Writing for the lay public: medical students improve Wikipedia

Dr. Benjamin Wolozin is a Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine. In Fall 2017, he taught with Wikipedia in his course, Systems Pharmacology. Here, he shares what it was like incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into his curriculum for the first time.

Dr. Benjamin Wolozin.
Image: File:Ben Wolozin Headshot.jpg, BrainMan2017CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I am a professor of Pharmacology at Boston University School of Medicine. I first became aware of the Wiki Education project when I attended the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I went to a presentation by Samantha Weald, and was impressed by the idea, so I filed it in the back of my mind.

I’d like to say that I planned this whole thing way in advance, but …..um…… er….. that’s not quite the way it went down. I teach a course titled “Systems Pharmacology”. It’s a graduate level course that is one of the core courses for our department. This year the class had 16 students.

Every year I tweak the course to try to improve the didactics and make the class as meaningful as possible to the students. As it stands, every class covers a different pharmacologic group, we have an hour of lecture, after which I divide the class into subgroups, and have each group come up with solutions to differing questions related to the class topic. The key elements of these questions are that they require the current information for answers and they are current questions for which no answer is yet known. Then the students present their answers.

Grading for the class is based on exam performance and a term paper. Class participation does not contribute to grading, but class participation is rarely a problem since everyone is a graduate student, and I select those who don’t participate for further questioning in front of the class.

I didn’t begin acting on the Wiki Education idea this year until AFTER the first lecture. My tardiness in getting started ended up being the major criticism from the students because they didn’t anticipate the new approach. I doubt other readers will make this mistake, but definitely recommend preparing BEFORE class starts, so that students know what to expect before they start the class. I think the issue was just expectations, rather than performance, but expectations and appearance are huge. Next year I will be ready at the start of the class!!

After the first class, I contacted Samantha Weald, and she introduced me to the entire set of free, online tools that Wiki Education provides to their program participants. She also introduced me to the educational team behind Wiki Education. I was struck by the high level of organization and help provided by the Wiki Education team. Once I decided to initiate the Wiki Education program, navigating the system required some learning but was remarkably easy. To give you a sense of the system, Wiki Education has a really accessible Dashboard. I entered information about the course and the list of students in the class into Wiki Education’s software, and the Dashboard was set up pronto with the help of one of the Wiki Education administrators!

First I had to learn to navigate the Dashboard, and I had to take the orientation that Wiki Education provides. This required a small amount of time but was very easy. The most important element of the Dashboard that made initiation ever so easy was the course timeline. It turns out that Wiki Education provides a general timeline for the course, which is personalized to the length of your class. This was incredibly helpful because it provided me and my students a schedule through which we could plan when different assignments were due.

Next, I announced the idea to the class. I didn’t “force” the Wikipedia assignment on them. Rather, I asked them if they would be willing to try this project. I stated that each student’s term paper would be an improved or newly created Wikipedia article. I explained that I thought learning to write for the public would be a useful skill. I also said that this project would elevate the significance of their term paper from a project focused only on their own grade, to a project that would impact broader society. The students enthusiastically embraced the idea, and voted unanimously in favor of doing the Wikipedia assignment. After the vote, I introduced them to the Wiki Education Dashboard, and the course timeline. Next I instructed them to create a Wikipedia account, and to take the tutorials.

Converting “enthusiasm” to “action” proved to be my first challenge. During the first week, only a small fraction of the students signed up or took the tutorials. I didn’t want this to turn into a last minute crisis, so I thought about how to incentivize the students to get this done. I told the students that I wanted everyone to be signed up and finished taking the tutorials by week 3. Any student who accomplished this would get 5 points for signing up and 5 points for finishing the tutorials. (Because I grade on a curve, once >50% of the students finished, students would actually be hurt by not completing this, which further incentivized them!) The “bribe” worked like a charm. By the next class, almost every student had signed up. There were a couple of students who hadn’t finished by class, so I gave them until midnight that day to finish or they wouldn’t get the points. By midnight, EVERYONE had signed up!

The next challenge came with getting the students to choose a topic. I told the students that I had to approve the topic, because I wanted to make sure that the articles the students chose to edit had enough need for editing that the students could make a big change and earn a good grade. Some of the students chose appropriate articles immediately. Others chose articles that were already quite robust and required my direction to choose a different article. Finally, about a third of the students had trouble finding an article to improve. At this point, the class worked together to provide advice for those having difficulty with the choice. One of the students identified a tool on Wiki Education that was described in a tutorial that identifies pages in need of work, based on the particular area of study. This tool (a table listing the pages, color coded to convey the need for improvement) proved to be incredibly helpful and allowed the remaining students to choose pages. Bravo for the stellar organization of Wiki Education!

Onward to the actual editing phase: First I conveyed to the students how I would grade their work on the articles. I presented the following criteria:

  1. Addition of a significant amount of new text.
  2. Addition of a significant number of references.
  3. Creation of new diagrams or pictures for the pages, if useful for the topic. (I emphasized this because a diagram is so helpful for the reader.)
  4. Clarity of the writing and the presentation.

There was a significant learning curve for the students and for me, as we learned how to navigate the Wiki Education Dashboard. On the students’ end, they needed some re-education and some nudging to get them to use the sandbox. On my end, I needed to learn to use the Dashboard to follow the students’ progress. For grading purposes, I made a PDF file of the original Wikipedia article that the student was editing so there was no question about what the page looked like originally. But then I discovered the Dashboard’s Authorship Highlighting tool, which essentially does that comparison for me. The tool is an icon the looks like a piece of paper, found in the Articles tab of the Dashboard. It pulls up the Wikipedia article a student has edited and highlights all words that they add.

As the students worked on the pages, they had difficulty with the restriction to using primarily review articles for the references. I understand why Wikipedia requires this, but for the graduate students (and for the Vice Chair of education in our department) restricting work to review articles was an anathema because all the other educational direction pushes for learning to critique and interpret primary review articles. Everyone eventually made peace with the difference in style that encyclopedic writing requires, and we moved on.

The next challenge came with ensuring that the students made progress throughout the course, rather than just working on the project at the last minute. The peer review section of the Wiki Education timeline proved to be incredibly helpful. I announced to the students the date of peer review, and assigned each student two Wikipedia articles to peer review. This phase proved to be very helpful to move the students along, I think because no one wanted to be embarrassed by not having a preliminary draft. At the time of peer review, I reiterated the criteria that I was using for grading, and told the students that they had to have preliminary drafts ready for peer review. The students took their reviewing responsibilities VERY seriously, resulting in the class buzzing with students intently talking to one another.

The end of the course came and the students finalized their edits to the articles they’d chosen. 13 out of 16 pages followed all of the directions and were excellent. About half of the pages were clearly a major improvement to the existing Wikipedia article, with the addition of references, figures, and text that was clearly written. Everyone felt really good about their pages – except for 2 students who for some reason insisted on using primary research references.

You would think this was the end of the story, but it wasn’t. The final challenge was getting the students to actually move their edits to Wikipedia’s Mainspace! The Wikipedia Content Expert that supported our course commented on the pages favorably and asked when they would be moved live. The students were surprisingly lackadaisical about moving work live, and I had to really pester them for weeks to do this, but ultimately their edits were moved live.

The feedback from students about the process was very positive. They said that they really enjoyed the experience. They commented that they enjoyed doing it for one class, but wanted the Wiki Education restricted to this class because the writing was more focused on the lay public rather than on scientific writing or peer review. The latter is a very important skill that is emphasized in graduate school.

So, I will be doing this again next year……… but this time will be well prepared ahead of time!

To learn more about our Classroom Program or to get involved, visit teach.wikiedu.org or reach out to contact@wikiedu.org.

Image: File:Boston University Medical Campus 01.JPG, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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