Exam by Wikipedia replaces ‘increasingly unappealing’ essays

University of Sydney assessments ask students to edit and write online encyclopedia entries

March 31, 2016
Man reading Wikipedia page on desktop computer (PC)
Source: Alamy
Screen saver: the Wikipedia idea resulted from student ‘indifference’ to feedback

Many academics spend their time telling students not to use Wikipedia in their coursework, but one university has taken a different approach.

Lecturers on some modules at the University of Sydney are setting students the task of editing and authoring entries for the online encyclopedia instead of getting them to sit exams or write essays.

They argue that using academic writing as a default assessment task is “unimaginative and increasingly unappealing for both staff and students”, especially when digital literacy is now a key requirement in the workplace.

In contrast, the academics believe that learners will put more effort into a task if they know that it will have a lifespan and readership online, and if the audience for it can be measured.

Rebecca Johinke, a senior lecturer in Sydney’s English department, said that staff were motivated to experiment with Wikipedia by the sight of marked essays being left uncollected by students who were apparently uninterested in academics’ feedback.

“We don’t want to waste our time writing long-winded comments that may not ever be read and instead want to provide useful feedback that students understand and appreciate,” Dr Johinke said. “That feedback doesn’t always need to come from their teacher, but it can and should also come from their peers and others. There is value in having an audience of more than one.”

One use of Wikipedia at Sydney has been on a postgraduate course in magazine studies, where students worked in groups to create entries on Australian women’s magazines, and individually on posts about their editors. Marks were awarded for the quality of the entries, as well as for oral presentations and written reflections, and the entries have been viewed thousands of times.

In another application, undergraduates on an academic writing course were tasked with researching and writing entries on contemporary issues, and with improving the referencing of existing entries. This work, designed in part to improve students’ knowledge of how to use material from sources and how to reference it, was not formally assessed; students did, however, receive feedback from Wikipedia editors.

Colleagues in Sydney’s sociology, chemistry and biology departments also are using Wikipedia in coursework, according to an article in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, by Dr Johinke and Frances Di Lauro, director of Sydney’s Writing Hub.

“It was clearly very rewarding for [students] to see their work circulating out in the world and contributing to knowledge construction and dissemination,” Dr Johinke said. “Rather than an audience of one reader – a single academic – their hard work has been read by many thousands of readers, and that makes their efforts worthwhile.”


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