Converting Students’ History Essays into Wikipedia Articles

The history research paper is often treated as busy work by students and seen with the same contempt as an algebra homework set or lab write-up. While all of these assessments have pedagogical utility, they are also all disposable assignments, likely to be thrown away after they are graded. Students practice a skill but often gain little insight into real world applicability. In turn, the teacher grades a pile of nearly identical assignments with only the exceptionally excellent and the exceptionally poor assignment breaking the monotony.

Rather than having students turn in this traditional paper with its audience of one, having them write for a public audience reshapes the assignment. There are many easy ways to do this. The WordPress posts that my students wrote for a summer 2014 course on science and literature still draw about 400 viewers a month, even though there’s been no new content on their course page for over a year. In another course, my students created web projects to communicate their research, and the resultant tumblrs, blogs, Prezis and Tackks were creative and diverse.

I have written in the past on using a Wikipedia assignment in place of the term paper. This is a large scale endeavor that works best if you scaffold the Wikipedia process over the course of the semester.  A lower-barrier option is to to turn a short, descriptive research project (the equivalent of a couple of pages) into a Wikipedia assignment. This semester, I have been helping students in Dr. Elyssa Faison’s history course, Geisha and Gangsters, prepare their short (500 word) essays for Wikipedia.

While this assignment does not require the same level of preparation as the replacing a full term paper, there are a few key preparatory steps.

  1. Both the professor and the students should sign up for Wikipedia accounts.
  2. The professor should set up a course page in Wikipedia using the WikiEducation Program’s site.
  3. Students should pick either a Wikipedia article or section of an article related to the course that they can improve.

Whether they were contributing to preexisting articles or starting new articles, students wrote their essays first in a word document as a standard descriptive essay. As with any history essay, students were advised of the importance of choosing and citing authoritative sources.

We then used one class session to have the students login to their wikipedia accounts and migrate their writings from word (or whatever word processor they had used) to Wikipedia using the platforms WYSIWYG editor. This editor sidesteps the need to learn Wikipedia syntax offering instead a styling menu for marking up section headers and other text formatting. Even citations and footnotes are now largely automated through Wikipedia’s “Cite” button and menu.

History page for the Wikipedia article on Unit 732Once the students uploaded their work to Wikipedia, I sat down with Dr. Faison to comb through the articles. Using the history pages for each Wikipedia article we were able to review the changes that the student had made along with any subsequent changes by other Wikipedia users. In assessing this work, we looked at traditional evaluations of history essays, i.e. how well the text was researched, written and cited.  We also looked at how well that text was integrated into pre-existing information on the Wikipedia article and how well it coincided with Wikipedia’s standards of neutrality and being a tertiary source (written based on secondary sources rather than presenting original primary research or interpretive arguments).

Moving from a disposable research essay to a Wikipedia essay carries several benefits:

  • Students gain a sense of confidence in their knowledge by contributing to a source that they know and use.
  • Students trade the audience of one instructor for a broad readership (one of the students this semester revised an article on Japan’s military Unit 731 that got more than 70,000 views in just December)
  • Students improve their digital literacy through a better understanding of Wikis a medium.
  • Students learn about source authority, especially the increasingly common semi-anonymous and anonymous web sources which so often fill their bibliographies.
  • Instructors trade a stack of homogenous research papers for a variety of formatted essays.
  • Essays are subject to open-review on the web.

Writing for Wikipedia can be as easy as having students copy and paste their word documents into Wikipedia and format their text using the menu bar.  The Wiki Education Foundation is continually rolling out improved tutorials and tools and offers a library of aids for instructors in developing assignments. With Wikipedia and other public writing, we can move away from disposable, busy-work assignments, and encourage students to apply the knowledge and skills they are gaining in school to the (digital) world in which they live.


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