Wikipedia as an Educational Exercise

You may have discovered your students using Wikipedia as a reference in papers or class discussion. It is often the first place our students (and many of us) go when confronted by a new topic. The site has a bad reputation among many educators as a source of information, often written by non-specialists. How can it possibly meet the same standards as traditional encyclopedia, dictionaries, books, and peer reviewed articles?

The short answer is: it can’t because it is not the same kind of source as peer reviewed materials. Entries in Wikipedia.org are constantly reviewed, edited, updated, and discussed by sometimes hundreds of people (in the case of controversial topics like abortion) or just a few (in the case of more specialized topics). Some of those involved are professionals, some are not. Some changes are accurate, some are not.

This article explores Wikipedia's policies and practices and then suggests an exercise that will teach your students to evaluate the site while helping them to contribute and improve it.

Entries and Discussion Pages

The majority of entries (topic pages such as "atom," "George Washington," or "literary technique"), have two sections—the public entry and the discussion page. The public entry is the first page you reach after searching a topic. It contains the description, discussion, and explanations about the topic and often includes diagrams or pictures. All versions of the public entry are archived, so when changes are made, the old version is still available.

The discussion page is the place where contributors discuss issues in the article; such issues can include questions of reliability, fairness in representation of perspective, connections between articles, and merging articles that seem to be discussing similar topics. Various perspectives are discussed until an agreement is reached. Because all changes are archived, if a change is made that is not compliant with Wikipedia.org’s policies the original can be retrieved. If an account or IP address makes a number of non-compliant changes, they are banned from the site.

Although the site can be useful, not all pages (over five million content pages in English) fulfill the requirements set forth by the website. Since pages must be edited by users and editors, only the most obviously wrong entries and changes to the most trafficked entries are changed quickly. So how do we teach our students to evaluate this information source? First, by making them aware of how the entries are written and the standards to which they are held.

Policies of Wikipedia

The website presents a number of policies to those people who create an account to enable them to edit or create entries. Among the many policies are the three "core content policies:" neutral point of view, verifiability, and no original research.

1) Neutral Point of View

  • Avoid stating opinions as facts.
  • Avoid stating seriously contested assertions as facts.
  • Avoid stating facts as opinions.
  • Prefer nonjudgmental language.
  • Indicate the relative prominence of opposing views.
  • (Wikipedia:Neutral point of view, accessed May 9, 2017.)

Wikipedia aims to provide entries in an academic style—evidence, not discussion or conjecture, is the goal. This style of writing provides an important learning opportunity for our students (in the exercise at the end of this article) because it will push them to back up all comments with evidence, not impassioned personal narratives.

2) Verifiability

"In Wikipedia, verifiability means that other people using the encyclopedia can check that the information comes from a reliable source. Wikipedia does not publish original research. Its content is determined by published information rather than the beliefs or experiences of its editors. (Wikipedia:Verifiability, accessed May 9, 2017.)

This policy can pose an important challenge to students—how, exactly, do you rely on sources? This is an important question not only for online information resources, but also news reports (print, online, and cable), books, and peer-reviewed articles. Teaching our students that these are not all equivalent is an important part of this exercise.

3) No Original Research

Wikipedia articles must not contain original research. The phrase "original research" (OR) is used on Wikipedia to refer to material—such as facts, allegations, and ideas—for which no reliable, published sources exist. This includes any analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to reach or imply a conclusion not stated by the sources." (Wikipedia:No original research, accessed May 9, 2017.)

Along with the neutral point of view policy, this policy can be used to remind our students that an analytical academic style of writing requires evidence—citations—not personal theories.

These three core policies are interconnected in the site’s goal to present publicly available, peer-reviewed (if possible), research and knowledge. When entries do not meet these policies, contributors and editors are asked to make changes as quickly as possible.

Using Wikipedia

We can teach our students to evaluate this, and other web sources, by directly engaging with the site and its materials in the context of our classes. The goals of the following exercise are twofold. First, teaching students that critical evaluation of the site (and really, much of the material available online) is crucial. Second, the exercise turns the site into a collaborative exercise in knowledge production. It also has the added benefit of producing an accurate entry that others can rely on.

So what do we do? First, start with a little research. Search the website for topics in your course that you would like students to learn by the end of the semester. Choose key terms (i.e., literacy or modernism), people (i.e., Noam Chomsky), dates/time periods (i.e., 12th century, or 1978), or places (i.e., Guiyang, or Hyderabad). Remember, the site works like an encyclopedia so phrases or technical jargon may not appear.

Next, assess the entry. A well written, well cited entry may be less instructive to the students than a very inaccurate entry. However, a topic with subtle inaccuracies or an extensive discussion page will also provide an important learning opportunity for your students.

In general, you are looking for entries and/or topics that will allow your students to see a range of quality of both entries and discussion. Entries on the site range from complete, well written, verifiable articles down to "stubs" (minimal and/or incomplete entries). By using the full range in your class, students will discover that the site is not really a coherent whole. Each entry stands alone and must be evaluated as such.

Once you’ve identified a few entries, you may want to create a handout with some of Wikipedia’s policies from above. Since the final goal of the assignment is to create a "publishable" entry, students’ submissions to you should meet these criteria. This also has the additional benefit of educating your students to the goals of the site which will help them evaluate this and other online sources—all sites are not equivalent!

Next, divide your students into groups and assign one entry per group. Their task is to assess the entry, evaluate the writing (for POV, validity, and verifiability) and then write a new (or revised) entry. In order to complete the assignment, students will need to use library materials in the form of books or journals. They will read any sources already cited in the entry, assess their inclusion, and add new sources (cited correctly) as necessary.

While you are probably their best resource to contextualize their entry (maybe in course materials or lectures), they will be responsible for filling in the gaps, making connections between course materials, and learning that all online sources must, for university purposes, be evaluated against published and/or peer reviewed material.

At the end of the semester, evaluate the entry:

  • Is the information conveyed in a "neutral point of view?"
  • Is the entry verifiable—did they provide citations for all evidence presented?
  • Were students able to general accurate evidence for all claims?
  • Did they cover any nuance or disagreement in the topic and were they fair to sides?

It may also be a good idea to end the project by having student groups present on what they found in terms of accuracy, how they improved the site, and what they now think about the site. This way, the students are able to see the full range of entries and can then discuss how what they learned in this exercise might change their use of the site in the future.

©2017, School of Graduate Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey