Instructor Basics education brochure
This is text of the Wikipedia Education Program brochure Instructor Basics: How to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool, revised late 2013.
page 1 (cover)
Instructor Basics: How to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool
Wikipedia is the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. The fifth most visited website worldwide, Wikipedia is a resource used by most university students. But many educators around the world have used Wikipedia as a teaching tool in their university classrooms as well. In this brochure, we bring together their experiences to help you determine how to use Wikipedia in your classroom.
We’ve organized the brochure into three parts:
Learn key Wikipedia policies, and get more information on designing assignments, with a focus on asking students to write Wikipedia articles for class.
During the term
Learn about the structure of a good Wikipedia article, how students should choose which articles to improve, suggestions for what to cover in a Wikipedia lab session, and how to interact with the community of Wikipedia editors.
After the term
See a sample assessment structure for Wikipedia assignments that’s worked for other instructors.
Understanding key policies
Since Wikipedia started in 2001, the community of volunteer editors – “Wikipedians” – has developed several key policies designed to ensure Wikipedia is as reliable and useful as possible. Any assignment you integrate into your classroom must follow these policies. Understanding these cornerstone policies ensures that you develop an assignment that meets your learning objectives and improves Wikipedia at the same time.
“The work students contribute to Wikipedia is free content and becomes part of the commons. It may be edited and reused by others under a free license. All writing on Wikipedia must be original. It’s not appropriate to copy and paste from other sources.”
photo CC BY-SA 3.0 by User:Lechatjaune
Neutral point of view
“Everything on Wikipedia must be written from a neutral point of view. Wikipedia is not the place for argumen-tation or advocacy. All information must be presented accurately and without bias, describing all the significant viewpoints published by reliable sources. You should explain different opinions on a topic, not argue for one or the other.”
photo CC BY-SA 3.0 by User:GorillaWarfare
“We use the concept of notability to determine if a topic merits an article. In general, we consider a topic notable if there has been third-party coverage of the topic in reliable sources. If your students are starting new articles, they should find several independent reliable sources on the topic before they start.”
— User:Mohamed Ouda
photo CC BY-SA 3.0 by User:Faris knight
“The most reliable sources on Wikipedia are third-party sources with a reputation for fact-checking, such as books published by academic presses, peer-reviewed academic journals, and international newspapers. You should avoid citing blogs, press releases, and other less formal sources. Students should be using sources that represent significant viewpoints, rather than one-off studies or fringe work.”
— User:Mariana Jó
photo CC BY-SA 3.0 by User:Mariana Jó
“Everyone who edits Wikipedia, including students, should assume good faith when interacting with others. That means we treat each other with respect and assume that everyone is operating with the same goal: to improve the content on Wikipedia. We value civility when interacting about contentious topics. Remember to always discuss the content being edited, and not the person editing, and refrain from personal attacks.”
— User:Mike Christie
photo CC BY-SA 3.0 by User:Mike Christie
Designing your assignment
Wikipedia offers many options for assignments, based on your learning objectives. Consider your students’ skill sets, how much of a contribution you want your students to make to Wikipedia, and how much time you have in the course to dedicate to the assignment.
In this brochure, we feature the assignment to ask students to write an article on a course-related topic, one of the most common assignments instructors use.
Assignment: Write an article
In the “Write an article” assignment, you ask your students to expand an existing article or create a new article on a course-related topic. Using reliable sources, students document information about the topic. Often, instructors feature this assignment in conjunction with a longer analytical paper offline; students’ Wikipedia articles form the literature review sections of their papers.
Translate an article
Language instructors find this to be a very practical assignment. Your students take high quality articles from the Wikipedia of the language they are studying that are not currently available on their native language Wikipedia, and translate those articles into their native language.
Add illustrations to an article
If your students are adept at media, this can be a great way of contributing to Wikipedia in a non-textual way. In the past, students have photographed local monuments that had no photos illustrating the articles, designed infographics to illustrate concepts on Wikipedia, or created videos that demonstrated audiovisually what articles describe in words.
Since Wikipedia is a user-generated resource, you’ll find plenty of typos and much room for improvement in the prose. Asking students to improve the grammar of an article is a good way for them to learn copyediting skills and think critically about how good writing is done in your discipline.
A complementary brochure, “Case Studies: How instructors are teaching with Wikipedia,” includes links to syllabi and assignment descriptions instructors have used around the world. A few common assignments are listed here, but you are encouraged to consult it for more ideas.
Instructor Basics / Assignment planning
Asking students to write a Wikipedia article generally meets these four learning objectives well.
Writing skills development
Students learn how to write for a diverse and interested readership that represents a significant percentage of the worldwide online population. Furthermore, with Wikipedia’s emphasis on verifiability and “no original research,” students gain a greater understanding of the difference between fact-based and persuasive writing styles.
Media and information literacy
Wikipedia’s transparent and collaborative content development process allows students to gain a deeper understanding of how information is both produced and consumed. This provides an excellent opportunity for students to reflect on available sources and their appropriate usage.
Critical thinking and research skills
Students learn to critically analyze Wikipedia articles to determine how well an article covers the topic, to assess what information is missing, and to evaluate to what extent the article is documented with reliable sources. In the larger context, the evaluation of Wikipedia articles helps your students learn how to evaluate different sources, not only Wikipedia. The process of assessing an existing article and deciding what information is missing is very similar to the literature review process that is crucial in scholarly research.
Students learn first-hand how to collaborate with a community of active volunteer editors (including their fellow students) in the development of encyclopedic content. They often receive feedback on their work and learn to negotiate with other editors in building consensus on content.
Experienced instructors say it is crucial for students who are going to be editing Wikipedia to become comfortable not only with the markup, but also the community. Requiring tiny assignments early in the term, such as those listed below, will acclimate them to the site. Instructors who do not set up these milestones throughout the term usually have bad experiences with their assignments.
These simple tasks prepare students for a longer Wikipedia assignment by introducing students to skills they will need later.
› Students should create a user page, adding a sentence or two about themselves and adding an image from Wikimedia Commons (Wikipedia’s image repository).
› Encourage students to upload a photo to Wikimedia Commons that they’ve taken themselves.
› Ask students to improve the clarity of a sentence or two in an article related to class.
› Students could use a reading from the course to add a reference to an article.
› Once they’ve selected a topic to write on, students should post a message on that article’s talk page with some proposed sources.
› Ask students to post an outline of their proposed changes to the talk page before they start writing.
Once students have accomplished these milestones, they’ll be more comfortable with working on Wikipedia. Students procrastinate, so it’s better to use these as early milestones that will be completed before they start writing.
A companion brochure offers a sample syllabus used by more than 100 instructors who have run this type of assignment. Download the brochure at
Assignment planning / Instructor Basics
During the term
Choosing an article
Determining what articles students should work on can be a challenge. Some instructors create a list of articles and ask students to pick from the list; others require students to propose topics. If you would like your students to create new articles, rather than improve existing articles, make sure they have read Wikipedia’s notability policy and are confident the topics are notable — that is, well-covered by reputable third-party sources in your field.
Just what makes a good Wikipedia article? Make sure you and your students familiarize yourselves with the structure of a typical Wikipedia article in your discipline, so students know what types of sections they will be expected to contribute. Most students will have never thought about the structure of an encyclopedia article before, so spending a few minutes in class clarifying how information is structured in encyclopedias is important.
› Ask your students to choose a topic that is well established in the discipline, but only weakly represented on Wikipedia. If there is a lot of literature available on the topic, but only a small amount of that information exists on Wikipedia, that is the best situation to work from.
› Look for articles rated “stub” or “start” class on Wikipedia’s internal assessment process. You can see an article’s assessment by visiting its talk page.
› Make sure you search for a few different variants on the term before creating an article. Often, you may find that a topic has already been covered under a different name.
› Avoid trying to improve articles on very broad topics (e.g., law) or articles that are already of high quality on Wikipedia (“Featured Articles”). These topics are more challenging to improve effectively.
› Don’t try to improve topics that are highly controversial, like global warming, abortion, or Scientology. Contentious topics often lead to fights on Wikipedia. Students should be encouraged to start sub-articles instead.
› Avoid working on topics that are only sparsely covered by literature. Students will have a difficult time providing enough reliable sources to create a Wikipedia article.
› Don’t start articles with titles that imply an essay-like approach, such as “The Effects That The Recent Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis has had on the US and Global Economics” instead of “Subprime mortgage crisis.” Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and essays are not appropriate.
Instructor Basics / During the term
Typical structure of a Wikipedia article
A quality Wikipedia article is the result of a well-defined structure, encyclopedic content, and an active community.
A lead section should summarize the key points covered in the article. Note that the lead section is without a heading. The first sentence should provide a definition of the topic of the article.
Many articles contain an infobox that describes key elements of the topic. Find an article on a similar topic to yours and copy the code for the infobox to add one to your article.
Body of the article
Headers clearly delineate appropriate sections. In the case of this article, the body covers the history of the hurricane as well as its impact.
Freely licensed images can be added to Wikipedia articles from Wikimedia Commons.
Appendices and footnotes
After the content comes a section with other related Wikipedia articles (“See also”), the sources used in the article (“References”), and a list of other websites people could consult for more information (“External links”).
During the term
Teaching wiki basics to students
In the first few weeks of class, we recommend that you give students an introduction to the basics of Wikipedia, including instructions on how to edit and some things they should keep in mind about how writing for Wikipedia is different from a typical college essay.
If you have time, take your students into a computer lab and do a hands-on introduction to wiki markup. This allows students to see editing take place “live,” and gives them a safe space to make mistakes and ask questions in real-time. Typically, such labs last an hour or two.
If you feel comfortable enough with wiki markup, you can teach this lab yourself. If not, you can recruit local Wikipedians or contact your local Wikipedia Campus Ambassador (if your university has one).
Tips for what to cover
› Bolding and italicizing text
› How to create headers
› How to edit subsections
› How to create bulleted and numbered lists
› How to create links
› How to create references
› How to create a sandbox
› Distinctions among article pages, talk pages, and user pages
› Use of talk pages
If you’d rather have students do this on their own time, an online training covering this material is available at:
It is best to have students create their user accounts before they come to the lab. This allows them to read Wikipedia’s username policy and consider how anonymous they want to be on the site (and also avoids triggering the automatic limits placed on creating numerous accounts from the same location in a short time period).
How Wikipedia is different from a college essay
Here are some ways that writing for Wikipedia may take some extra thought for students:
Fact-based, not persuasive writing.
Rather than making an argument, students will be writing a description of the information about a topic, cited to reliable sources.
Formal tone and basic language.
Articles should be written in a formal tone, but with easy-to-understand language. Wikipedia isn’t the place for students to show off their extensive vocabularies. The audience of Wikipedia is global, and people who have never heard of the topic before will be reading what students are writing. Students need to clearly convey the basics of the topic in their writing.
No large block quotes.
Academic writing favors large block quotes from reputable sources, but Wikipedia’s policies state that you should try to paraphrase whenever possible. Quoting from sources is encouraged, but students should try to provide the context in their own words and only quote the truly key phrase or two from the original.
Instructor Basics / During the term
Interacting with the community
Collaborating with the Wikipedia community is key to giving your students the full benefits of a Wikipedia assignment. But how do you do that?
photos CC BY-SA 3.0 by Jelly Helm
Wikipedians interact by writing messages to each other on article talk pages or user talk pages. If another user wants to communicate with you, s/he will most likely leave a message directly on your user talk page or the talk page of the article you’ve been working on. It is a good idea to monitor and respond to these messages.
All Wikipedia interaction assumes good faith. That is, until it can be demonstrated otherwise, we assume that other editors are here to help improve the encyclopedia. Therefore, all editors should be treated with respect.
When making changes to Wikipedia articles, it is expected that editors will explain their changes briefly in an edit summary. When you fill in the small box in the edit window with a phrase such as “copyediting” or “adding a reference,” others will be able to follow the history of the article when they click on the “View history” tab.
Like any community, Wikipedia has an etiquette. These few simple guidelines will help you get along with Wikipedians:
› Assume good faith: Assume other editors are trying to improve the project. Try to understand their point of view. Discuss. Negotiate.
› Be polite and remember that it is more difficult to read sarcasm and irony in text than in verbal form.
› Always sign your posts on talk pages so others can follow who is saying what by using four tildes (~~~~), which will automatically add your username and the date.
› Discuss major changes you are making to the encyclopedia on article talk pages.
› Discuss article content, not editors. Do not make personal attacks.
During the term / Instructor Basics
After the term
Assessing student work
How can you assess your students’ contributions to Wikipedia and writing about Wikipedia? Depending on the complexity of your assignment, designing a grading rubric for it may be easy or challenging. Here is a sample grading rubric that has worked well for other instructors.
Sample Grading Structure
5% each (x4)
Participation grade for early Wikipedia exercises
Participation in class blog or class discussions
Peer reviews and collaboration with classmates
Quality of your main Wikipedia contributions
Instructor Basics / After the term
Early Wikipedia exercises
Did students complete the milestones (first referenced on page 5) listed in your syllabus?
Class blog or class discussion
Many instructors ask students to keep a running blog about their experiences. Giving them prompts every week or every two weeks, such as “To what extent are the editors on Wikipedia a self-selecting group and why?” will help them begin to think about the larger issues surrounding this online encyclopedia community. It will also give you material both on the wiki and off the wiki to grade. If you have time in class, these discussions can be particularly constructive in person.
Students evaluate each others’ work on Wikipedia, leaving reviews for each other on or off the site. These evaluations can cover questions such as how reliable are the references, how well does the article cover the topic, or how well-written is the article.
Quality of contributions
Many instructors contrast what an article looked like before and after a student worked on it, using the article history. You can compare the beginning version with the end, extract the contributions made by the students, and see the individual changes made by the students. You may want your students to do this comparison themselves and add it to a portfolio they present to you.
After the assignment is over, ask students to write a short reflective essay on their experiences using Wikipedia. This works well for both short and long Wikipedia projects. An interesting iteration of this is to have students write a short version of the essay before they begin editing Wikipedia, outlining their expectations, and then have them reflect on whether or not those expectations were met after they have completed the assignment.
Case Studies: How professors are teaching with Wikipedia
Fifteen professors from six countries are featured in this brochure, as each explains how he or she used Wikipedia in the classroom or how he or she graded the assignment. The web version of the brochure includes links to syllabi and assignment handouts.
A week-by-week guide to incorporating a “write a Wikipedia article” assignment into your classes. It includes some key milestones that have proven to be effective at ensuring that students derive the greatest educational benefits from editing Wikipedia.
Online Orientation: Wikipedia as a Teaching Tool
All instructors are highly encouraged to complete the online orientation for educators before planning a syllabus. It will introduce you to the culture and rules of Wikipedia, demonstrate the basics of editing, and walk you through a typical Wikipedia assignment like this one.
Welcome to Wikipedia
A basic introduction to contributing to Wikipedia: how to create a Wikipedia user account, how to start editing, and how to communicate with other contributors. You will also learn how articles evolve on Wikipedia and how to rate the quality of an existing article.
Students are encouraged to take an online training that walks them through the basics of how to contribute to Wikipedia.
Additional resources / Instructor Basics
page 12 (back cover)
Ready to join the Wikipedia Education Program?
Education programs already exist in many countries, and Wikimedia volunteers are creating new programs every term. In countries where the Wikipedia Education Program is in operation, volunteer Wikipedia Ambassadors may be available to offer you and your students assistance in learning the best ways to contribute to Wikipedia for class.
Join us! For more information, visit
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