When Hilary Wilson first took a look at the Wikipedia article she was to improve for her Earth science class, she realized the geological element didn’t even have a clear definition stated on the page. “That was my main inspiration for what needed to be changed and added.”
The assignment was part of Dr. Jim Mungall’s Spring 2019 course at Carleton University. Students were asked to identify a Wikipedia article that was both interesting to them and needed improvement. Then, they would use course materials and library resources to go about making it better.
Building media literacy skills
Part of Wiki Education’s template for a Wikipedia writing assignment includes an evaluation stage in which students judge the quality of their assigned or chosen Wikipedia article. The exercise asks students to answer some prompts about the article’s content, tone, and sources. Here are just a few of the prompts:
Is everything in the article relevant to the article topic?
Are there any claims that appear heavily biased toward a particular position?
Is each fact referenced with an appropriate, reliable reference?
These initial questions serve as a guide for how students will eventually be equipped to improve the content themselves.
When Hilary went through this process for the article about “pluton” that she chose, she picked out quite a few ways she could improve it. She noticed a lack of citations and that the most recent cited source was from 2004. She also noted that the article could be much more clearly organized.
“I added a clear definition of what a pluton is, a system to classify plutons and how they differ from dikes and sills,” she said. “I also added some information on two of the main theories of pluton formation. My article is not only longer but also has twice as many sources and the sources are all linked so people can at least read the abstracts.”
Besides updating content for all future readers of the pluton article, Hilary also learned how to read a Wikipedia article for accuracy. “While critiquing Wikipedia articles I learned that it is more important to have up-to-date, accessible, and quality information summarized accurately and succinctly than to have more information,” she shared. Those are valuable critical media literacy skills not only for evaluating information she finds on Wikipedia in the future, but also for information she finds anywhere else online.
Hilary also gained an appreciation for the complex, volunteer-driven ecosystem that is Wikipedia: “I learned to appreciate the articles I look at everyday for fact-checking. To think that random people created every single article out of the kindness of their heart brings me joy.”
Building academic confidence
The autonomy and responsibility inspired by a Wikipedia assignment lets students build confidence in their own knowledge and in their academic voice.
“I was initially nervous when I found out we were writing or changing a Wikipedia article,” Hilary said. “It seemed intimidating because even though I was in my fourth year, I still feel like I know nothing. When I started reading some of the existing geoscience articles I realized I can at least help synthesize information, and I know where to look for good references. It seemed like a very natural progression after writing so many small research papers on smaller topics.”
Knowledge is shared outside of the academic silo
When students write about course topics for a public audience, those concepts are solidified for the learner. But not only are the students learning, they’re sharing that knowledge with any hopeful learner looking to Wikipedia for more information.
“I hope that this assignment can be used to inspire earth science students to edit and create articles related to what they are studying while it is still fresh,” said Hilary. “This is important because it can help inform anybody that wants to learn more about an earth science topic.”
Is Wikipedia editing the new term paper?
A Wikipedia writing assignment typically replaces an end of term research paper, since it involves such a detailed research process. And some professors say they’ll never go back. But the assignments accomplish different things. As Hilary points out,
In a term paper, our goal as a student is to show we know as much as possible about a single subject. To me the goal of a Wikipedia page is to translate science jargon into plain English so anyone can understand.
While I do think more classes should be encouraging their students to help edit Wikipedia and add to it, I do think there is still a place for traditional term papers. But my preference still lies with writing Wikipedia articles as I have always preferred trying to teach others the things I have learned.
I also liked that it won’t be just the Teaching Assistants that will read it, and hopefully someone who is confused on a topic will have their queries clarified by something me or my fellow students have worked on.
Science is at its most efficient when all the disciplines come together with their personal perspectives to solve a problem. Who knows, one of these articles might inspire someone to enter the field of earth sciences or collaborate with someone else and make a scientific breakthrough.
Interested in teaching a Wikipedia writing assignment? Visit teach.wikiedu.org to access our free assignment templates, tools, and support.