Four reasons why psychology students should improve Wikipedia

By on August 7, 2018

Four reasons why psychology students should improve Wikipedia

By on August 7, 2018

Four reasons why psychology students should improve Wikipedia

In 2016, Dr. Eric Youngstrom’s students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill learned how to improve Wikipedia articles as a class assignment. That term, a group of students improved the article about sleep disorders, adding a section about the use of melatonin as a possible treatment. As research shows, melatonin pills can help people fall asleep faster, help them sleep longer, and improves the quality of their sleep. Considering the sleep disorder article receives about 20,000 page views a month, this addition to the article will have a far reaching and impactful effect on public knowledge.

Dr. Youngstrom has conducted Wikipedia assignments in his courses since Fall 2014. Using Wiki Education’s assignment management tool and trainings, he has guided his students in adding thousands of words to Wikipedia for the benefit of all learners. Last term, one of his students improved the article about the screening test used to assess anxiety disorders in children. Before the student improved the article, it contained historical context and the impact that the screen has had, but did not outline the screening questions themselves. The student gathered shareable PDFs of the screening questions given to parents, children, and adults and linked them directly from the article. The student linked 15 translations of the screenings, as well. By making these documents accessible on Wikipedia, they have not only better represented this topic in psychological science, but have also equipped the public with tools to understand their children.

This is the power of teaching with Wikipedia in the classroom.

1. Students can leverage course concepts to serve public knowledge, and gain valuable skills in the process.

Wikipedia is strict about sourcing when it comes to articles related to physical and mental health. Despite the site’s disclaimer that people should not rely upon it for medical advice, Wikipedians recognize how much people trust the site’s information to make real choices in their life, including medical decisions. Wiki Education distributes resources — including an online training, and brochures for students editing in psychology and medical courses — to help guide students through Wikipedia’s sourcing requirements with these topics. And we’re continually updating these resources in response to instructor and student feedback.

Students are particularly well-positioned to be bringing academic information to Wikipedia. Academic information is fresh in their mind. And because these complex academic topics are new to them, students are able to “translate” them well for a general reader. A Wikipedia assignment also presents students with an opportunity for service learning, as students synthesize the latest research (which is often behind paywalls) and give it to the world for free. And they get a lot out of the experience. Students gain skills in research, writing for a public audience, digital literacy, and collaboration. And they tend to be more motivated than in a traditional research paper or assignment. They recognize that their work can be accessed by millions and feel a pressure to get it right.

2. Students can reach thousands with well-researched, up-to-date information.

As Classroom Program instructor Dr. Zachary McDowell said in a talk at the University of Illinois, Chicago about the value of a Wikipedia assignment,

“My students are being read more than anyone in my department, probably more than anyone in this room, and probably more than all of us put together in this room.”

Students can make an impact when they learn how to improve Wikipedia as an assignment. Take Dr. Jonathan Wilbiks’s course last term at Mount Allison University. Two students added more than 3,000 words to the Wikipedia article about personality. That article is viewed 34,000 times every month. And now all those readers can learn about the effect of the home environment on one’s personality, as well as the historical development of the concept of ‘personality’ — information that wasn’t included in the article before these students improved it. Check out the Dashboard’s Authorship Highlighting tool to see what exactly they contributed to the article.

3. Students can expand existing information about psychology on Wikipedia, extending the reach of scholarship in the discipline.

Take also a student in Dr. Greta Munger’s course at Davidson College this spring. They decided to improve Wikipedia’s article on boundary extension, which is when a person retells a memory and unknowingly includes physical or environmental details that weren’t actually present. The article was only a couple sentences long before the student began working. 4,000 well-researched words later, and the article provides an extensive overview of the topic, including how the concept is described in medical fields, possible causes, and how it differs amongst different age groups.

4. Through their work, students can contribute to the public’s understanding of social issues.

Dr. Andrew Coppens’ student at the University of New Hampshire contributed information about mitigating the effects of stereotype threat. Stereotype threat, one of the most widely studied topics in social psychology, occurs when a person feels they are at risk of conforming to a stereotype about their social group. If there’s a negative stereotype about a social group, it can actually hurt their confidence and performance, which is especially apparent in racial and gender gaps in academic performance. Dr. Coppens’ student added five additional ways to mitigate these negative effects in an academic environment, including increasing the representation of minority groups in fields like STEM, directly communicating that diversity is valued, teaching students tools for reflecting about the source of their stress, and more.


Interested in teaching with Wikipedia? Visit teach.wikiedu.org or reach out to contact.wikiedu.org for more information.

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