Evaluating student learning through Wikipedia

Wiki Education Foundation Research Fellow, Dr. Zachary McDowell
Wiki Education Foundation Research Fellow, Dr. Zachary McDowell.

A goal of higher education is to ensure that students learn information that enriches their lives and their careers. As an instructor in higher education, I want to make sure we’re developing the critical skills that ensure future success.

Students must master a new set of skills to prepare them for the world beyond their classroom. These skills will improve their careers, their lives, and even future scholarship. Digital/information literacy, critical research, teamwork and group communication, technology, and writing are the most cited examples.

I’ve seen firsthand that assigning Wikipedia articles rather than a “traditional” writing assignment goes much further toward developing these skills. Many other instructors have corroborated with anecdotes of their own. But there hasn’t been much empirical research examining the impact of the assignment. This is what I hope to change.

Evaluating Student Learning Outcomes

This semester, we’re conducting a study to understand the skillsets developed through Wikipedia assignments. Over 5,000 students this semester are using Wikipedia instead of traditional assignments, and they’ll all be invited to take part in this research.

This research will assess these students’ information literacy and research skills, alongside surveys of attitudes toward the assignment and toward Wikipedia. That way, we’ll be able to see how students think about their learning, as well as their competency in those areas. In addition, students will be asked to reflect on their own learning in regards to a variety of skills that myself and other instructors have identified over the years through our own use of Wikipedia in the classroom.

Preparing students for their future is a top priority in higher education today. This study will help us better understand the role that a Wikipedia-based assignment plays in developing those skills.

What we’ll do

This research is a hybrid approach to research, combining assessments, focus groups, and surveys to better understand these skills and how they’re developed.

Participating students will take pre- and post- course assessments evaluating information literacy skills (linking to the American College and Research Libraries Information Literacy Framework), along with some demographic questions. The pre- and post- assessments also include questions about neutral writing, an important aspect of Wikipedia.

The focus groups and qualitative surveys offer another way to examine the assignment results. They’ll help us contextualize student learning outcomes by measuring their attitudes and opinions. These assessments ask students to reflect on their skills development, offering valuable insight into how and what students learn with Wikipedia-based assignments.

Finally, the instructor survey will further contextualize student assessments and responses by asking about instructor motivations and perceived classroom behavior.

At the end of this study, in keeping with the Wiki Education Foundation’s interest in open knowledge, the data will be anonymized and shared under an open access framework. Additionally, in this spirit of openness I have consulted with a diverse group of interdisciplinary researchers and instructors who have graciously assisted in the design of these tools. I hope this interdisciplinary approach towards research design will encourage and allow a variety of researchers to better assess the learning outcomes of Wikipedia-based assignments.

We’d love your help.

If you’re teaching with Wikipedia, participating in this research will strengthen our ample collection of anecdotal evidence with the support of empirical evidence about Wikipedia’s impact on student learning and development.

We believe this research will have lasting effects on the understanding of student learning and skills development. We all hope you’ll take part, and we encourage your students to do so, too (although participation must remain voluntary and cannot be part of their grade). We’re looking forward to seeing this data feed into a range of future research and collaborations.

Photo: Learning is Hanging Out by Alan Levine, CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr.


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