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