Using Wikipedia as an Educational Exercise

Wikipedia has a bad reputation among many educators. As a source of information often written by non-specialists how can it meet the same standards as traditional encyclopedias, books, and peer-reviewed articles?

The short answer is: it can’t. It’s not the same kind of source as peer reviewed materials. Entries in Wikipedia are constantly reviewed, edited, updated, and discussed by sometimes hundreds of people (in the case of controversial topics) 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.

So in the interest of not simply telling your students to avoidWikipedia and having them ignore you, this post suggests an exercise that will teach your students to evaluate the site while helping them to 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. Issues can include questions of reliability, fairness in representation of perspective, and connections between articles. Various perspectives are debated until an agreement is reached. Because all changes are archived, if a change is made that is not compliant with Wikipedia’s policies the original can be retrieved.

Since pages must be edited by users and editors, it can happen that only biased or inaccurate changes to the most trafficked entries, or the most blatantly wrong data, are corrected 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

Among Wikipedia’s many policies are the three core content policies:

  1. Neutral Point of View
  2. Verifiability
  3. No Original Research

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:

  1. Is the information conveyed in a “neutral point of view?”
  2. Is the entry verifiable—did they provide citations for all evidence presented?
  3. Is there accurate evidence for all claims?
  4. Did they cover any nuance or disagreement in the topic and were they fair to all 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.

Engaging Students in the Lab

Teaching a lab? This TAP session will offer advice and tips to help instructors actively engage students in labs.

Date: Thursday, November 5
Time: 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Location: Room 120ABC, Busch Student Center, BC

Register online

Mid-semester Evaluations

While student’s complete end-of-semester evaluations, these can only help you improve your teaching in the future. Early and regular feedback can help you to:

  • Improve a course immediately;
  • Get a class back on track if it isn’t going well;
  • Refine a course that is going well; and
  • Alert you to problems that some of your students may be having.

There are a variety of ways to elicit feedback from your students. TAP offers a sample mid-semester evaluation (pdf) that you can use as is or adapt.

Instead of, or in addition to, a formal mid-semester evaluation, you can ask your students for feedback more regularly. Some instructors like to ask students to write a one-minute memo at the end of each class, in which they quickly answer the questions: “What was the most important idea of today’s class?” and “What questions were you left with?”

You can also hand out slips of paper every few weeks or after major assignments and ask specific questions about the coursework or something more general, like, “Is there anything you want me to know about how the class is going for you?” Customize the questions for your particular class. For instance, if few of your students speak in class, ask them why they don’t participate and what would encourage them to do so. However you choose to ask the questions, allow your students to answer anonymously, to encourage honesty. Take feedback from your students seriously.

Keep in mind that if you ask students for their opinions but then don’t respond to those opinions in any way, they will be understandably frustrated. You may not be able to make the kind of changes your students request, but if that’s the case, you should talk to them about why it’s not possible. Be willing to implement reasonable changes, and don’t be afraid to try new teaching methods in response to student feedback.

TAP’s mid-semester evaluation template (pdf)

Preparing for the End of the Semester

The end of the semester puts pressure on TAs in many ways. In addition to your own research, your students feel pressure as finals approach, and thus they may demand more of your time and energy. However, the end of semester crunch can be made more bearable with some planning.

Make sure your students understand end of semester expectations.
Inform students about the format of final exams and/or projects. Let them know if these requirements will be cumulative or only cover recent material.

Often final exams take place in a different location than where class normally meets. Make sure that students understand where and when their exam will take place.

Be clear and consistent with your grading policies.
To make up for lower grades earlier in the semester, students may ask to turn in late work, or request to complete work for extra credit.  If you have agreed to accept late/extra-credit work, then do so. However, do not feel pressured to bend the rules.

Encourage your students to manage time well.
If a project will come due during the final weeks of class, encourage your students to avoid procrastination. Remind students that a little bit of work every day or every week adds up.

Plan ahead to help your students study for final exams.
If possible, hold an in-class review session during the last day of class. This allows students to get their questions answered without having to alter their schedule. It will also give you a feeling for how prepared your students are for the final.

Furthermore, plan ahead to hold review sessions. If other TAs are assigned to the same course as you, you may choose to cross-advertise review sessions to accommodate more students’ schedules.

Clarify grading expectations.
If you are teaching for another professor, make sure that your grading standards are consistent with those of your professor and with other TAs for the course. If you will be expected to do a lot of grading, don’t necessarily expect yourself to grade it all at once; grade in small batches as needed.

Schedule time to get your own work done.
Your teaching is important, but your research is your primary focus. Despite student demands, make sure to plan ahead for uninterrupted time to keep up with your own deadlines. Remember that you must continue to make progress on your research to maintain your appointment as a TA.

Schedule time away from work.
Although your students’ needs and your own work will most likely require a large amount of time and energy, remember to take some time to relax as well. If you reach the point of exhaustion or become sick, it will be even harder to assist students or make progress on your research.

Make sure to be aware of your own needs and to take care of yourself as you push towards the end of the year. If needed, contact your advisor, department chair, or dean for help. Also, the Rutgers counseling center is readily available to discuss any confidential concerns you may have during this stressful time of the year.

What is it like to be an Undergraduate?

Many TAs feel far removed from undergraduate culture, distant from that way of living and thinking, even though they themselves were undergraduates not so long ago. The TA who can remember this experience, however, and empathize with the trials and stresses of undergraduate life may be able, in the end, to reach more students than those who view them from afar.

Although the life of an undergraduate may seem idyllic when looked at through the eyes of the overburdened graduate student, it is not quite as simple as memory makes it. Most undergraduates have a full schedule of classes, carrying at least twelve credits (often, sixteen or more). In addition to this, a majority of undergraduates must work at part-time or even full-time jobs to subsidize their education. For many students, a job is a necessity: without it, they would be forced to leave school. Furthermore, many of these students are living away from home for the first time in their lives––an emotionally and socially demanding period. Clearly, students who are overwhelmed by work and social life will have difficulties investing the needed time to complete their coursework.

Once TAs recognize the fact that the life of the undergraduate is not always an easy one, they are in a position to help their students: to consider ways to translate this knowledge into action, to adopt teaching strategies that acknowledge and alleviate the problems that come along with being an undergraduate. Perhaps the most effective first step TAs can take is to stop thinking about their students as an amorphous mass–the undergraduates–and to attempt to see them as individuals. Do not make generalizations about your students (i.e., undergraduates are lazy, silly, shallow, unmotivated, etc.). Most students are sincerely involved with their education and willing to work hard to succeed.

Be understanding when students come to you with problems or with excuses for late or unsatisfactory work: they honestly do have tight schedules and may be under a lot of pressure. Help them if you can; don’t put another obstacle in their way. This does not mean that you should fall for every line they give you, but do not be so skeptical that you do not accept any excuses. Dealing with students in a fair and honest manner is the best policy. Try to help them find ways to meet their commitments to your class without losing control of other equally important parts of their lives.

Register for a TAP workshop

The remaining Fall 2015 workshops are below. Follow the links for more information or to register.

Attend four sessions over the academic year and receive a “Preparing for the Professoriate” certificate that you can place on your C.V.

Fall 2015 sessions

Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions

Faculty Focus has an article on “Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions” that’s worth a look.