Chanitra Bishop: 5 ways Wikipedia can help teach research and critical thinking skills

In this post, Chanitra Bishop, Web and Digital Initiatives Librarian at Hunter College, draws from her experiences using Wikipedia in classrooms and libraries. Her recommendations are useful for framing classroom discussions during Wikipedia assignments, or can operate as stand-alone media literacy exercises to complement any kind of assignment. 

When it comes to doing research, Wikipedia may not be the first source that comes to mind, especially for a librarian. However, the reasons that might make Wikipedia a questionable choice for teaching research and critical thinking skills are actually good reasons to use it.

Wikipedia is great because it’s familiar to students. Students often begin and end their research on Wikipedia, anyway. Teaching them how to use it is a great opportunity to teach critical reading and research skills.

Here are five learning objectives I’ve identified in my experiences using Wikipedia in classrooms libraries.

1. Using Wikipedia for background information

Learning objective: Teach students the importance of background research, and how it can aid them in the writing process.

Many students skip background research, either because of time or because they don’t think they need it. When students begin their research, they may not know much about their topic (and those topics can be broad). Students often need help knowing what to look for, and how to use what they find.

Have students read a Wikipedia article on their topic and look for:

  • Key issues; why the topic, person, event is important
  • Important names/authorities/events
  • Major dates

Discuss with students how they might narrow down their topic based on what they learned from the article.

Key questions:

  • Is there an important person or event or subtopic that took place that they want to further research? For example, the article on birth control: Do they want to discuss a specific method, or various viewpoints?

2. Compare Wikipedia Article to Encyclopedia Britannica

Learning objective: Teach that different sources often provide different information, so it’s important to look at more than one source, and to evaluate the quality of those sources, when doing research.

Unless students are required to use several sources, students might rely too much on a single source. This assignment helps students see how sources include or exclude certain details. Assign students to read the Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica articles (or another source) on the same topic. Then ask students to compare and contrast the two.

Key questions:

  • Do they both provide the same information? What does one provide that the other does not?
  • Do they provide the same references? The same number of references?
  • What are the reference sources? Are they Internet sources, books, magazine or journal articles?
  • Has your class discussed or used any of the sources?
  • Does one encyclopedia provide better coverage of the topic than the other? If, so, why?

3. Wikipedia Article Analysis

Learning objective: Teach students to recognize bias in sources, specifically websites like Wikipedia, and determine the quality of the article

Students often come across websites in their research that appear to be great sources. This assignment asks students to think about Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View,” and if an article draws from reliable sources.

Key questions:

  • Are there any gaps in what the article covers? For example, does it cover all popular opinions on topic, every year of an event, and all of the people involved in the event?
  • Is the information accurate?
  • Is the information presented objectively? Is the article slanted towards one perspective (or ignore others)? Are there any signs of bias in the article? Is article told from a “Neutral Point of View”? Does the article provide statistics to support its claims? Does the article make general statements like “most, many…”?
  • Has the article been rated? If so, how is it rated? Why? Do you agree with the rating?
  • Do the article’s sources contain information similar to other sources, such as encyclopedias or class readings? Who is the publisher? What is the source of the information? Is the information supported by other sources?
  • Is the material well-written, presented and organized? Is it organized in a manner similar to other Wikipedia articles?

4. Source Evaluation

Learning Objective: This assignment teaches students to be more critical when selecting sources and to consider whether the source is appropriate for their research.

Students might select the first few items from online search results, rather than reading more about the source to determine if it is appropriate. For this assignment, students analyze the references used in a Wikipedia article. Wiki Ed’s handbook on Evaluating Wikipedia can help students evaluate article quality.

Key questions:

  • Review the abstract. How is the article related to your topic? What facts, criticism, and analysis is provided?
  • If available in the catalog record, review the summary or table of contents. Are the chapters related to your topic?
  • Where does the article appear? Is it in a well-known newspaper or magazine? Is it in an academic journal?
  • Scan the major headings of the article. Does it focus on a particular perspective? Does it discuss other opinions? Does it provide any disclaimers for limitations of the research?
  • Who is the author? Google the author, have they published other materials on this topic? Where do they work? What are their credentials?
  • Who is the publisher? Are they well known? Is it a university press?

5. Evolution of an Article

Learning Objective: Teach students about the development of Wikipedia articles and online communities. Help students see how articles are improved and that the articles are dynamic.

For this activity, students look at the history of an article and compare the current version with an older version.

Key questions:

  • How has the article changed? What has been added or removed from the article since the earlier version?
  • Do you agree with the changes? Do you think the article is better? Why?
  • Look at the talk page, has there been any major discussions of changes? If so, what were they?

These notes were condensed from Chanitra Bishop’s presentation, “Teaching Research & Critical Thinking Skills Through Wikipedia,” at WikiConference USA 2015, which you can watch here. To find out more about Wiki Ed’s resources for instructors, see our Teaching page. 

Photo: “Chanitra Bishop at Regional Ambassador training, 2011-07-07” by Sage RossOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


One thought on “Chanitra Bishop: 5 ways Wikipedia can help teach research and critical thinking skills

  1. Agreed with all this and more. Today my classes compared articles in the Encyclopedia de los Municipios de México to corresponding ones in English Wikipedia to analyze how and why they are written differently (spoiler: audience and purpose)

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