Secrets of teaching with Wikipedia

Dr. Joan E. Strassmann is Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis. Wiki Education has supported her in a number of her Behavioral Ecology courses over the years. She reflects on her most recent course, from Fall 2017, in this post.

Dr. Joan E. Strassmann
Image: File:JoanStrassmann.jpg, Joan Strassmann, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I sat in front of my computer staring uncomfortably at HTML code in a set of assignments a colleague shared with me several years ago. How could I possibly become enough of a Wikipedia expert to teach with it? I didn’t sleep well that night.

I woke up knowing it would be a lot easier to simply have students write the kinds of term papers they had done for decades in my classes. Or I could have them modernize with blog posts. After all, those are publically available and could be said to mean something. I have a schedule that overwhelms me often. How could I possibly add Wikipedia to my teaching skill set?

At this point you might wonder why I even wanted to if I was the kind of person easily scared off by a little HTML. That is a question I can easily answer. I care a lot about teaching. I care about knowledge. I understand that teaching is not really the point. Learning is. Teaching simply facilitates learning. A great teacher might be almost invisible as she smoothly creates an atmosphere for learning. In an effective learning environment, people do things that matter. When people do things that matter, they naturally care. That is how I wanted my class to be. I wanted to follow some of famous educator John Dewey’s principles and make school like real life. What better way to do this than by having my students write for Wikipedia? How could I possibly let a little HTML anxiety stand in the way of writing for the world?

Well, the short answer, of course, is that I plunged forward. I realized that I teach things I just learned all the time. Why not here? But a little structure helped a lot. I set the students up in groups of three, where one person was the writing expert, one was the fact checker, and one was the Wikipedia expert. I had long ago learned that if you tell someone they must become an expert in something, they will. My students embraced their tasks.

I had another rule. Within the groups of three, they had to take any question about Wikipedia first to the student in the Wikipedia expert role. If that person could not solve the problem, then they had to take it to the teaching assistant. Only if neither of these people could solve the problem could they bring it to me. Few questions reached me in this way.

But now I no longer have to worry about these things, for the Wiki Education team has made me feel very supported in this assignment. My students have tutorials to take, so they generally all know how Wikipedia works. They can see their work come alive on our course page. This means they can concentrate on the point of the assignment: learning as they improve the world’s great encyclopedia. Last fall my students added 343,000 words to articles which have been viewed over 8 million times. This makes me proud.

I have a few more things to say about what made writing for Wikipedia work so well for us. I have highly structured assignments with multiple drafts, assignments for commenting on other student’s writing, and even writing to a certain outline. In all, there were 8 stages of the Wikipedia assignment for which students were graded:

  • Creating a Wikipedia account
  • Reviewing 5 existing articles for where content could be improved
  • Writing an initial piece, aligned with Wikipedia’s sourcing and editing guidelines
  • Reviewing 3 such pieces written by other students
  • Writing another piece
  • Reviewing
  • Linking their work to and from existing articles on Wikipedia
  • Final polishing

To get an A+ in the course, a student had to bring her article to what I considered Good Article status, so they often took it upon themselves to write many more words.

I put focus in the writing assignments. This past fall the students wrote only about butterflies or moths. We gave out lists of possible butterflies and moths that had literature on them but were not well represented in Wikipedia. I constructed an outline that all butterfly and moth articles should follow, given that consistency is a value on Wikipedia. To make this list, I first looked at what was there under the Lepidoptera Wikiproject page. It wasn’t much, so I fixed it, here. I did this by first working on it myself, then sending my outline to about 10 research experts in Lepidoptera. They added a bunch of categories, making the outline better.

You might think my students had it easy. They had access to a list of butterfly and moth articles that needed improvement, as well as an outline for what those articles should look like. But there was still a lot of work for them. They had to find appropriate sources on their subject. They had to understand these sources, connecting them as much as possible to material in our behavioral ecology course. And they had to write. It was a challenging assignment that, all in all, added up to 700 of 1850 course points.

I’m lucky in a lot of ways. Since insects are generally underrepresented on Wikipedia, it is fairly simple to identify the gaps student work can fill. By tying their writing to specific insects, students avoided messing with some of the bigger, contentious topics on Wikipedia. But they still had plenty of engagement with Wikipedia community members and that is excellent.

At one point in the assignment, I myself worried about one student’s writing being too good and ran a plagiarism checker. It found tons of places where she had plagiarized and I was depressed. Then I thought to check another student. And another. They had all plagiarized and I was beside myself with anxiety. Where had I gone wrong? How could this be?

And then I realized that none of them had plagiarized. There are so many sites that automatically grab what is freely available on Wikipedia and further publicize it. It was those sites I was hitting. My students were not plagiarizing. They were making a difference, and I went to bed happy.

The more students write for Wikipedia, the more they understand its strengths and weaknesses. They learn where knowledge comes from and how it is transmitted. They learn the power of evidence and gain suspicion when there is none.

With a Wikipedia assignment, students do something that matters. They are responsible to a larger community. They get feedback outside the class. They learn how to revise, how to comment on another’s work, and how to back up everything they say with references. The visibility of their work holds my students accountable to the world. It lets them see people care about their work. Prove yourself. Write for Wikipedia. What else do you do that matters as much to as many?

If you’re interested in teaching with Wikipedia, visit

Image: File:Niphanda fusca8.jpg, Oleg Kosterin, via Wikimedia Commons.


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