Students editing Wikipedia

From time to time I hear colleagues who are aghast at the thought of our students referring to Wikipedia.  I’ve often thought that rather than having a rant about students using Wikipedia, we could be getting them to critically review and edit a page and improve an entry relating to a medical topic.  Reading this paper in First Monday on assigning Wikipedia editing to students has made think about this again and explore whether this is something we can have a go at with our students.

Roth, A., Davis, R., & Carver, B. (2013). Assigning Wikipedia editing: Triangulation toward understanding university student engagement. First Monday, 18(6).

The abstract highlights:

Several themes emerged through the research and many of the dominant themes were linked. The global audience both motivated and intimidated students. Students appreciated the usefulness of contributing to Wikipedia and found satisfaction in making information accessible to the public worldwide. Students engaged with an online community and appreciated feedback and collaboration. Some recognized a degree of possessiveness that they felt toward the article. Both instructors and students observed that student research and writing skills improved. Qualitative data from both students and professors indicates that in learning basic writing skills, a Wikipedia writing assignment is comparable to a traditional research paper, however, students are more engaged in a Wikipedia assignment.

There is much talk about developing students’ digital literacy skills (or information literacy  as some of us would prefer to call them).  It strikes me that editing Wikipedia would help students develop their understanding and skills in this area as well as give them a sense of achievement.


I’m a keen advocate of getting our students involved as producers of learning and these comments from students quoted in the paper chimed a chord with me.

Many students remark on the satisfaction that their work serves a useful purpose. One student comments, “Wikipedia project = a paper I’ve written that didn’t end up in a professor’s recycling bin. Awesome.” Another one states, “I really like the fact that the work done for this class won’t just get thrown away at the end like most homework.” Another student states that it “felt good doing something that wasn’t just an assignment, but that actually benefits outsiders.”

This echoes what some of our students have been saying where they’ve been creating a learning resource as part of their dermatology block assessment, they feel they are leaving a legacy that will help and support the students coming up behind them in their learning.

Would be interesting to know if others have asked students to review and edit Wikipedia and what the outcome has been.


  1. Hi Natalie, I haven’t had students contribute but I love the idea. I have done some writing and editing for the veterinary version, WikiVet, and it does give me the sense of making a contribution that will benefit many.
    BTW Love the graphic on 21st century learning skills. Is it yours?

    1. Hi Rebekah – I’m going to see if I can discuss with some colleagues and see if there might be an opportunity to pilot something along these lines. The graphic is mine, I’ll post it up on Flickr and share with a CC licence so others can use.

  2. This method also demonstrates to students that anyone can edit the documents. As a result, it should help them understand the need to critically reflect on the accuracy of the information and not to rely solely on what they see in a wiki.

    When the tools are out there, the best thing is to actively engage with them. A ‘just don’t do it’ approach is not only limiting, but also fails to explain why that conclusion had been reached.

    Good post. And many thanks for pointing out the First Monday piece, Natalie.

    1. Thanks Martin – It seems such an obvious thing to do in many ways and as you say it should help them understand the need to critically reflect. I wonder if in some quarters there is a still a fear of letting students learn outside the walled garden of the VLE.

  3. I got into editing WP a year or so ago, and this past March did a pilot project at my medical school where a small group of 8 students improved a wikipedia article as a part of a small-group/problem-based-learning session. I’m hoping to expand it slightly next year.

    The students seemed to really enjoy it. I had approached it from the perspective of patient education; while students and practitioners refer to it regularly, so do patients, and so it can be a model or test bed for building non-jargon communication skills while summarizing the best available information for a patient audience. (Another venue for this, in case you weren’t aware of it, is the Simple English Wikipedia,, which is targeted at a lower reading level.)

    It does take some background to do successfully though. As a WP editor I have seen the mess of things that student projects can make unwittingly. It is absolutely imperative that both the professor and the students have a working knowledge of the policies and best practices on WP before they make edits to article-space. Especially the professor.

    My perspective is, as long as it’s getting as much traffic as it is, it can’t hurt to improve it. It would be wonderful to get more buy-in from faculty on this.

    There are potential drawbacks though, specifically when talking about more contentious subjects. Social sciences topics and alternative medicine would be some of the big ones, but it’s also surprising how much conflict can arise on e.g. the page for the prostate serum antigen test. There are strategies for directing newbies to areas of high importance and low conflict, but sometimes surprising things happen.

    1. Hi Rigel – thanks for sharing your experiences of editing WIkipedia. Interesting to hear that the focus was on patient education, particularly given that health topics are the most frequently googled by older generations. What’s been the resposne from your Faculty to the project? Have they been supportive and if not what do you think the main issues that need to be overcome?

      1. Well, I was deliberate (and quite adamant) at the limited scope, and the faculty I worked with gave me the impression that there was hesitant, limited support for the idea. I have not heard any negative feedback.

        Perhaps this is a little bit inside-baseball (is there an appropriate UK euphemism for that?) but from the perspective of WP the real prize with student projects is not the students, at least not in the near term. It’s engagement by faculty. There are only a few thousand people worldwide who work on tending and improving the english wikipedia. A few faculty here and there who know what they’re writing about are invaluable.

        1. Not sure what the UK equivalent of a little bit inside baseball is but I agree with you about Faculty engagement with Wikipedia. It would be nice to see them engaging with it and editing it rather than just bashing it. That said I have some colleagues here who will happily admit that they refer to it as a starting point and that’s something our students will say too. They’ll look something up there initially and then move on to other sources of information. All the best with trying to get continued engagement with your project.

    1. Thanks Alan, hadn’t realised that you had tried this already. Was there are 50-50 split in opinion amongst your students? I wonder whether 5 years on you’d still get the same response or split of responses?

      1. I think the older paper raises some good points, at least from my perspective.

        There is a tendency in some of the university projects i’ve watched to treat editing wikipedia as simply a shift in venue — instead of turning in a paper, simply post it on wikipedia. This almost invariably leads to failure. WP has fairly well established norms and policies, at least for many things. When a student is directed to produce 200 words on a subject and add it to WP, that ignores the contributions and work that the pre-existing community has done, and treats WP as little more than a bulletin board. This is not well-received by the WP community.

        Mandating engagement, though, is much harder, especially for faculty that may not be engaged with this community already. There are also no clear metrics for evaluation. For instance, sometimes what is most valuable for an article is clarifying and simplifying the language, or going through and verifying that the citations actually say what the article asserts they say. So there are implementation details that have to be given a great deal of thought before proceeding.

        But at the same time, I don’t feel like this is much different from many things in medicine or scholarship generally. Know your audience, know the values of the community you are interacting with.

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