Overcoming barriers to engage psychology students in the PSYCH+Feminism Initiative

Patricia Brooks is a Professor at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York and Doctoral Faculty at The Graduate Center, CUNY where she serves as the Deputy Executive Officer of the PhD program in Psychology. Christina Shane-Simpson is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Elizabeth Che is a doctoral student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. In this blog, they describe their efforts to engage undergraduates taking an Introductory Psychology course at City University of New York—arguably the most diverse public university in the world—as editors of new Wikipedia biographies on women in psychology as part of the broader PSYCH+Feminism initiative.

Last year, as part of the Wiki Education Year of Science, we launched the WikiProject PSYCH+Feminism to bring attention to more than 400 prominent women who were recipients of the most prestigious awards in Psychological Science, yet lacked commensurate recognition on Wikipedia. PSYCH+Feminism dovetails with the efforts of the Wikipedia Gender Gap Task Force, which was designed to confront systematic bias in Wikipedia content while also encouraging women, in particular, to become involved as editors on Wikipedia.

Introductory Psychology is a popular social science course taken primarily for general education credit by students in their first year of college. The relatively high potential for students with diverse interests and majors to enroll in this course also provides a prime opportunity for instructors to engage students through novel and exciting teaching and learning activities, particularly those that help students to connect their in-class content knowledge with a larger population of psychology learners. We used Wikipedia editing as a novel approach to help our students connect with the psychology material and build skills that would serve them well in other, non-psychology majors (e.g., communication, collaboration skills).

Although Wikipedia editing has great potential to foster students’ research, writing, and information literacy skills, our students were initially daunted by the prospect of contributing original content on a public site. They expressed concerns about their skills, as illustrated by the following quotes:

“I do not want to put up false or wrong information. I’m a bit nervous since I want to make sure that the information that I put up is valid.”

“I am afraid of making grammatical errors while editing because English is my second language.”

“I feel a bit nervous because I have never done anything like that before. I also feel confused because I do not know what it is I am doing.”

They also voiced concerns about Wikipedia’s reputation by writing:

“When I think about editing of Wikipedia I think about false information. Therefore, I don’t want to edit something if others would think it false anyway.”

“I was always told to stay away from Wikipedia. Anytime that I would get a school assignment my teachers/professors would be super strict about the use of Wikipedia. I feel like it is not that reliable. I’m not that excited about using it only because I was taught that way since I first even heard of it.”

In the face of student anxiety and ambivalence, we sought to support students as they developed their self-efficacy in public editing.  By scaffolding the assignment, we found ways to make Wikipedia editing accessible to students with no prior knowledge of the subjects they were assigned to write about. We started by creating a short list of 36 women from the PSYCH+Feminism project whose research was cited in the required Introductory Psychology textbook, and who lacked biographies on Wikipedia. We developed a preliminary set of source materials for each of these “women in red” by locating faculty websites, representative publications accessed via Google Scholar, and references in the textbook.  We then created a template for new biographies, which we loaded into each student’s sandbox. The required use of the template ensured that student work would comply with Wikipedia guidelines for biography articles and it facilitated student editing by allowing them to insert content without having to tinker with complicated HTML syntax.

The students’ first assignment was to register their Wikipedia accounts on the Dashboard website and complete the basic training modules provided by Wiki Education.  We then asked them to select a topic from the short list, and use the source materials provided to fill in the template. We encouraged students to work together with a partner, but also allowed them to work on their own if they preferred.  After an initial round of editing, we provided extensive feedback using talk pages, email, and course announcements, and devoted class time to help students find reputable source materials through the library, use the citation tool to link source materials to Wikipedia content, and create hyperlinks to connect information across Wikipedia pages. Building on the first two assignments, students were instructed in the third assignment to continue editing in their sandboxes, expanding content and citing their sources. Following another round of feedback, students were shown how to upload their new biographies into the public domain.

Despite student concerns that they were unprepared to edit Wikipedia, 34 students (83% of the class) contributed content to 21 new biographies over an 8-week period. (Two additional students attempted to edit but did not upload their work.) The majority of the student editors found ways to connect the assignment with other aspects of the course and 40% indicated plans to continue editing Wikipedia in the future. They described new appreciation of Wikipedia by writing:

“I now believe Wikipedia is a credible source. There is a lot of work and research involved in creating an article.”

“I value it more since I had to contribute to an article being built.”

“I used to believe anybody could write anything they wanted. I now know everything gets verified.”

Given students’ lack of expertise, we were not surprised that several of the new articles were flagged as needing further attention from the Wikipedia community. We encouraged students to view their work as part of an effort-in-progress, and not be discouraged if their work was flagged. Students took this advice to heart, stating:

“It was fun and made me feel like I was smart enough to get my article launched, even if it was flagged.”

Another student wrote, “I check my article frequently to see what edits have been made. I am sure I will stumble on an article to which I can contribute in the future.”

Wikipedia editing provides a context for students to learn by teaching—sharing what they are researching and disseminating it in accessible language. The experience can be empowering for students, but it requires them to overcome initial barriers including prejudiced views about Wikipedia content. Students require a lot of help; they tend to procrastinate when anxious about assignments, which makes it imperative to guide them through the editing process, by devoting class time for research, providing feedback, and pushing them to make edits and ultimately upload their work.  For students to see their work published was exceptionally rewarding. In the words of the students:

“It was fun to become an editor and learn it is something I can do.”

“After fooling with it and learning about how it is monitored, I totally love it.”

We hope that our experience encourages you to consider Wikipedia editing as a tool that can help your students develop their research, writing, and information literacy skills.  For additional tips, check out our article in the APS Observer where we provide links to helpful Wiki Education resources and other suggestions for implementing Wikipedia editing in introductory-level courses.


2 thoughts on “Overcoming barriers to engage psychology students in the PSYCH+Feminism Initiative

  1. This is a fantastic project! I am glad that your students grew in their skills and appreciation for public contributions to collective knowledge, and that you addressed the egregious gender gap in quality Wiki pages for renowned psychologists!

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