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Capital W stands for WashU and Wikipedia

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2013: Lots of teachers tell students to stay away from Wikipedia. At Washington University, Joan Strassmann has her students write articles for it.

Her undergraduate course in behavioral ecology is an officially designated Wikipedia course, where students learn not only about subjects like social insects but also about how to translate their scientific knowledge into terms the Wikipedia-using public can understand.

In the process, they find out how tough peer reviewers can be, which Strassmann says can be a valuable lesson for any scientist.

“To me,” she says, “what it means more than anything is to respect the evidence and write something for Wikipedia that has very strict standards. They don’t want opinion. They want a neutral tone and they want evidence.

“Writing for Wikipedia is a really good thing. It means I’m not the one who says this is how you write. I say this is how Wikipedia wants it, this is how you're going to do it.”

Strassmann, who came to teach at Washington U. in 2011 with her husband, David Queller, after both had spent many years at Rice University, says she got the Wikipedia idea from her sister, who taught economics at Rice. She likes to use different styles of teaching and learning besides the more traditional methods, and she said Wikipedia was an ideal fit.

“We all use Wikipedia,” she said of the open-source online compendium of knowledge in every field imaginable. “It’s the first place we turn. So it’s a really good idea to understand it and make it better.

“It’s really the perfect venue. It’s very energizing for students to see their work elsewhere, where their siblings or their grandmother or their roommate can see it. They see it makes a difference.”

They also can see how critical outsiders can be, like when one of her students saw an article trashed as “vandalism” and taken down. Strassmann and the class disagreed, and a spirited back-and-forth ensued that helped reinforce the point of using Wikipedia in the first place.

“You just can’t buy the positive outcome of that kind of energy for the intellectual process,” she said. “This is like a free real-world intellectual experience. It’s fantastic.

“So often in a classroom, it feels like it’s the professor against the students, that I’m setting the standards and they’re trying to jump through my hoops. I don’t like that feeling. I’m not a complete Pollyanna. I understand the inequality of the situation. But with Wikipedia, we have a common – not an enemy, but people we have to deal with.”

A worldwide forum

In the converted computer lab in the basement of Eads Hall where Strassmann teaches her class of 52 students, students cluster in nine groups next to large computer monitors mounted around the room.

Each group is assigned to one of three teaching assistants, and within the groups are smaller teams of three students each who will work together on the online entries – one acting as Wikipedia expert, one as the writing expert and one as the fact checker.

“Of course,” Strassmann says, “I’m the ultimate fact checker. I don’t read every draft, but at the end of the semester I read every word my class has put out there. I don’t want there to be even a wrong nuance. I want to make sure they’re contributing.”

The course examines animal behavior from an evolutionary perspective, looking at topics such as mating systems, sexual selection and parental care in butterflies, moths, fish and social insects.

In a recent class session, after giving back quizzes, Strassmann asked the students whether they have been taking advantage of what their classmates had to say about their writing. “Have you been looking at each other’s comments?” she said. “Have they been helpful or just a pain?”

Their next assignment, she said, was to find another 10 references of the kind that Wikipedia articles require, plus writing another 1,000 words.

“How many of you are going to do it on a new organism?” Strassmann asks. “How many of you haven’t even thought about it?”

Students and their teaching assistants all say that the Wikipedia aspect of the course have prompted them to look a little differently at what they learn and how they learn.

“You can go onto the internet after you’ve done it, looking for something,” said junior Kai Jones, “and your article is the first thing that comes up. That’s pretty cool. It’s not like once you’re out there, people aren’t going to read it, which is nice to know.”

After writing on bedbugs, she said she knows the experience will have a lasting impact on how she studies, and she hopes it will help people trying to learn more about the topic as well.

Student Grant Schalet said he used to have a vague notion of how Wikipedia worked, but the class has changed that.

“I always had this perception that Wikipedia was modified and articles were overseen by some knowledge base,” he said. “When Dr. Strassmann guided us through the way you could just go in and edit, it was empowering for undergraduates.

“I’ve never taken a class where I’ve written in this capacity before, where I’m taking on individual assignments, but they’re fluid. Each assignment builds on the next, so it’s a process, but we’re also judged on our basic knowledge each week with quizzes. So it’s not really a free for all. There is the traditional old style underlying this new style.”

And, he said, there’s also an insight into how science works.

“I think it sets the stage for a realistic way to write scientifically,” Schalet said. “Everything is a process. There is never really a final draft. That also applies to research. That’s frankly one of the reasons I’m drawn to science, because it’s constantly being updated and expanded.”

Classmate Glenn Harris added:

“To be able to look at a scientific article and say, are these methods good or bad, how can I summarize them, it’s directly applicable not only to what I’m doing but to what people in STEM careers do.

“It takes some getting used to. You’re out there. You’re exposed. You have to get used to what other people think.”

Those kinds of attitudes didn’t necessarily come easily, says teaching assistant Boahemaa Adu-Oppong.

“The first day it was wait, we have to write a Wikipedia article? It was a struggle to get them to submit it to Wikipedia. I told them, it’s OK, we’ll go over and it and edit. It’s OK if it’s not 100 percent perfect. We’ll get there. Now I’m reading their feedback, and they’re actually having a lot of fun.

“I feel they’ll understand and remember this 10 years from now, which isn’t usually the case.”

And, added teaching assistant Kimberley Sukhum, it’s interesting to see the different approaches students take.

“How they go into it varies,” she said. “Some of them go into lot of detail, others are more informally discussing what is going on. You try to get them into more of a middle ground.

“A lot of them will take rejection well, take the comments and go back and fix it. Sometimes it’s not clear, and it’s a little more difficult. Someone may delete all their work and they don’t understand why that happens. It’s hard to understand it’s a group forum around the world.”

And at this point, that worldwide feedback, from people who may be even more expertise than someone on the faculty, doesn’t seem to be scaring anyone, said TA Jason Scott.

“They’re just so committed, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I haven’t gotten any sense of any intimidation."

Smart students, smart work

That kind of confidence building is one of the points of the whole Wikipedia exercise, Strassmann explained. The prospect of writing for the whole world to see isn’t always a welcome one, she knows; what she terms a “scary” email explaining what the class was going to do led to a reduced student roster, at least at first.

But she wants to make sure that active learners know different ways of embracing and internalizing the material.

“If you want just to coast through and not actually be intellectually engaged, this would not be the class for you,” Strassmann said. “These kids are bright. They know how to take a test, how to cram the day before, take the test and not remember anything the next day. This class is not like that.

“I’m really a believer in smart students doing stuff that matters. I just feel like people will care more if they work on something that matters.”

They’re working toward the sought-after designations on Wikipedia of “good article” or even “featured article,” an external goal that helps bolster the solid learning and expertise that Strassmann’s approach provides.

And it also helps develop another aspect of science and scholarship that she hopes to instill in her students – contributing to their field of study.

“I feel like kids that are as privileged as our students are need to give something back,” she said, “and they need to be taught to how to give something back. They want to give something back. So often, what they give back is outside the classroom, but I feel that what they give back can come out of the classroom, too.”

In a way, Strassmann said, that kind of sharing is what Wikipedia is all about, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of any student’s academic experience.

“Everyone should embrace it and educate people about it,” she said. “That’s where students are going to go first. You may tell them not to, but that’s where students go, so you might as well use that to their advantage and help them understand how to use it. If there’s a problem with Wikipedia, it should be fixed.

“I don’t want to forbid use of technology. I want them to embrace what’s going on. I don’t want it to be an issue. Personally, I use Wikipedia all the time. I think it’s really useful. It’s not necessarily the last place I look, but it’s certainly the first.”

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