One of our favorite stories comes from Dr. Alex Webb, a geologist who was teaching with Wikipedia at Louisiana State University. In his first class, one of his students wrote an article about tectonic subsidence, an important issue related to sea level change and land loss in Louisiana.
“It really communicated the core things you needed to know to consider some problems of tectonic subsidence,” Alex recalled about the article. “Anyway, he went off to work as a geologist. A year and a half later, he and his boss were trying to solve a problem, and ended up on the tectonic subsidence page on Wikipedia. That student was able to tell his boss, ‘Hey, I made that page.'”
We love stories like this, because they’re a concrete illustration of the impact that Wikipedia assignments have on a student’s career. Writing Wikipedia articles in the sciences is clearly a stepping stone to better science communication. Students take complex scientific concepts, break them into articles, and focus on articulating those concepts clearly for the general public. The boon for future scientists is great: They’re not just learning about STEM and science fields, they’re also cultivating the skills required to communicate that knowledge.
But Wikipedia assignments can go even further in preparing students for a future in the workforce. Wikipedia assignments tackle some of the most in-demand skills called for by employers. Last year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers released a report about the attributes employers are looking for.
Those skills broke down like this: Leadership (80%), Ability to work in a team (78.9%), Written communication skills (70.2%) and Problem-solving skills (70.2%). We think writing for Wikipedia can help train and refine these skills in students. Here’s how.
Students are used to the passive acceptance of knowledge. But there’s an enormous value in encouraging students to look at the knowledge presented to them, and apply their own knowledge to independently identify their weaknesses. That’s the real meaning of thought leadership. It’s the confidence that comes from identifying and communicating how things could be better.
That’s the difference between an employee who does what they’re told, and a leader who can bring new concepts to the forefront. But students are also required to be persuasive in their arguments: in other words, building a case for the change they like to see, and persuading others based on that evidence.
Group coordination in a Wikipedia assignment is a novel cooperative project not just between students, but between students and an existing community with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.
Sometimes, that requires working with other editors to make a case and build consensus for the change. After all, Wikipedia is a team project: articles are written by a variety of editors they may have to coordinate with. At the very least, they’ll rely on, and offer, peer review to other students working on articles. Students learn to adapt their work in response to feedback or criticism, a key skill they’ll need to develop regardless of the career path they choose.
Writing was named the skill “most lacking” in recent college graduates by 44% of managers in 2016, according to a survey by Payscale and Money Magazine. Wikipedia writing is one way to bridge that gap.
When something is missing on Wikipedia, it isn’t as simple as just correcting the error. A student will weigh the evidence they have against the evidence presented, and work to communicate it factually, accurately, and without bias. They’ll have to carefully articulate their knowledge to do all this while it’s also understood by a lay audience of readers.
It’s the audience that makes Wikipedia assignments unique. A student knows that their article may be the first access point for people curious about their topic. That’s a responsibility that encourages students to think more deeply about what they say, and how they say it.
Employers consider problem-solving a major need in the workforce. However, 60% of employers in that Payscale/Money Magazine survey said it was lacking in new college graduates. That’s an incredible opportunity.
Writing a Wikipedia article for a class is a critical thinking exercise. Articles are often lacking information, or presented with bias. But identifying and articulating what the problems are, and then taking steps to correct those flaws, is a problem solving task that applies a student’s real knowledge and creativity. They have to identify the information that’s lacking, think about where to find it, and then determine how to best share that knowledge. This is critical thinking applied to a real writing and research task.
We’d love to help your students develop the meaningful, real-world communications experiences that they can carry into their future careers. We provide online and print materials to prepare your students to dive into Wikipedia and make practical contributions that connect their knowledge to the rest of the world. It’s an assignment that motivates students while making a difference for the type of information others can use. Start a conversation with us: firstname.lastname@example.org.