By Patricia J. Brooks & Elizabeth S. Che
For several years, we have taught students in our undergraduate- and graduate-level courses how to review, edit, and write Wikipedia articles. Perhaps you are asking why we are using Wikipedia (and telling our students to use it) when it is not a reliable source. The short answer is that its content is actually extensively vetted—articles are reviewed and edited by thousands of dedicated Wikipedians (and bots) who flag content that is plagiarized, lacks sufficient reliable sources, expresses opinion, or is otherwise of poor quality (Barnett, 2018). This process of peer-review and successive editing has led to a product that is as accurate or better than a professionally written encyclopedia (Giles, 2005).
Teaching with Wikipedia introduces students to a community of practice where information sourcing, accessible language, and neutral point of view are of paramount importance. By editing Wikipedia and reviewing existing articles, students learn how its content is produced and negotiated. They learn to check sources when judging the quality of an article and whether to trust its content. Learning to vet information by checking sources is an invaluable skill for today’s Internet era where fake news and biased content are in abundance.
In a previous Visible Pedagogy post, we (Jessica E. Brodsky and Patricia J. Brooks) described how expert fact-checkers evaluate the credibility of online information. One recommended strategy involves the use of Wikipedia as a tool to investigate news sources, i.e., the authors and organizations generating media content and their potential biases (Caulfield, 2017). As an illustration, in a recent assignment for a general education Civics course taught at the College of Staten Island, we asked students to use Wikipedia to research news sources as they considered controversies surrounding the Paycheck Protection Program that was implemented to support small businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
Convincing students to use Wikipedia for research requires overcoming initial resistance. If there is one thing students learned in high school about Wikipedia, it is that they are not supposed to use it! Students enter our classes with common misconceptions about Wikipedia: They assume that Wikipedia coverage is biased, that its articles are riddled with errors and its content volatile and often vandalized (Denning et al., 2005). Students may use Wikipedia to obtain quick and conveniently accessible information for school assignments, but they don’t expect to find the best information there and they are aware that their teachers disapprove of its usage (Blikstad-Balas; 2016; Rieh & Hilligoss, 2008). Students’ perceptions of Wikipedia change markedly when they learn first-hand how much work goes into writing a Wikipedia article (Soler-Adillon, Pavlovic, & Freixa, 2018). This phenomenon is similar to the IKEA effect where individuals tend to value items they have made more than identical items that others have made (Norton, Mochon, & Ariely, 2012).
Some of our students’ negative views about Wikipedia may stem from the fact that anyone with an Internet connection can edit Wikipedia. But in reality, the majority of editors are white males (Mandiberg, 2020) and much more needs to be done to encourage underrepresented groups (including women) to contribute their expertise to Wikipedia. Indeed, almost none of our students have ever tried to edit Wikipedia before taking our classes. When we ask them why they haven’t edited Wikipedia, they report being nervous about making mistakes and mention their inexperience and lack of expertise as barriers (Brooks, Che, Walters, & Shane-Simpson, 2017). Yet with sufficient support and scaffolding, we have found that even first-year students can learn to edit Wikipedia effectively and have their contributions not get reverted.
In one of our first forays in student editing, we had students in an introductory-level Human Development course work on existing Wikipedia articles that had been flagged as needing better sources. Over a span of 50 days, students worked to improve 24 course-relevant articles on topics ranging from Compulsive Hoarding to Zone of Proximal Development (Shane-Simpson, Che, & Brooks, 2016). Based on pre-/post-assessments, we found that students gained skills in distinguishing different types of source materials (e.g., empirical research articles vs. secondary sources) while learning about features of Wikipedia that they had not previously noticed, such as the sandbox, where editors draft new articles; talk pages, where editors discuss how to improve articles; and its page history tab, where readers can see the process of article revision over time.
But there is a negative side to having students edit existing articles: Overzealous Wikipedians often follow articles they have edited extensively and may revert any changes that “inexperienced” students make to them. Hence we shifted our approach. Rather than have students add information to existing articles, we enlisted students in writing new articles that addressed critical gender gaps in Wikipedia coverage. With assistance from Michael Mandiberg and the Wiki Education Foundation, we created a WikiProject PSYCH+Feminism to increase the visibility of women’s contributions to Psychological Science. Since launching the project in 2016, students in our undergraduate- and graduate-level courses have contributed more than 100 new biographies to Wikipedia!
In Introductory Psychology classes taken mostly by first-year students, we introduce Wikipedia editing in week 6 of a 15-week semester. Students are shown how to create a Wikipedia account and link it to the Wiki Education Dashboard, a course management system that helps instructors track student edits, provides online training modules for students and instructors, keeps a running tab on views of student articles, and connects the class with Wiki Education support staff. We provide students with a biography template and copy it into their sandboxes to standardize the content sections of their articles (e.g., academic infobox, awards received, research, representative publications); see Brooks et al. (2017) for details.
Instructor support plays a key role in making Wikipedia editing assignments work. Students often struggle in finding information about their biographical subjects and in paraphrasing material from scientific journal articles. We provide in-class demonstrations on how to access primary and secondary sources through databases (e.g., Google Scholar and PsycINFO through the college’s library), and how to use Google to search for other relevant information (e.g., CVs, faculty websites, interviews, newspaper articles, obituaries). We stress the importance of linking each main idea with one or more reputable sources and demonstrate how to use Wikipedia’s tools to create footnote references and hyperlinks to other Wikipedia articles and external websites.
Our Introductory Psychology students have told us that Wikipedia editing helped to develop their information sourcing skills. After completing the assignment, they report increased reliance on Google Scholar and college library resources and decreased reliance on Google for academic work. Students say that it helped improve their research skills, distinguish reliable sources, identify key information from papers, insert proper citations, and avoid plagiarism (Che & Brooks, 2019). Below, we provide a few excerpts from students’ reflections on their Wikipedia-editing experiences.
“Being able to edit Wikipedia as an assignment allowed me to gain insight into how Wikipedia works and cleared misconceptions of Wikipedia not being a reliable source for research. Wikipedia is a source that is constantly peer-edited by experts in the field with proper citations. I was able to use Wikipedia as a starting point to gain knowledge of different topics. The assignment provided an opportunity to understand scientific articles and cite them properly and expand my research by using fact-checking skills.”
– Arshia Lodhi
“I was always told by teachers to never use Wikipedia because it’s unreliable and anyone can write whatever they want. Now knowing they can’t do that, I will definitely use Wikipedia more.”
– Undergraduate student
“I was able to contribute to an encyclopedia that everyone can use. I have accomplished putting my own work into the real world and giving the opportunity to others to learn about something new.”
– Undergraduate student
“The Wikipedia editing assignment was a great way for me to work on writing skills while also learning something meaningful about the field. I found it really valuable to be able to create something on Wikipedia that will now be on the web and benefit public knowledge.”
– Nicole Zapparrata
“I really loved the Wikipedia editing assignment. By researching and writing about a scientist (Dr. Carol McDonald Conner), I developed a deeper perspective on the development and testing of scientific theories than I ever could have by simply reading research. I had to think about Dr. Conner’s career trajectory in relation to the notable contributions she’s made to Educational Psychology. Instead of just thinking of her theories as pre-existing ideas that she’d written about, I saw how they unfolded over decades of work. Thinking about tags and hyperlinks as I edited her page, I saw how her career stemmed from and then fostered the careers of other research scientists, and I felt that I was finally able to understand something that I’ve always struggled with, which is how to develop research that builds on the research that came before it. And knowing that my work was contributing to a free, open source of knowledge, and that I was helping to represent an underrepresented field, gave my work a purpose that I have found rare in my life as a student. I’m eager to use this as a teaching tool with my own students moving forward.”
– Sophie Griffith
Barnett, D. (2018). Can we trust Wikipedia? 1.4 billion people can’t be wrong. Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/wikipedia-explained-what-is-it-trustworthy-how-work-wikimedia-2030-a8213446.html
Blikstad-Balas, M. (2016). “You get what you need”: A study of students’ attitudes towards using Wikipedia when doing school assignments. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 60(6), 594-608. https://doi.org/10.1080/00313831.2015.1066428
Brooks, P. J., Che, E. S., Walters, S., & Shane-Simpson, C. Launching PSYCH+Feminism to engage undergraduates in Wikipedia editing. In R. Obeid, A. M. Schwartz, C. Shane-Simpson, & P. J. Brooks (Eds.) How We Teach Now: The GSTA Guide to Student-Centered Teaching (pp. 296-309). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/howweteachnow
Caulfield, M. (2017). Web literacy for student fact-checkers… and other people who care about facts. Retrieved from https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com/
Che, E. S., & Brooks, P. J. (2019). Teaching information sourcing while addressing Wikipedia’s gender gap. Paper presented at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Retrieved from https://www.aera.net/Publications/Online-Paper-Repository/AERA-Online-Paper-Repository
Denning, P., Horning, J., Parnas, D., & Weinstein, L. (2005). Wikipedia risks. Communications of the ACM, 48(12), 152–152. https://doi.org/10.1145/1101779.1101804
Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 438(7070), 900–901. https://doi.org/10.1038/438900a
Mandiberg, M. (2020). Mapping Wikipedia: An unprecedented data set shows where the encyclopedia’s editors are, where they aren’t, and why. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/02/where-wikipedias-editors-are-where-they-arent-and-why/605023/
Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(1), 453–460. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2011.08.002
Rieh, S. Y., & Hilligoss, B. (2008). College students’ credibility judgments in the information-seeking process. In M. J. Metzger and A. J. Flanagin (Eds.). Digital media and learning (pp. 49-72). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262562324.049
Shane-Simpson, C., Che, E., & Brooks, P. J. (2016). Giving psychology away: Implementation of Wikipedia editing in an introductory Human Development course. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 15(3), 268–293. https://doi.org/10.1177/1475725716653081
Soler-Adillon, J., Pavlovic, D., & Freixa, P. (2018). Wikipedia in higher education: Changes in perceived value through content contribution. Comunicar, 26(54), 39–48. https://doi.org/10.3916/C54-2018-04
Patricia J. Brooks is Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center.
Elizabeth S. Che is a doctoral student in Educational Psychology at The Graduate Center.