Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Writing for Wikipedia: Results of a Teaching Experiment

Some time ago I wrote an entry on a teaching experiment I wanted to conduct at TUM: As part of their graduate seminar, students have to get familiar with a scientific topic, present its core aspects in front of their peers, and write a LaTeX article summarizing again the main points. To get truly sustainable results, I asked the students to prepare their articles as if they wrote for Wikipedia. In other words, the target audience is the interested layperson, and while one should not shy away from presenting math, it should be accompanied by motivating examples and easy explanation.

And here are the results of this teaching experiment:
  • Of the eight topics we offered, seven were taking, of which four were particularly suitable to become a Wikipedia article; two more could at least be added as subsections.
  • Three of the suitable topics were very well prepared; so well, that we immediately recommended uploading them to Wikipedia.
  • Since uploading was voluntary, only two of these three articles now appear on Wikipedia: An article on SUDOKU codes and another one on Information Dimension.
  • The official course evaluation (six students participated), asking roughly 20 Likert-type questions, revealed that the course scored better than the department average over all graduate seminars (with one exception: students mentioned that there was not enough time to fulfill all tasks).
  • Students also seemed to like the Wikipedia experiment: In an unofficial course evaluation, I asked eight Likert-type questions (5 = fully agree, 1 = do not agree at all; 7 students participated). The results showed that students found writing for Wikipedia motivating (average score: 4.29), that they liked writing the article first in LaTeX (5), that they would not really want to write it directly in Wikipedia (2.29), and that they learned a lot about both scientific writing and LaTeX (4.43 each). They did not learn too much about writing for Wikipedia, though (3.93).
Not sure if this qualifies as a successful teaching experiment or not - in any case, there are several things I took away from conducting the experiment:
  • If you tell students to write for Wikipedia, tell them how to do it! We had a short lecture on scientific writing, but for the present case this should have been complemented by a 30 minute talk on how to write for Wikipedia.
  • If you tell students to write for Wikipedia, make sure the topics are all suitable: What if a student does a very good job on a ridiculously narrow topic that can never make it into a Wikipedia article?
  • Students need time. Five weeks are not enough to get familiar with a topic and prepare a well-written summary. Students should also be allowed to work on that during their winter break (that doesn't mean that they should do it - but they should be able to choose).
  • During the preparation for the course, I found that there is actually more difference between a Wikipedia article and a scientific manuscript than I expected: Not only is the IMRAD structure not applicable, there is not abstract either, and also the writing style is entirely different: While in scientific manuscripts we try to write lively by including "we" as often as possible, a "we" would appear out of place in a Wikipedia article. The most challenging part, however, is the lead section: These few sentences right after the heading should deliver all relevant information of the article - "For many, it may be the only section that they read. A good lead section cultivates the reader's interest in reading more of the article, but not by teasing the reader or hinting at content that follows." Living up to these expectations is often too hard for scientists (it is for me), so how can we expect it from students?
Concluding, I hope I can repeat that experiment at a later time. Next time, three Wikipedia articles should be the absolute minimum!