teaching methods

Is Wikipedia the Devil? Or the Devil we Know?

March, 2011 · By Justin Bengry

Students rely on Wikipedia. Professors can pretend that their threats of Fs on assignments matter, but in reality it offers little deterrent. Students can and do weave facts, information, opinions and interpretations that they find online into their papers. If the material seems reasonable, or general, or cited elsewhere, it might not even draw our attention, particularly when we have to grade 50 or 75 or 90 term papers on a weekend. What is the solution?

One answer, probably the most common, is to scold and threaten. We tell our students that Wikipedia is an inappropriate and unacceptable source for historical research and writing. We threaten them with Fs and rewrites. Another answer is to explain to students why Wikipedia is an unreliable source. It lacks appropriate documentation of sources, and is written by individuals with uncertain research skills who base entries largely on sometimes-dubious secondary material. And then we threaten them with Fs and rewrites. But is there a third solution? We know our students use Wikipedia. Can we use this to our advantage? Can we teach them about online sources and how to determine the credibility of what they read and discover?  Can we undermine their reliance on Wikipedia, while at the same time use it as a teaching tool?

All term I’ve told my students that Wikipedia is an inappropriate source for university work, and that recourse to it in their work is forbidden. This seemed to work, and their term paper proposals and other writings have so far remained fairly clean. Then I read the midterms. All material necessary for complete answers to all midterm questions was available in lectures, documents, and text readings. But when I graded the midterms, I began to find unexpected references to statistics and details I was unfamiliar with appearing in more than one exam. I googled particular terms and discovered that even when provided with all materials necessary for a complete A-range response on the exam, my students still used Wikipedia as a study tool. And they clearly made notes that they then memorized, preferring the statistical “facts” to the focus on interpretation that I emphasized.

After frustration and disappointment passed, I thought about what I could do. Forbidding Wikipedia is only a partial success, and impossible to enforce completely. Promising to deliver instant Fs on any work relying on it seems too draconian. Certainly there has to be something to learn here, something that we can apply to the classroom?

Over at the Cliotropic blog Shane Landrum has one idea. Noticing that Women’s History was significantly underdeveloped on facebook, Shane is exploring the idea of assigning Wikipedia building and cleanup assignments:

If you teach history courses on women, gender, or sexuality, or on the history of any racial or ethnic minority in the United States, it’s worth considering adding a Wikipedia assignment to your syllabus. … Students could learn a lot about what we know and how we know it from editing the articles, and I think it also would teach them to be more skeptical the next time they try to use Wikipedia as a reference.

As Shane points out, others are already building similar assignments in exciting ways. A historian of ancient Rome has worked out many of the logistics:

I’ve used the “stubs” feature of Wikipedia to generate a list of 120 topics relating to ancient Roman civilization that need full articles. Then I’m requiring the 120 students in my upcoming Roman Civilization class to each write one article. This will hopefully teach them how to do original research in the library on obscure, narrowly focused topics and then create something of lasting value to others. The students will also be required to each review three of their fellow students’ articles in order to learn about the collaborative editing process. I’m a little nervous about its success, but I’m hoping to be part of the solution to the issues raised by Wikipedia, rather than contributing to the problems.

I’m convinced that there’s something to this. I’m wary of validating Wikipedia as a legitimate source through assignments like this, but I can see the immediate value offered by giving students the opportunity to do original research for publication in a venue they can already identify with. And maybe if they realize that the people writing entries are no more expert than themselves, they’ll have a greater awareness of the risks of using Wikipedia as a source.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
3 March 2011.

Why (and how) do we teach history?

November, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

One of my responsibilities as a postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan is to teach one course per year. This isn’t entirely new to me. I TAed for a dozen years, and was the instructor of record for a course last year at the University of California. But I’m still pretty junior in terms of running my own classes.

In anticipation of teaching a course in twentieth-century European history this coming term, I’m thinking about how I want to structure the course, organize themes, and what I want to impart to my students. Essentially, the purpose of the course will affect its structure. But what is the purpose of the course? Why do we teach history? And how does this affect our delivery?

These are questions I’ve struggled with throughout graduate school, and now beyond. I want to nurture in my students an engagement and passion with the subjects and themes that have drawn me to history: the power of lived experience, the importance of minority positions to broader social concerns, and the possibility of positive change. But is that all I want my students to take from my classes? No.

What’s perhaps even more important, I believe, are the skills they can learn in a history class. Students learn to critically engage with sources by asking questions about who created them and for what purposes. They also learn how to communicate effectively, strengthening their oral communication skills in seminar situations, and honing their written communication skills in essays and exams. Students also build their critical thinking skills as they are asked to evaluate historical situations, events, and individuals’ motivations. They need to grapple with understanding the forces of change and continuity, and the competing interests which direct them.

So this brings me back to the class I’m planning. If I want students to take best advantage of my course to gain and improve their skills, how can I best facilitate that?

I’m very ambivalent about the lecture model of education. Part of this is because I have so little experience giving lectures, but also because I believe it too easily allows students to remain passive rather than active learners. That isn’t to say that lectures don’t have a role in education, allowing students the opportunity to gain insights and direction from experts in a particular field. And we’ve all certainly had excellent lectures from whom we’ve gained a lot. But I think they are limited in what they can offer most students.

I believe strongly in the seminar model, which I’ve used very successfully in my past teaching experience. My students learned a great deal from close reading and discussion of sources and documents—and so did I. That course, however, included only about a dozen students, an ideal number for engaged and active learning. In January, I’ll be teaching more than 50, far too many to sit around one table.

So my solution is to hybridize, creating a combination of lecture and seminar opportunities. Since we will meet three times a week, I’m planning to devote two days to lectures, which will frame the material, establish common background, and create a base upon which we can further explore particular themes. Fridays, then, will be turned over to self-directed groups who will discuss pre-circulated questions based on primary and secondary readings related to that week’s lectures. There is no way to engage all 50 students at once in a seminar, so groups will comprise 6-8 students, and a rotating group leader who will facilitate conversation. I will circulate, observe, answer questions, and interject only as needed.

I’m excited about this model: a compromise which allows me to work effectively with 50+ students, but which also creates and environment where each one has to engage with sources and communicate his or her thoughts. Since I truly believe that the benefit derived from studying history isn’t always about the content, but rather about the skills we teach students, this model seems a stronger method to achieve that.

But I’m curious to hear how others have handled these medium sized courses that are too large to be true seminars, but small enough to offer some opportunity to go beyond traditional lectures to promote active and engaged learning. What have you done? What has succeeded, and what has failed?

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
5 November 2010.