Wikipedia Professor Orientation/Module Three

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Module Three: Syllabus and Assignment Design[edit]

This is probably the most important module for professors and Ambassadors alike. Professors are very interested in figuring how to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool. Unfortunately, some have failed by designing assignments that are not appropriate for any encyclopedia including Wikipedia. In this module you will gain an understanding of how educators are currently using Wikipedia in their classroom as well as tips and tricks that you can use to help you succeed. This information has been gathered from our work with professors around the U.S. and Canada.

Wikipedia in the classroom

Wikipedia as a teaching tool is not a new idea. In fact, educators around the globe are experimenting with ways to use Wikipedia in their classrooms to help teach a variety of subject areas such as English, chemistry, literature, public policy, history, biology and more. This orientation is based on the experience of educators who have taught using Wikipedia.

Our aim is to provide you with suggestions for how best to take advantage of Wikipedia's distinctive environment to achieve your particular learning objectives. Along with a brief explanation of what Wikipedia is and some ideas for how to use it in your classroom, we also offer specific assignments and ideas for how to grade those assignments. We encourage you to draw inspiration from these materials and modify them to fit your particular needs.

We have developed a number of complimentary classroom materials such as "Welcome to Wikipedia," "Evaluating Article Quality," "Introduction to Free Licenses," and a "Sample Syllabus." You can find these brochures as well as videos, hand-outs and more on the Wikimedia Bookshelf.

Lastly, as you prepare to use Wikipedia in your class, we encourage you to get hands-on with Wikipedia. You may be very surprised. In fact, many community members are highly encouraging contributions from the academics leading these classes, as some past professors have contributed highly substantial and quality content. This not only makes the Wikipedia Education Program even more successful but also helps professors understand the barriers and successes of their students.

Designing the Wikipedia assignment: Learning Objectives[edit]

Typical learning objectives of professors that are using Wikipedia as a teaching tool include one or several of the following:

  1. Writing Skills Development
  2. Media and Information Literacy
  3. Critical Thinking and Research Skills
  4. Collaboration and Community of Practice
  5. Working on Wiki: Technical and Communication Skills

1. Writing skills Development
  • Learn how to write for a diverse and general audience
  • Understand the difference between fact-based and persuasive writing styles
  • Gain the ability to outline a topic area
  • Write collaboratively (extensive peer editing component)

There are several ways students improve their writing skills with Wikipedia. First, they learn how to write for a diverse and interested readership that represents a significant percentage of the worldwide online population. Because Wikipedia is the fifth largest website in the world, behind Google and Facebook, it offers students the opportunity to write for a global audience. This means that students have to write with such an audience in mind - they can't assume their readers (unlike their professors) already have a wealth of knowledge about the topic area. This also means that students get the chance to interact with a unique and active community that actually "talks back." Often your students will receive feedback on the content they have written - for example, other editors might provide literature suggestions, question the neutrality of what was written, or suggest other ways to improve the writing. This is both exciting and challenging. During the process of contributing information to the encyclopedia, students must learn to write with others and to accept revisions of their work. 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 style.

Possible assignments: Copyediting, Research a topic and write an article, Translate an article

2. Media and Information literacy
  • Gain insight into the creation of articles on Wikipedia
  • Obtain an understanding of the relationship between Wikipedia and other sources, such as news outlets, other encyclopedias, and academic research
  • Achieve an awareness of the questions of authorship, legitimacy and reliability raised by different forms of digital publishing

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. Additionally, when Wikipedia is considered in the larger context of media sources, students develop critical thinking skills as they analyze and evaluate all their potential sources of information, including Wikipedia articles.

Possible assignments: Compare Wikipedia to other reference sources, Research a topic and write an article, Compare Wikipedia to journalism sources, Chart the evolution of an article over a news cycle

3. Critical Thinking and Research Skills
  • Improve research and fact-checking skills
  • Gain review skills
  • Learn how to critically analyze content

As part of a classroom curriculum, your students can learn to critically analyze Wikipedia articles to determine how well the 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 just Wikipedia. Furthermore, many professors have pointed out that 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.

Possible assignments: Research a topic and write an article, Compare Wikipedia to other reference sources, Use Wikipedia as a primary source for research, Compare Wikipedia to journalism sources, Chart the evolution of an article over a news cycle

4. Collaboration and Community of Practice
  • Develop skills necessary to collaborate with other editors
  • Gain negotiation skills
  • Engage with a community of editors working in a similar topic area

By using Wikipedia assignments in your class, your students learn first-hand how to collaborate with a community of active volunteer editors in the development of encyclopedic content. They will receive feedback on their work and learn to negotiate with other editors in building consensus on content. When your students write about a specific area of interest or topic in a particular field, they will also begin to interact with other scholars who share that interest or who work in a similar field. As an example, if one of your students writes about topics related to chemistry, he or she will mostly collaborate with others involved in the chemistry community of practice.

5. Working on Wiki: Technical and communication skills
  • Develop technical skills necessary to successfully use a wiki for educational and business uses
  • Learn how to effectively communicate with others on wiki

Wiki software use is growing in both Educational and corporate settings. Wikipedia assignments engage your students with this expanding wiki software technology as they learn skills necessary for today's education and tomorrow's employment. Students learn how real-time editing software works and about its strengths and limitations. As they learn to collaborate in the creation of information, students also learn to effectively communicate on wiki with others. Students communicate on Article and User talk pages, developing skills and techniques appropriate for getting their message across to their intended audience.

Incorporating Wikipedia assignments into your Syllabus[edit]

We have created a Sample Syllabus based on a lot of input from educators using Wikipedia in their classrooms. In addition to the sample syllabus shown, we have compiled a collection of syllabi provided by university educators from a variety of disciplines, teaching various types and lengths of courses. Links for these syllabi are located at the bottom of the sample syllabus.

Case studies / examples of past syllabi
There have been several instructors that have experimented with Wikipedia in their classes. Click on the following link to view a page with Case Studies.


  • Jeremy Boggs is a Humanities Design Architect at Scholars’ Lab, at the University of Virginia Library. In his blog on Assigning Wikipedia in a US History Survey, Jeremy discusses:
    • "The Assignment"
    • "Notes on Process"
    • "Why Assign a Wikipedia Article?"
Boggs believes that having his students write content for Wikipedia is "one of my most successful assignments." His students learned about different writing styles, research skills, and "advantages and disadvantages of Wikipedia as a research source." Jeremy's Blog is both interesting and helpful.

Students experiences

Types of Wikipedia Assignments[edit]

When instructors think about how to integrate Wikipedia into their teaching, most think only about assigning students to contribute content to the encyclopedia. However, there are many ways to use Wikipedia for learning, depending on the goals you have for your class, and the following may provide you with some ideas. If your university has Wikipedia Campus Ambassadors, they can help you think through the best way to structure a Wikipedia assignment, which requires careful planning and a delineated timeline with milestones for the students. Many instructors who have created Wikipedia assignments integrate reflective papers or presentations to help them grade student work (We'll talk about Grading later in this Module).

The following is a list of Wikipedia assignments that you can use to engage their students in learning. Obviously this is by no means a complete list of Wikipedia assignments, but rather serves as a start point for how Wikipedia can be used in your class. We look forward to learning how you will use it.

Assignment Learning Objective Description
Research a topic and write an article
Learning objectives: Writing skills, Research skills, Media literacy, Collaboration and community of practice This Wikipedia assignment works best once the instructor has had a short introduction to Wikipedia, but is generally highly effective for classes that focus on researching and writing about particular subject areas. Such assignments tend to span from four weeks to an entire semester.
Learning objectives: Writing skills, Collaboration and community of practice Many instructors try to teach the clarity and precision of writing, but nothing quite makes the point like someone else’s failed attempt at achieving these goals. Using one of the many poorly written articles on Wikipedia, you can quickly show students the real-world effects of poor communication. You can also show them the benefits of improving that communication by copyediting the article in real-time. If you choose one of the newly-created articles on Wikipedia, you can also have a discussion with the author(s) of the article about how best to convey what they want to say! This assignment can be done by students individually or collectively as a class and is a good introduction to editing Wikipedia. It is small and does not require students to learn wiki mark-up. To find a group of articles tagged as needing copyediting, please click here.
Analyze the discussion about a controversial topic
Learning objectives: Research skills, Media literacy Students may be at least superficially familiar with Wikipedia articles, but many may be unaware of the corresponding talk pages where contributors discuss problems and disagreements about the articles. The talk pages for controversial topics can be particularly interesting windows into the construction and contestation of knowledge that are always going on across Wikipedia. Intellectual, political, ethnic, sociocultural, and other conflicts play out over and over on the talk pages of controversial or sensitive topics. This works as a stand-alone assignment, or a preliminary exercise before students begin improving Wikipedia content themselves.
Study and critique an article
Learning objectives: Writing skills, Research skills, Media literacy Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia and similar resources are important for understanding when it is appropriate to use Wikipedia, and when other kinds of sources are required. Students will read Wikipedia with a more critical eye once they've picked apart a few bad articles. For an added dimension, students can analyze the history of an article, the talk page discussions associated with it, and the people who contributed to it. Putting critiques and suggestions for improvement on the article's talk page is a great indirect way of helping to make Wikipedia better, and provides a meaningful audience for the students.

Compare Wikipedia to other reference sources
Learning objectives: Writing skills, Media literacy, Research skills Many instructors use Wikipedia in the classroom to teach media literacy. Comparing and contrasting Wikipedia’s entry on a particular topic to another online resource, such as the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, is a particularly effective assignment in this regard. Not only do students benefit from seeing the strengths and weaknesses of each source, but they also learn about the different resources available from the university’s library. This assignment is a good introduction to Wikipedia, as it does not require students to learn wiki mark-up. An interesting extension is to have students offer suggestions for improvement on the “Discussion” pages of Wikipedia articles once they have performed their comparison.
Use Wikipedia as a primary source for research
Learning objectives: Writing skills, Research skills Many classes study local phenomena, such as mayoral elections or bond issues. Wikipedia is a community in and of itself. Studying the governance structure of Wikipedia, the evolution of policies such as “neutral point of view,” and the ways editors envision themselves as part of a larger global collective are just some of the ways you could use Wikipedia as a primary source for undergraduate and graduate research projects about how a community works.
Translate an article
Learning objectives: Writing skills, Collaboration and community of practice Did you know that Wikipedia exists in over 270 languages? Translating articles from one language to another is a primary endeavor for some Wikipedians! Having students translate articles or write articles in foreign-language classes gives their assignments meaning and relevance outside of class. Moreover, their interactions with native speakers on the Discussion pages of the articles will help improve their language skills. For this assignment, it would be best if the instructor were familiar with all the language Wikipedias being used in the class, as each community has different norms. However, it is generally recognized that those editors doing translation work are not as familiar with community norms as those “native” to home projects; translators are generally greeted with open arms and helped along in a very friendly manner.
Compare Wikipedia to journalism sources
Learning objectives: Writing skills, Media literacy, Research skills To what extent is Wikipedia a form of journalism? Comparing and contrasting Wikipedia articles, such as “2004 Indiana Ocean earthquake and tsunami,” to the reports and stories that were issued by mainstream news media can help students answer this question.

What role does Wikipedia play as a popularizer of science? Scientists often bemoan the coverage of science in the major newspapers. Comparing and contrasting the coverage of the “2009 flu pandemic vaccine,” for example, in the popular press and on Wikipedia would allow biology professors to discuss what it means to write for the public. Also, having students assess the accuracy of the two fora would allow professors to discover what the students really understand about the concepts.

This assignment is a good introduction to teaching with Wikipedia, as it does not require students to learn wiki mark-up. However, an interesting extension is to have students offer suggestions for improvement on the “discussion” pages of Wikipedia articles once they have performed their comparisons.

Chart the evolution of an article over a news cycle
Learning objectives: Writing skills, Media literacy, Research skills Wikipedia has become a news source for many readers—the main page even has an “in the news” section. However, articles change drastically over the course of a news cycle as interested readers add and delete information. Having students trace these additions and deletions and the consequent effects on the article will give them greater awareness of the changing flux of information in the internet age.

Create charts, graphs, images and pictures
Learning objectives: Research skills Wikipedia is not just about words. Charts and graphs that illustrate important concepts, such as migration, population growth, and climate change are also crucial. Assignments that ask students to create and add these visual aids to Wikipedia articles can be integrated into computing, science, rhetoric, and any other classes where the visualization of data is important.

Another way to engage your students in knowledge creation is to have your students work on articles about notable local subjects that lack pictures. Take them on a "photo-walk," have them upload their images to Wikimedia Commons, and finally add their original pictures to the articles they are working on.

Create recordings
Learning objectives: Research skills Wikipedia's articles on art forms, such as dance and music, benefit enormously from video recordings. Students could record themselves performing classic moves or pieces and upload these recordings to Wikimedia Commons.

Spoken articles make Wikipedia content available to those who can understand English but cannot read it. Students in voice training could record themselves reading Wikipedia articles aloud in conjuncture with Spoken Wikipedia.

Developing New Articles[edit]

If your students are starting new articles, we encourage them to go through the Articles for Creation (AfC) review process. This process for new articles makes sure that the articles meet some basic requirements before releasing them to the public. To use AfC, first have students write their article in a user sandbox named after your topic, such as User:Example/George Harold, just as they would when expanding an existing article. When they're done and ready to deploy it, add the text "{{subst:afc submission/submit}}" to the top of the page. A bot will (within 30 minutes) automatically move their article to an "Articles for creation" subpage, such as Wikipedia:Articles for creation/George Harold. A reviewer will then review it as soon as possible and provide feedback. If it is approved, it will be moved again and become an official article. If it is not, the student may address the reviewer's feedback and try again. There is no limit to the number of retries. Note that AfC cannot be used for editing or expanding existing articles.

Tips on selecting an article for your students to work on[edit]

We have included a few simple guidelines for the kinds of articles that may be appropriate for student work and what kinds of articles to avoid. The guidelines below are the result of feedback and experiences of professors and students.

Good choice

  • Choose a topic that is well established in the discipline, but only weakly represented on Wikipedia. The best choice is a topic where a lot of literature is available but isn't covered extensively on Wikipedia.
  • Gravitate toward "stub" and "start" class articles. These articles have only 1-2 paragraphs of information and are in need of expansion. Relevant WikiProject pages can provide a list of stubs that need improvement.
  • Before creating a new article, spend 15-20 minutes searching related topics on Wikipedia to make sure your topic isn't already covered. Often, an article may already exist under another name or as a subsection of a broader article.

Not such a good choice

  • Trying to improve articles on very broad topics (e.g. Law)
  • Trying to improve articles on topics that are highly controversial (e.g. Global Warming, Abortion, Scientology, etc.) Your students may be more successful starting a sub-article on the topic instead.
  • Working on articles that are already of high quality on Wikipedia
  • Working on something only sparsely covered by literature. Wikipedia articles cite secondary literature sources, so it is important that students have enough sources to provide a neutral point of view and be verifiable.
  • Starting articles with titles that imply an essay-like approach (e.g. The Effects That The Recent Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis has had on the US and Global Economics). These type of titles, and most likely the content too, may not be appropriate for an encyclopedia.

Grading Rubric[edit]

We have heard from many professors that they are unsure of how to grade Wikipedia assignments. In an effort to help, let's look at how you can assess your students' contributions to Wikipedia and their experience writing on Wikipedia. Depending on the complexity of your assignment, designing a grading rubric for it may be easy or challenging. Here are some ideas that have worked well for other instructors.

Before we get into some of the methods for assessing student work, there are a couple key items that will help you when you grade Wikipedia assignments:

Knowing all the students' usernames on Wikipedia is a necessary precondition
Without knowing the students' usernames on Wikipedia, the instructor won't be able to grade them. Create a page for the course on Wikipedia in the beginning of the semester. Then create a participants list and make it mandatory for the students to add their usernames to that list. Once all students have signed the list, you can come back later and click on "user contributions" (in the menu bar on the left hand side of your browser screen) to review all of the student's activities on Wikipedia.
Be clear about the expectations
Being explicit about what you expect the students to do is key for the instructors. Example: The assignment for the students could be to add a minimum of 3 new sections to an existing article, and to add a minimum of 8 references to an existing article that lacks the appropriate sourcing.

Evaluation Type Description
If your project extends for an entire semester, you might consider having your students blog about their experience. 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.
Reflective paper
After the assignment is over, you might consider having students write a short reflective essay on their experiences using Wikipedia. This works well for both short and long Wikipedia projects. An interesting variation of this is to have students write a short version of the essay before they begin editing Wikipedia which outlines their expectations, and then have them reflect to what extent those expectations were met after they have completed the assignment.
Similar to the reflective paper, another possible grading method is to ask students to turn in a series of writings: (1) a collection of all of their contributions from Wikipedia and other class activities (thus reducing the need for the professor to find these student contributions on Wikipedia himself/herself), (2) a summary of and reflection on the students' interactions with other Wikipedia editors, and (3) a reflective paper discussing their experiences working on Wikipedia. By creating such a portfolio, students collect their work and debrief about their experience.
Presentation (individual or group)
You might consider having students give an oral presentation on their Wikipedia experiences. This allows students to practice public speaking skills in addition to the writing skills they have learned on Wikipedia.
Peer reviews
Asking the students to peer review each other's work meets two objectives:

First, the students will practice their review skills. They will have to critically evaluate their peer's contribution to Wikipedia. For example, they could try to answer questions like: Are the newly added sections of the article readable? Are all additions well referenced? Does the content adhere to Wikipedia's Neutral Point of View policy? How much do the additions improve the article overall?

Second, asking your students to peer review each other's work also helps the instructor to save time. Assessing the contributions of each individual in a class of 30 students can be time consuming. Asking the students to write reviews is an alternate way to assess the student's work on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia quality assessment tools
You might consider using Wikipedia's own quality assessment tools as part of your grading schema. Most articles on Wikipedia are ranked "stub" through "featured" class. You could require students to move articles up this quality ranking scale, or achieve one of the highest quality levels - "good article" or "featured article."
Bytes or characters
You might consider grading students on the sheer amount of material they add to Wikipedia. This can be easily calculated using Wikipedia's many automated tools.
Article history
A key tool for professors assessing the student's work is Wikipedia's "page history" feature. The page history contains a list of the page's previous revisions. All past changes to the page in question are listed in reverse-chronological order. To find out what a specific student contributed to a Wikipedia article, you have to follow these four steps:
(1) Go to the article that the student worked on.
(2) Click on "View history" in the upper right tab list on top of the article.
(3) Find the student's Wikipedia user name in the list of contributors.
(4) Compare the previous version with the version the student saved: Tick the left-column radio button of the older version and the right-column radio button of the newer version, and then click the "Compare selected versions" button.

See Wikipedia's help page page history for more information about how to use the page history feature.

Student contribution history
A key tool for assessing an individual student's work is the "contribs" feature, which will show you a history of that student's edits.
(1) Click the history of any page to which the editor you are interested in contributed.
(2) Locate the name of the editor in the edit history.
(3) Click on the word "contribs" next to the editor's name.
(4) A list of the every edit that user has made to Wikipedia will appear.

Sample Grading Structure[edit]

In grading a "research and write an article" type of assignment, the following grading rubric has been successful:

  • 5% each (x4): Participation grade for early Wikipedia exercises
  • 10%: Participation in Wikipedia discussions in class
  • 10%: Peer reviews and collaboration with classmates
  • 50%: Quality of your main Wikipedia contributions, evaluated in light of your reflective essay
  • 10%: Reflective essay

Finish Your Orientation[edit]

Please follow this link to confirm that you have completed the training.


  1. Module One: Global Education Program Overview
  2. Module Two: About Wikipedia
  3. Module Three: Syllabus and Assignment Design