Anatomy & Physiology students share their knowledge with the world through Wikipedia

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We all know that students use Wikipedia. But many don’t have the skills to evaluate the accuracy of the information they read there (Wineburg et al., 2016). Instead of issuing a blanket ban on the website, many professors are now having their students write Wikipedia articles as an assignment. As one put it, “Students can’t cite Wikipedia if they’re writing it.”

In a Wikipedia writing assignment, students play the role of “expert” as they summarize course content into relevant Wikipedia articles. The exercise essentially mirrors a lit-review assignment, except that millions of people have access to that student work.

It’s part of a growing movement of educators embracing Wikipedia as a learning tool, with instructors from more than 500 universities involved in the US and Canada. Most aren’t familiar with the inner-workings of Wikipedia, but still successfully guide their students in editing articles thanks to free support and student trainings offered by Wiki Education

Practicing science communication on a world stage

By bringing their work to Wikipedia, students make a difference for public knowledge while also diving deeply into course content. Last term, a student at Drew University contributed well-referenced content to Wikipedia’s article about Sheehan’s syndrome, adding sections about its causes and history. Now the almost 200 daily visitors to the page can access better information summarized from academic sources.

Another student, from Fordham University, expanded the Wikipedia article about intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells in 2017, adding new sections about structure and function. They were even inspired to create and add a new diagram (Fig.1). Since then, the page has been viewed almost 50,000 times by Wikipedia’s readers.

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Fig 1: Diagram of inputs and outputs of ipRGCs and their corresponding location in the brain, created by a Fordham University student as part of their Wikipedia writing assignment [image link]

Sometimes instructors have students create new Wikipedia biographies for women scientists instead of having them expand articles about course topics. Only 18% of Wikipedia biographies are about women, so when students participate in this endeavor, they are helping correct that gender gap in public knowledge. Having students write Wikipedia biographies for women in STEM not only demonstrates to them that diversity and inclusion belongs in STEM, it asserts that to the world. 

Student learning outcomes

Instructors have found a Wikipedia writing assignment to be an opportunity to solidify students’ research skills, critical media literacy, and ability to write for a public audience (Vetter et al, 2019). By participating in the production of knowledge on a site they use all the time, students understand where that information comes from and how to assess the accuracy of online information they encounter in the future.

Want to get involved?

If you’re interested in improving science content on Wikipedia, there are a few ways to get involved:

  • Use Wiki Education’s free assignment templates to have your students write Wikipedia articles related to your course topic: teach.wikiedu.org.
  • Learn how to edit Wikipedia yourself and expand your educational reach to the public: learn.wikiedu.org

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As Wiki Education’s Outreach and Communications Associate, Cassidy Villeneuve helps share the impact of Wikipedia editing on students, professionals, and public knowledge.

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