Part 2: If you can’t beat them, have them edit.


In the last issue of Synergia I described setting up a new assignment: having student groups edit Wikipedia entries. Now that those are articles are graded, and the teaching evaluations are in, I’ll discuss their assessment and student reaction to this assignment. The overall assignment was worth 15% of their final grade; 8% was based on the quality of the article, 4% was based on the improvements each team made to the article in response to peer review, and 3% was based on each individual’s contributions and group dynamics. Please to get an overview of the assignment’s structure and timeline.

This assignment replaced two longer individual papers, so in theory it should have been less grading. Because of the public nature of their work, I was heavily invested in making sure each group did a quality job. At the outset, I explained that I wanted to see every group do A-quality writing, and that I would give extensive and explicit feedback to each group until they met that threshold. Most groups took me up on that offer and worked to improve their “”mid-C” or “low B” drafts. I gave extensive feedback on outlines and drafts, all of which were done using Google docs before students were graded or went live on Wikipedia. Although the overall length of the assignment was fairly short (around 500 words), the primary complaint was that it was far too much work. When giving feedback on drafts, I made extensive use of the strikeout tool. Filler phrases like “in multiple studies, previous research has shown that….” and “there are similarities and differences…” got the axe. Making 500 useful, empirically documented words turns out to be a lot more work than the typical writing assignment requires.

After each team went live on Wikipedia with their articles, I gave feedback on the Wikipedia talk page, as did other members in the class (these comments are available for anyone to see, edit, add to, or remove on the article’s ‘talk’ page). I also required that each research team solicit advice about their pages from experts in the field. In about half the cases, experts (or their post-docs) gave timely and helpful advice about the direction of the article. Several students identified this communication as a highlight of their experience and felt more empowered to contact potential graduate advisors after this experience. The students also appreciated “being accountable” for the quality of their work; students commented that “It felt really cool to have my work out there for everyone to see!” and “my family was in awe”.

Overall reaction to the project was mixed. In an anonymous evaluation of the assignment, only about 60% of the class indicated that I do the assignment again in future classes. Likewise, a vocal minority of students aired their concerns on my IDEA evaluations, which were noticeably lower for this section. The primary negative complaints were that it was a lot of work and technically challenging. Although I linked to editing cheat sheets and tutorials on the ProfRox user page, I did not spend much time giving technical advice in class, nor did students invest much time in viewing the tutorials. In future iterations, I will probably spend more time working with a ‘geek squad’ of 4 -5 students in the class who can help other students troubleshoot the technical problems more quickly.

The final theme that emerged from the negative feedback was that the topics were obscure, irrelevant, or peripheral. (“I know a lot about a small subject that is not of importance to my learning or my future.”) When I introduced this assignment, I said the topics the students could choose from were those that had been identified as ‘stubs’ by professional organizations like the Society for Neuroscience or the Association for Psychological Science. I should have stressed the advantages of working on smaller, overlooked topics (like my doctoral thesis): there’s no need to sift through thousands of primary sources to get a good understanding about what’s known; you’re not stepping into the middle of a longstanding academic debate; and it’s likely that your work will become the definitive voice on the topic.

Six weeks after the assignment’s completion, half of the Wikipedia articles stand untouched since the students’ last edits. In the other half, only minor syntax edits have been made. In all cases, web-traffic to those pages is up. I’m guessing that for years to come, when students or other curious browsers want to know more about the body transfer illusion, beat deafness, or the visual cliff illusion, our students’ work is the first (and perhaps only) thing they’ll read on the topic.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is relevant. I began this article on January 18th, the day Wikipedia, the sixth most visited website in the world, went dark in protest of the proposed SOPA anti-piracy bills. This informational boycott and the accompanying online protests were enough to turn the congressional tide against the bill. Wikipedia’s weakness as a storehouse of information is that it reflects users’ interests, and thus far Justin Bieber fans and celebrity watchers have spent far more time than academics improving the site. As a result, I’d wager that the Kardashian entry is far more detailed than is the general subject of your dissertation.

Despite student protest, I remain convinced that this is a worthwhile assignment. Peruse this very brief list of Wikipedia stubs that caught my eye; developing any one of these topics into a six to ten paragraph entry would be a natural fit a for senior capstone course, in which it’s expected that students will do a lot of research about a narrow topic. In my class, only about 40% of the students said they would consider editing a Wiki article again outside of a class assignment. I imagine this might change as their future employers or research teams seek better ways to disseminate information.

Undeveloped Wikipedia Articles Stub Class
All MN Gubernatorial elections <1998 Political Science
Animistic fallacy Philosophy
Bargaining power Sociology
Beefy meaty peptide Biochemistry
Biological determinism Sociology
Bloody Friday (Minneapolis) History
Cartesian self Philosophy
Coccobacillus Microbiology
Colluthians Theology
Dakota sandstone Geology
Demand-led growth Economics
Democratization of knowledge Journalism
Divine apathy Theology
Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Finance
Minnesota Territory History
Mitochondrial shuttle Biology
Panic buying Business
Party class Sociology
Pretectum Neuroscience
School of Antioch Theology
Tree of Virtues Theology


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