Assigning Wikipedia in a US History Survey

As some of you might guess, I get mixed reactions whenever I reveal that I use Wikipedia in my history classes. And not just for reading; I actually assign my students to research and write an article for Wikipedia. And it has consistently been one of my most successful assignments. It shows students the difference between fact-only writing and analytical writing, it provides an introduction to research methods, and it gives them more insight into the working of Wikipedia, so they understand why they should or shouldn't use it for various situations.

The Assignment

The assignment consists of two phases, each graded separately:

Phase 1: Students choose a topic related to history that either doesn't have a substantial article already written about it, or a topic that is listed on the history stubs page on Wikipedia. Then, they research the topic and contribute ~500 words to the article. The article must include footnotes, and reference at least two published books, two external websites, and link to at least two other Wikipedia pages. Students must use proper formatting for footnotes, headings, lists, links and other content per Wikipedia formatting guidelines. They must also create a user account, and log in with that user account when editing. If an article's history doesn't include the user name they sent to me at the beginning of the semester, they don't get credit. No exceptions.

Phase 2: After publishing, students must watch the article, see if anyone contributes or changes their article, and if so connect with these users. The goal here is to improve the article, either with others users or individually. If their article is flagged for deletion, students must work to make sure the article isn't deleted. But, regardless of outcome, students must write a ~500 word reflection on what happened to their article, and how their ideas about Wikipedia had changed as a result of the article.

Notes on Process

Topics

Choosing a topic is fairly straight-forward. I always encourage students to find a topic that interests them, that's relevant to their major, their job, or even hobbies. Students have written about various historical topics related to psychology, sociology, engineering, sports, art, and theater, to name a few. If students can't come up with a topic, point them to the stubs page. There are thousands of stub articles to choose from, including United States history, history of science, and military history. All topics have to be approved by me before continuing the assignment. I usually require topics related to U.S. history because that's my primary field of study, and will approve topics if I think there's enough secondary and tertiary sources available to allow for an adequate article.

Research

The research process is, more or less, the same kind of research process you'd expect when assigning a short term paper. We discuss how to find resources on particular topics, how to brainstorm, create outlines, et cetera. I introduce students to the librarian on staff who's relevant to their field of study or topic. (Often, this is the first time students are introduced to these very valuable folks.) Wikipedia also has policies about citation, so I make sure students read the policy on citing sources and verifiability. Additionally, I discuss uses of different kinds of sources, and Wikipedia's preference for secondary and tertiary sources over primary sources. Students articles must not be original research.

Writing and Formatting

Probably the trickiest part of the assignment is showing students how to write for Wikipedia, particularly the way Wikipedia articles are formatted. We take one class period and review "How to Edit a Wikipedia Article," particularly the formatting section. There's a great tutorial and sandbox where students can practice formatting before working on their articles. I demonstrate on-screen how to do different kinds of formatting: footnotes, headings, unordred lists, ordered lists, internal and external links, and inserting an image. There is a useful cheatsheet that details formatting methods for specific content elements.

[]

Publishing and Participating

Like I said earlier, the assignment doesn't end once the article is published. After they publish the article, they must watch and participate in any change that takes place to their article, for good or ill. I show them specifically two sections of their article to watch:

  • History page - I encourage students not to revert things immediately, but to take the time to look at changes, determine if they help or hurt the article, and take the appropriate action.

  • Talk page - This is where community members talk about the article in question, offering suggestions for improvement or declaring reasons that the article is irrelevant and show be deleted. Its here that students have to defend their articles, or learn from other Wikipedians about how to improve their articles.

[]

Not infrequently, someone's article will be recommended for deletion, or their changes reverted. In these cases I show students how to interact with Wikipedia admins, review their deletion policy and the process by which they do deletion review. I've had several students' articles get recommended for deletion, and the students justified their articles well enough to save them.

Why Assign a Wikipedia Article?

I have several reasons why I ask students to write an article for Wikipedia:

  • Learn how to do research: A no-brainer here. The assignment involves some basic research and writing skills, a modest but substantial amount for a 100-level survey course.

  • Demystify Wikipedia: Most people have preconceptions about Wikipedia, but very little experience actually reading AND writing an Wikipedia article. Fewer people have experience communicating with other Wikipedia users, particularly admins and editors. This, in turn, influences how they interact with others on various social sites and services. Moreover, students learn that not just anything can be published on Wikipedia, there are rules and policies in place for the content that gets to stay on Wikipedia.

  • Learn the difference between fact-only writing and analytical writing: Most of my students have a difficult time understanding how to make an argument, how to differentiate between fact-based "reporting" and analysis. By actually being forced to write a "just the facts" report, they have been able to see the difference between the two.

As I said earlier, this assignment is consistently one of my most successful assignments. Students find a topic they're interested in, research it, learn how to write for different audiences, learn how to use Wikipedia more efficiently, and understand when its good to use Wikipedia and when its not. Furthermore, they get experience with community and collaborative writing, and can take those skills with them and use them long after the course is finished. It does take a bit of work on my part, to make sure students understand the assignment and the technology involved, but in my opinion its completely worth the effort. Its certainly much more meaningful to have students contribute to a larger, more public body of knowledge than to write a term paper for me that will get thrown away at the end of the semester. If this assignment can produce some good articles on Wikipedia, and gets students talking to others and learning outside of class, I consider it a success.