Jane Lee, a student in Dr. Joan Strassmann’s Behavioral Ecology course at Washington University in St. Louis, vastly improved a Wikipedia article about the Small heath butterfly species last fall. She added 4,723 words and went into depth about the butterfly’s taxonomy, life cycle, habitat, and behavior. And her work has been viewed more than 1,000 times by curious Wikipedia readers since then.
If one were to look at the article’s edit history, they’d see that Jane came back to edit in February, well after her course had ended. That’s because the article had been nominated for Wikipedia’s Good Article status and required her participation in a rigorous review process.
“After the initial Good Article nomination, I frequently checked back to see if a member of the Wikipedia community began to review the article,” Jane told Wiki Education in an interview.
“During this review process, I worked with a reviewer and carefully addressed their thorough feedback. And my articles were officially promoted to Good Article standing once the reviewer was satisfied the improvements we made.”
So what was this assignment that compelled Jane to re-engage with her work months after it was due?
Dr. Strassmann guided her students in learning how to edit Wikipedia using Wiki Education’s online tools, print resources, and staff support. (She walks us through the positive experience here). Her students consistently produce admirable work that is so recognized by the Wikipedia community. This Fall 2017 term’s class alone received seven more Good Article designations, in addition to the Small heath article. Thanks to these biology students, Wikipedia articles about the Codling moth, Gynaephora groenlandica, Parnassius smintheus, Polygonia c-album, Choristoneura fumiferana, Cabbage looper, and Eldana are all deemed Good Article quality.
Jane says that writing about the small heath was no simple task. The topic required some real digging and perseverance.
“One challenge I encountered was finding a sufficient amount of information about my butterfly to compile. My butterfly, the small heath, was often associated with different species or covered tangentially, which made it difficult to find direct, concrete information at times. Because of this, I skimmed as many scientific articles as possible and compiled any relevant but reliable information I could find.”
This deep dive into research was challenging, but ultimately Jane says she came out with a clear sense of the new skills she had developed through the process. “In the end, I felt that I improved at applying knowledge from my other classes and at better understanding scientific articles while reading at a brisk pace.”
With Dr. Strassmann’s guidance and the structure the assignment provided, Jane felt prepared to engage with the Wikipedia community about her research. “It was intimidating to learn about the Wikipedia community dynamic and to work with the many experts involved in the process. However, my professor provided us with a comprehensive, structured timeline for us to follow, which helped us pace ourselves.”
Learning to apply course concepts in a public arena like Wikipedia takes a different set of skills than a traditional term paper assignment. Students develop confidence to speak authoritatively about a topic they’re learning about. And they often feel a deeper sense of motivation in their work and a sense of pride that it can be accessed by millions.
The assignment changed Jane’s perspective about Wikipedia. “At first, I was confused that we would be working on Wikipedia articles in a college course, especially after having many teachers and professors emphasize its unreliability, but I was intrigued by how unique this assignment was compared to standard exams and papers.”
Jane’s sentiment echoes something we hear a lot from students. They’ve been told that Wikipedia is unreliable and not to use it, but not how to evaluate it for accuracy on their own. As Dr. Zach McDowell said comically about the value of a Wikipedia assignment, “The problem with telling students that they’re not supposed to use Wikipedia, but at the same time knowing they are, is abstinence-only Wikipedia education.”
A Wikipedia assignment offers an opportunity for students to learn the ins and outs of a resource they use all the time. They gain valuable media literacy skills to take with them in academia and beyond.
“This assignment was very non-traditional, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the work,” Jane says. “It definitely required a lot of research, writing, revising, and time, but I appreciated applying the concepts from class to developing this article about my butterfly. I actually found it very gratifying to watch my article grow and contribute to such an enormous, volunteer-run database.”
“I was proud of the final version of the article I submitted at the end of the course, but I knew that there was still room for improvement. After working with another Wikipedia editor through the review process, I am very happy with the final version of the article because of my reviewer’s thoughtful and comprehensive critiques.”
This peer review process is an essential aspect of Wikipedia’s crowd-sourced model. The collaboration creates a sense of responsibility and accountability for students, motivating them to produce quality work and respond to feedback.
“In the beginning, the sheer number of underdeveloped Lepidoptera articles seemed daunting,” Jane tells us. “But by the end of the class, it was encouraging to see the cumulative effort of my classmates.”
To learn more about Wiki Education’s free resources and support for this assignment, visit teach.wikiedu.org or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Dr. Strassmann reflections on the success of this Fall 2017 course here.