Home All Assigning Wikipedia Instead of Term Papers

Assigning Wikipedia Instead of Term Papers

written by Shannon Polly 26 August 2011

Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.

Are you a professor teaching a class on psychology — or perhaps another discipline that relies on psychology, such as management science? Are you putting the final tweaks on your course syllabus? Then consider this:

Wikipedia has been shown to be the most important source of science including psychological science for the public. However, a lot of topics in psychology are presented poorly or have not been presented at all.

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) believes that psychology faculty and their students can contribute to Wikipedia by assessing the quality of existing articles, editing existing articles, and creating new articles on subjects that haven’t been covered.

Perhaps students could work on Wikipedia articles instead of or in addition to the usual term papers.

What is APSWI?

APS has established the APS-Wikipedia initiative (APSWI) in order to encourage faculty and students to contribute to general knowledge about psychology available on Wikipedia. Check out the APS Wikipedia Initiative (APSWI) website for broad goals, specific ways faculty and students can contribute, what students can learn by contributing, and ways the APSWI can help, including tutorials and tools. In summary, here’s a paragraph from the APSWI site:

All APS Members are encouraged to participate by adding new entries and enhancing existing ones with more complete and accurate information with references. This is an especially exciting initiative for teachers and students who can make updating or creating Wikipedia entries part of coursework. To get you started, the APSWI portal includes tutorial materials introducing Wikipedia, the editing process, tools to match APS members and students to appropriate volunteer opportunities in Wikipedia; and easy ways to connect contributors to fellow volunteers and to Wikipedia experts.

Interview with Dr. Banaji about the APSWI Initiative

In our report on the May APS Convention Genevieve Douglass and I found Wikipedia initiative particularly interesting. I followed up by interviewing the outgoing APS president, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, about it, and here’s what I learned.

Shannon Polly: APS has really increased psychology’s connection to the mainstream – through the choice of exciting research to publish in Psychological Science, through easy-to-use press reports on its site, and through encouraging researchers to speak to the media about their work… Would the Wikipedia initiative be in addition to continuing the push towards media recognition of super research or is there some tradeoff?

   Dr. Mahzarin Banaji

Dr. Banaji: APS was a very young organization when I joined. I felt that the dissemination of science needed more attention from graduate students. Why are psychology books in the self-help section of bookstores? Becoming president gave me an opportunity to have the bully pulpit for a few months. We are not really utilizing the deep expertise across the 25,000 members of the APS. The APSWI initiative can access the deep expertise as a whole.

I have also had a personal experience with Wikipedia. I started getting an entry of the day, and I was astounded by what I was learning. I went to look for what psychology had to offer because after several months I never received an entry that was psych related. At the time there were few good entries, and some were misinformed. Who is responsible for that? The answer is us.

Shannon Polly: So how did the initiative come about?

Dr. Banaji: Just wishing to have people contribute didn’t lead to much, and I realized that there were some constraints. The idea was to make it easy and to create internal, intrinsic incentives to contribute. Bob Kraut at Carnegie Mellon, who studies the research of media, decides which groups contribute. He received a grant to study ways to bring people to the portal. His group will also connect clusters of people interested in similar topics.

Shannon Polly: Fascinating! So they are going to be studying who contributes to the portal and why.

Dr. Banaji: The main thing we want people to know is that this can happen without too much effort from any one person. Many people can do it accurately and fully represent our science. We would like to encourage faculty who are unlikely to write their own entries to assign writing for Wikipedia as a class project. Imagine if one hundred thousand people assign writing for Wikipedia as a writing exercise in their syllabi. It could be an assignment on its own, or a section out of a well-written paper could become a Wikipedia entry.

We’ll know new Wikipedia entries have gone through some oversight by a professor. When the paper is done, a student can submit a piece or all of it. It seems we have struck a chord. People write to say they would like to do it. Grad students want their ideas and their concepts to be represented because it matters to them.

Shannon Polly: What is the difference between researchers doing this on their own? What will be the benefit of doing this through the APS Wikipedia initiative?

Writing an article

Dr. Banaji: It’s easier through our initiative. Wikipedia does not make it easy. It’s also good to know there are other folks participating. Also there will be people looking at which entries are terrible, putting them into clusters, pointing people to the ones that need work. That is what the group from Carnegie Mellon is doing. It’s about ease and community.

Shannon Polly: When Phil Zimbardo was president of the APA, he created www.psychologymatters.org – to disseminate relevant psychological research to everyone. That site has now gone away. What will make the Wikipedia service last unlike that site.

Dr. Banaji: Yes, I didn’t want to do that. I wanted something to live long after I’m gone from the APS. I realized that APSWI had to become part of APS staff work. They are doing the day-to-day work. I am hopeful that their participation will make it stick.

Shannon Polly: Psychology has a lot of terms and jargon. Do you wish that these terms would become more widely used, or do you wish that people understand the concepts, even if they’re using mainstream words for the psychological concepts?

Dr. Banaji: Often words in lay language are the same but different. The word “attitude” in psychological research is not what a high school teacher might mean with the word. Not enough of our concepts are in mainstream language, and it wouldn’t hurt to get them out there. When David Brooks spoke at the APS Convention, hearing phrases like “fundamental attribution error” rolling off his tongue initially sounded strange. But the first time he was on NPR he quoted the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Shannon Polly: What level of researcher do you expect to update the Wiki pages?

Dr. Banaji: It should be someone who is in a PhD program or more senior. But I do think that the combination of an undergrad with a professor who has graded the paper or collaborated might be good because undergraduates write with the perspective of the lay reader. Right now anyone can add anything. There are checks and balances. That is what makes Wikipedia a miraculous exercise. You can read an article and tell if it is written by an expert or not.

Shannon Polly: What if there is competition for who should update pages (i.e. people plugging their own work on the site)?

Dr. Banaji: The good thing is that we don’t have to make those decisions. Treat them as any Wikipedia entry, and Wikipedia rules will prevail. In some ways the advantage of getting them done in the classroom is to get entries from people less invested in the topic. Our entries are less controversial than climate change. We follow the Wikipedia rules.

Shannon Polly: And what will the research show?

Picking up the syllabus

Dr. Banaji: Researchers are interested in the social properties of such work. Why do people collaborate? When? Which entries come from people in the same class? Or what happens when people meet on the internet? When a professor involved, is that the best?

Shannon Polly: Any last parting thoughts?

Dr. Banaji:
No matter what your course in psychology and no matter what you are doing, try to assign small contributions to the APS Wikipedia initiative as a course requirement. Say, write on whatever the topic or make an interesting subsection. For example, “This is what is meant when we say ‘looking time measures.’” A professor could say, “This deserves to be on Wikipedia. I’ll edit it and put it there.”

You can join the initiative at the APSWI site.

Author’s note: I would like to thank Senia Maymin for helping me generate an interesting set of questions. The interview was transcribed live; some answers have been slightly shortened in the process.

Editor’s Note 2013: Here’s a brief video about Wikipedia, the open source encyclopedia with contributors around the world.

Writing an article courtesy of Jennie Faber
Picking up the syllabus courtesy of Stanford Ed-Tech

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Sean 26 August 2011 - 1:43 pm

Great idea Shannon! Thanks for passing it on. Wikipedia is a great way to share information. However, as a frequent contributor, I have seen some painful entries, on a wide range of topics outside psychology. I will share the idea with my class, and your article with other faculty I know.

Shannon Polly 26 August 2011 - 1:53 pm

Hi Sean,

Thanks so much for passing it along to your students and other faculty. It wasn’t my idea, so I can’t take the credit. I’m just the messenger. But I think it’s a great one. Hopefully your students can help ‘raise the bar’ on the quality of entries!


Sherri 26 August 2011 - 3:00 pm

Hi, Shannon-
This is a great challenge to the academic community and a good motivator for students who could be published while still in school. I wonder how the peer editors of journals will feel about something like this, and how the quality can be monitored if the idea takes off. This could be great for Wikipedia and its readers.

Shannon Polly 27 August 2011 - 6:21 am

Hi Sherri,

Thanks for your comment. Since you are a pioneer in PP and education it’s great to have you weigh in. I’m not sure how peer editors of journals feel about wiki in general or about this initiative, but my guess is that the journal audience is a very different one from the wikipedia audience. Dr. Banaji made the comment at the APS convention that I’ve heard in PP circles about the need to ‘give psychology away’.

Quality control is an issue, I think. I did ask her that and she said she was more worried about people NOT submitting than about the quality. Sort of a “that would be a nice problem to have”. But it’s a good question for the folks at Wiki and those monitoring at Carnegie Mellon.

Thanks again,

Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) 27 August 2011 - 5:38 pm

Hi Shannon, a great article and I love the APSWI charter. A friend of mine, Lisa Nielsen blogs about using technology in the classroom under the name “The Innovative Educator”. One of the tips she gives is to help students find an audience for the content they create. Wikipedia is one possible forum for this. I think her point is a good one that students should learn to write (do research, etc) with an audience in mind, rather than to simply fulfill a curriculum objective.

When I started my own blog I used to avoid Wikipedia for fear that I would not be taken seriously for citing Wikipedia instead of original research. But I’ve grown to cite Wikipedia regularly (and even promote Wikipedia on my blog now to encourage people to donate to it) for several reasons:
1. It’s an open system (as opposed to science journals which are often fee-per-access)
2. Info is easy to find (usually in the top of google results–or of course you can just search directly in Wikipedia)
3. Although it is not perfect there is some oversight and control on the quality and neutrality of the information (unlike 99% of all internet content.)
4. It is linked content, i.e. Wikipedia is a good starting point for someone. It should not be used as a sole or even primary source but by referring someone to Wikipedia I know they will get a general overview of the subject or the person and be given links and citations to follow should they want to explore more deeply (contrast this with a research article pdf which is a dead end–or see my article on “Why Blogs are better than Research”)

As a bibliophile and a lover of public library I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve grown to love Wikipedia. I applaud the APS efforts to continue to grow and improve this valuable public resource!

Shannon Polly 28 August 2011 - 7:36 pm

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for your detailed comments. Great point about students finding an audience (I’ll have to check out Lisa’s blog). What a great way to apply your studies and find more meaning in the work. I think if as a student I knew someone other than my professor was going to read, I might work even harder.

Thanks for promoting Wikipedia on your blog!

Great point about the links on blogs and Wikipedia. It can be challenging for someone with ‘love of learning’ to curb their enthusiasm of following links, but it’s great for curiosity!

It’s a great initiative. I hope teachers take the leap with their students…


Dan Bowling 28 August 2011 - 8:41 pm

Shannon, very well done.

reww 29 August 2011 - 2:42 pm

Quality control is an issue, I think. I did ask her that and she said she was more worried about people NOT submitting than about the quality.

Shannon Polly 30 August 2011 - 11:06 am

Thanks, Dan!

Amanda Horne 4 September 2011 - 6:28 am

Shannon – it’s good to see you on PPND again. Thank you for bringing to our attention the increasing role Wikipedia is playing in this area, and how it will benefit us.


Shannon Polly 4 September 2011 - 4:31 pm

Thanks, Amanda.

I hope teachers can adjust their syllabi accordingly.



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com