word, “fun,” over and over again, tied to some unlikely neighbors, such as “research” and “citation.” Quite a few students wished that the assignment could be longer.

We hear this kind of response, anecdotally, quite often. As Dr. Zach McDowell told us, “Can you imagine a student getting excited about writing an annotated bibliography? Only with Wikipedia.”

Once students get beneath the surface of Wikipedia, they think about what to contribute to articles. It becomes a novel exercise in assessing what they know, and what they don’t. They know they want to get it right, so they check, double check, confront their doubts, and then share it. Perhaps there’s incentive to being “fact checked” on Wikipedia rather than a quiz.

That was part of the motivation behind the assignment in the first place, said Dr. Van Volkenburgh.

“I thought it would push students to hold themselves accountable for some piece of what they were learning,” she said.

And once students push themselves to make that leap, they tend to rely on a certain word.

  • “The assignment was pretty fun to do.”
  • “I found it fun to contribute something!”
  • “Being able to add knowledge that I learned from the class was very fun and empowering!”

“Every single student expressed appreciation for the chance to interact with Wikipedia,” said Dr. Van Volkenburgh. “It was a great assignment, and until students get bored by adding to Wiki (unlikely, this was the first time any of my students had had the chance), I will continue with the assignment.”

The course called on students to contribute 1-3 cited sentences to a Wikipedia article. Many students asked to do more, or make longer contributions to the pages.

The average student contribution to a Wikipedia writing assignment is about 800 words. We generally encourage tying each sentence to a citation (though not always from unique sources). Once they get started, they often find themselves wanting to write more.

We think it’s because students so rarely get to practice knowing. Playing with the notion of themselves as an authority on a topic is an empowering experience. They take their writing seriously because, finally, someone else will.

With most undergraduate knowledge assessed through graded papers and quizzes, students externalize their knowledge. What they know is something out there that they confirm. Wikipedia helps them use that knowledge to make meaningful assessments. Wikipedia is testing their knowledge, and they learn to trust it as a result. They are learning what knowing feels like.

“My impression is that the students had autonomy,” said Dr. Van Volkenburgh. “They got to choose their own article topic, and they got to say what they wanted. They felt responsible for their work, rather than doing it for me. They are really ready to get out into the world, and are so tired of “class” assignments.”

Exercising that kind of authority is, as we’ve already heard: “fun.”

Photo: Stack of books in Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, by Toby HudsonOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0.



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