Wikipedia: How to Use It in the Classroom

You really should use Wikipedia in the classroom.


Wikipedia should not be the website version of “he who shall not be named”.  It is widely known that telling someone not to do something only fuels the desire to want to do the “forbidden” behavior.  So, if we don’t want students to use Wikipedia for research because it is inaccurate, we cannot simply tell students to stay away.  We have to show them.  We have to have them do something with Wikipedia for them to realize its potential and its weaknesses.

There are several ways teachers can show students the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia.  The first is a scavenger hunt.  It may take some time to develop the worksheet of inaccuracies; however, it will teach students lessons about Wikipedia far quicker than you can telling them.  You can find which pages have inaccuracies by asking Twitter followers, Googling “inaccuracy examples of Wikipedia” or something similar, or by the old-fashioned reading and checking.

The first part of the hunt should have students working (individually) searching Wikipedia for the answers to questions (but they don’t know the answers are inaccurate yet!).  The next day, after collecting the Wikipedia worksheet, hand out another worksheet with the same questions, only the students cannot use Wikipedia; they must find another source.  You can give them a list of specific main sites to pick from to ensure accuracy.  The next day, pass back the Wikipedia worksheet and discuss why/how come there are differences.  A variation on this scavenger hunt could require students to search an obscure topic in which the Wikipedia page and its references are the jumping off point for the questions.

Other ideas come from an article, “How To: Use Wikipedia in the Classroom Responsibly” by Adam Heckler (@adamvartek) on Fractus Learning; it was published on May 13, 2013.

  1. Learn the Rules
  2. Create an Assignment
  3. Choose an Article
  4. Edit, Edit, and Edit
  5. Evaluate Student Work

Learn the Rules – Despite what you make think, Wikipedia isn’t a free-for-all.  They have rules, listed on their Key Policies and Guidelines page.  Heckler sums them up:

  • Free content: All content submitted to Wikipedia must be original, since it will become part of the commons. Copying and pasting from other sources is a no-no.
  • Reliable sources: Third-party sources are required for all claims. They need to have a sturdy reputation for fact-checking and accuracy (e.g., academic journals).
  • NPOV: Short for neutral point of view, this means that all articles should be written without bias. Argumentative stances and outright advocacy are not allowed.
  • Good faith: Respect your fellow editors, and assume they’re acting in good faith. That is, avoid accusing others of deliberate malice just because you disagree.
  • Notability: When deciding whether or not to write about a certain topic, Wikipedia generally considers an article justified if the topic has been covered by a third-party.

Create an Assignment – Since Wikipedia is “riddled with mistakes”  and pretty much anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry…why not teach students how to use a wiki by copy-editing inaccurate Wikipedia entries rather than creating some fictitious wiki that will be abandoned after the class finishes?  Working on an assignment for Wikipedia is an obvious, real-world connection students can see and do right now.  They are contributing to finding accurate information, deleting inaccurate information, adding to the wealth of common knowledge, and can pick any topic they find interesting.  Teachers can even have students present their edited entries to the class to practice speaking and listening skills as well.

Have a student who is bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual?  Awesome!  There are an abundance of articles that need to be translated.  Wikipedia has a list of articles that need to be translated from a foreign language to English and a list of articles that have been translated…but not very well and need some cleaning up.  Have students who can’t seem to put their phone down because they are taking pictures and video for their Instagram or Vines?  There are many articles that need media created.  Give them a photo or video assignment.

If you need direction on which articles to pick, Wikipedia has lists of articles that need photos, need videos, and need copy editing.  Don’t forget Wikipedia has a guide to assist students with the copy editing process.

Okay–so once you’ve narrowed down your topic or focus, how do you pick a “good article” to edit?  Heckler has some great pointers:

  • Start with “stub” articles. Stubs are articles that are too short to be fully encyclopedic. You can find a list of them at this link. There are thousands of stubs, so your students should have no problem finding something to improve.
  • Progress to start-class articles. These articles are little more than stubs, but could also use a significant amount of work.
  • Try finding subjects that students know a lot about but that don’t have lengthy articles on Wikipedia yet. This helps them create new pages at length.

What to avoid:

  • Editing articles that are rated as “Featured” or another higher rating class. These kinds of pages are more difficult to improve effectively for inexperienced editors.
  • Editing articles on controversial subjects. Just use common sense!
  • Creating articles on topics not often covered by third-party literature.

Type of Writing – Make sure to remind students that Wikipedia entries are factual and unbiased.  They may be tempted or default to writing persuasively, so it is important to let them work on their own, but help point out something that is too persuasive.

Evaluate – There are a multitude of evaluation methods that can be used.  My favorite is having a rubric in which I can circle the grade (not just 1-5, but explanations of what 1-5 mean and the differences between each number) to assist in a quick evaluation during a short presentation to the class [read more about rubrics].  The presentation would include displaying the final product, the process/methods the student used, areas of issues/problems/trouble, areas of “genius moments” and a reflective statement on what the student would do differently next time.  The student would also hand in a 1-2 page reflection essay with this information written down so I can review it later when I have more time.

Wikipedia has several great uses in the classroom.  It may not be the end-all-be-all for research because of the high probability of incorrect information; however, Wikipedia can only get better with more edits, more media, and more translations.  It seems silly to have students create a class wiki about nothing that will be discarded after the end of the term.  From what I’ve read so far, the Common Core desires real-life connections, solving real-world issues, focusing on speaking and learning, writing informative text, and reading more non-fiction texts.  Using Wikipedia in the classroom, checks all those boxes.

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