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The Thoughtful Animal

The Thoughtful Animal

Exploring the evolution and architecture of the mind

Engaging Undergrads with Wikipedia

Longtime science blog readers will certainly remember the popular cognitive psychology blog Cognitive Daily, written by Greta and Dave Munger, that had a fantastic five-year run at Scienceblogs. While Dave is still involved in the science blogging community through projects like Research Blogging and Science Seeker, and of course writing his own blogs, Greta has been pushing forward with online science communication in a slightly different way: working with her undergraduate psychology students at Davidson College in updating and improving psychology-related entries on Wikipedia.

Greta’s project is part of a larger effort spearheaded by the Association for Psychological Science, called the APS Wikipedia Initiative:

APS is calling on its Members to support the Association s mission to deploy the power of Wikipedia to represent scientific psychology as fully and as accurately as possible and thereby to promote the free teaching of psychology worldwide.

All APS Members are encouraged to participate by adding new entries and enhancing existing ones with more complete and accurate information with references. This is an especially exciting initiative for teachers and students who can make updating or creating Wikipedia entries part of coursework.

I spoke with Greta about this project recently:

Why did you decide to include this somewhat unconventional assignment in your class? What might this sort of assignment offer for your students that is different from more standard papers or presentations?

I’ve always had students in my 200-level lecture course write research papers on a topic of their choice as a way to introduce reading journal articles and writing literature reviews. It also introduces them to the search tools in our library. When I read about the APSWI challenge to have students help correct Wikipedia, I thought it sounded like a really neat idea at many levels: taking some responsibility for how research psychology is represented; having a project the students might get more excited about; and having a chance to tap into the service and leadership part that is so important to Davidson College’s tradition. In order to write a good Wikipedia article, the students need the same reading and research skills that my older assignment was designed to teach them, with the advantage of also contributing to the public good.

In a way, this project seems to allow you to teach concepts in psychology to your students, while simultaneously teaching them to communicate science effectively to non-expert audiences. Was this intentional? Do you think it’s been effective?

I’m not actually talking much about communicating science to non-experts with the class, though obviously that’s part of what they are doing. I have made that an explicit topic in upper level seminars, but at the 200-level I’m focused on getting them to understand the science. Being able to write clearly about it is helping them learn the science. Writing for Wikipedia has made these students more aware of audience than previous classes, and I think that s a very good thing.

I think a great seminar project would be for a class to tackle one of the bigger articles (like “mental rotation” or “attention”) and really make it shine.

Is it important to teach undergrad psych majors to communicate science?

Yes, I think it is, but in the past I’ve waited to have those conversations and projects with more advanced majors. My seminar last fall did a blog, and we registered with Research Blogging; a couple entries even got Editor’s Selection. My seminar students loved writing for the blog, which encouraged me to try the Wikipedia assignment. Both assignments highlight how hard it is to write with clarity about complicated and interesting science, and that there is an interested lay audience.

I know that APS has been pushing the improvement of psychology-related articles on Wikipedia. Did you get any help or guidance from them as you were planning this course? Have the people at Wikipedia been helpful? Do they even know that you’ve incorporated Wikipedia into your syllabus? What resources are there for college instructors who might wish to include this sort of project in their own courses in the future?

Yes and yes, I’ve gotten help both from the APS Portal and from the Wikipedia Ambassadors Program. I’ve just started using the APS Portal which has some neat ways students can review each other’s work: it can highlight what an individual student has edited on the Wikipedia article, and then you can comment. The comments are kept within the class, so their peer commentary isn’t totally public (unlike their Wikipedia edits).

I got a great Online Ambassador from Wikipedia, who helps over email, and keeps inviting me to the live chat, but I’m more email oriented. And, Wikipedia has a course page wizard that sets up all kinds of resources for the students (you can edit it to suit your class). Here’s the link to mine:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Ambassadors/Courses/Cognitive_Psychology_%28Greta_Munger%29.

The best advice I got was that I should try to write a Wikipedia article, and nominate it for Did you know and Good Article status. I wrote an entry about the particular task I ve been studying for years, and was on the front page under the Did you know the section that highlights new content. Writing the article really helped me think through how this writing task was similar and different from academic writing, with the big realization that writing for Wikipedia would help students develop the reading and research skills that I wanted. And, I really love the way this project presents an opportunity for students to almost immediately use their education to contribute to the public good.

Would you repeat this experiment again next semester or next year? What might you do differently? Would you recommend that other psychology course instructors implement versions of this project?

Yes, definitely with this class. I’m thinking about ways to include Wikipedia in other classes, too, but it won’t be the same assignment in every class. For Psy 101 it might be adding just one or two references (so they would have to read one or two journal articles), but for a seminar we might tackle one of the larger existing articles.

What has the student feedback been? Have they enjoyed this experience?

Students have been excited from the very first day I described the project. Many, many students have told me they particularly appreciate that their work will be read by more than just the professor.

And now, a request to your readers: Please take a look at the articles my students are editing and let them know what you think on the articles’ Discussion tab. They, and other editors, will use these comments to make things even better.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia pages that Greta’s students have contributed to.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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