Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An exercise intended to show students the limitations of Wikipedia as a research tool.

No matter how much we warn students about the limitations of Wikipedia as a research tool (law students use it for both legal and fact research), they're going to disregard those warnings and use it anyway.  You can't blame them, really.  Just because Wikipedia has limitations doesn't mean it's useless as a research tool.  In fact, it's pretty good for some applications.

But students will almost certainly tend to over-rely on it without understanding the risks.  This undergrad writing professor got tired of telling students about the pitfalls of Wikipedia and instead created an exercise intended to show them those risks:

Instead of tellingmy students that Wikipedia is not always an appropriate source, I let them discover it for themselves by integrating a simple exercise into a writing seminar. I assigned a text titled Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum. The author, Gerald Nosich, lays out standards for critical thinking: clearness, accuracy, relevance, sufficiency, depth, and precision. We thoroughly discussed these and did practice exercises that reinforced the notion that critical thinking involves regular application of the standards. Like most writing seminars, a major research project lay at the end of the intellectual tunnel.

About halfway through the process I threw students a curve ball. I knew that some were beginning to see the holes in their own research and I wanted to make sure they plugged these with substance, not generalities. To that end, I assigned a simple 750-word exercise that I provocatively titled “Does Wikipedia Suck?” (I can get away with slightly off-kilter language at my university; if you can’t, tone it down to something along the lines of “Is Wikipedia Useless?”) Students were told to pick a concept, theory, or individual central to their paper, read the matching Wikipedia entry, and assess how useful it is for their research. The criteria for usefulness were the standards of critical thinking from the Nosich book.

The concept was dead simple, but the results were better than I could have dreamed. Contrary to what enemies of Wikipedia claim, my students did find value in the entries. It was praised for its clarity, organization, relevance and accuracy. (Not a single student detected a factual error in an entry.) Quite a few students found useful cited sources. That was as far as it went, however. Students immediately came to the same conclusion that professors have been harping upon from time immemorial: Most encyclopedia entries sacrifice depth for breadth. Not a single student felt that Wikipedia passed the sufficiency test and most noted that the material contained in the entries was nonspecific, anecdotal, and incomplete; hence Wikipedia also failed the precision test. Aside from the 2 (of 21) students who were so put off that they vowed that they’d never consult Wikipedia, the rest commented that it was a place to get very basic information, but that it could not be relied upon for serious in-depth research.

The most valuable lesson of all took place in the debriefing discussion the day papers were handed in. Students shared their concerns about Wikipedia’svirtues and deficiencies with each other and saw that it was a peer consensus, not a professor’s rant. I then asked them how they could evaluate all sources — electronic and print — in the same fashion as they judged Wikipedia. Within a week I had to but ask of any source “Is it sufficient?” in order to trigger thinking about evidence, logic, and data.

This worked so well that I’m now contemplating ways to adapt the exercise for other courses. I’ll probably reword some of the Nosich standards for history classes — the word “evidence” might make more sense than “precision,” for example. I envision a short paper in which students compare topics they’ve just studied with Wikipedia entries. I’ll probably theme it on what they learned versus what they failed to learn, ask students to speculate on why important exclusions occurred, and brainstorm on how historians use evidence and evaluate the sufficiency of a thesis.

You can read the rest at Inside Higher Ed here.

I am the scholarship dude.


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