WikiProjects, Article Importance, and Article Quality: An Intimate Relationship (1/2)

In a previous post, I wrote about how WikiProject Medicine acts as a forum for determining the priority (also called importance) of specific health-related Wikipedia articles and assessing their quality (also called class). More generally, these three concepts—WikiProjects, article importance, and article quality—are crucial for instructors and students to understand if they seek to use course-based assignments to improve Wikipedia. I will address each of them in turn.


A WikiProject comprises a group of collaborators who aim to achieve specific Wikipedia editing goals, or to achieve goals in a specific subject or discipline represented in Wikipedia. An example of an editing type of project is WikiProject missing encyclopedic articles, which seeks to ensure that Wikipedia “has a corresponding article for every article in every other general purpose encyclopedia.” An example of a subject-specific type of project (in addition to WikiProject Medicine), is WikiProject Adoption, fostering, orphan care and displacement (“AFOD”). It aims to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of adoption, foster care, and child abandonment. A third type of project, one that combines both editing and subject goals, is exemplified by WikiProject Biography, which “concerns the creation, development, and organization of Wikipedia’s articles about persons.”

Wikipedia has a shortcut—sometimes more than one—for each project: “WP:” followed by an acronym. So, for example, entering WP:MISSING in Wikipedia’s search box takes you the Talk page for WikiProject Missing encyclopedic articles; entering WP:AFOD takes you to the Talk page for WikiProject AFOD. Entering WP:WPBIO, WP:BIOG or WP:BIOGRAPHY takes you to the WikiProject Biography Talk page. There is even a project on WikiProjects—a meta-project, if you will—with the shortcut WP:PROJ.

A WikiProject Council tracks these projects, including activity levels and inter-project discussions. According to the most recent version of the Council’s WikiProject List, There are about 2,000 WikiProjects in English Wikipedia, with varying levels of activity and interest in articles. Indeed, a Wikipedia article will often be of interest to more than one WikiProject, and a key activity of participants is to identify the WikiProjects to which the article is of interest, along with the article’s importance and class, as assigned by those projects. This is done on the article’s Talk page. For example, the article on Barnardo’s, a British charity founded to care for vulnerable children and young people, is of interest to WikiProject AFOD, which ranks it as a high-importance, C-class article. But it is also of interest to WikiProject London, a collaborative effort to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of the city of London; that project ranks it as mid-importance and start-class. (See accompanying excerpt.)

WikiProject information and rankings from Talk page for Barnardo’s (accessed 8 February 2017). Text via CC by 4.0; Anne of Green Gables image and London image originally incorporated into text via CC by 2.0.

Article Importance (Priority)

There are five levels of priority: top, high, mid, low, and NA (meaning “not an article”—that is, something other than an article, like a template or category). There is also a level for “unknown” or “needs assessing” that appears as ??? to the reader. Each WikiProject has its own criteria for these rankings. The table below shows the criteria in WikiProject Medicine, along with an example of a Wikipedia page for each ranking.

Article importance grading scheme
Label Criteria Examples
Top priority Subject is extremely important, even crucial, to medicine. Strong interest from non-professionals around the world. Usually a large subject with many associated sub-articles. Less than 1% of medicine-related articles achieve this rating. Tuberculosis or Cancer
High priority Subject is clearly notable. Subject is interesting to, or directly affects, many average readers. This category includes the most common diseases and treatments as well as major areas of specialization. Fewer than 10% of medicine-related articles achieve this rating. Coeliac disease or Mastectomy
Mid priority Normal priority for article improvement. A good article would be interesting or useful to many readers. Subject is notable within its particular specialty. This category includes most medical conditions, tests, approved drugs, medical subspecialties, well-known anatomy, and common signs and symptoms. Cholangiocarcinoma or Cramp
Low priority Article may only be included to cover a specific part of a more important article, or may be only loosely connected to medicine. Subject may be specific to one country or part of one country, such as licensing requirements or organizations. This category includes most of the following: very rare diseases, lesser-known medical signs, equipment, hospitals, individuals, historical information, publications, laws, investigational drugs, detailed genetic and physiological information, and obscure anatomical features. Leopard syndrome or Flynn effect
NA NA means Not an Article. This label is used for all pages that are not articles, such as templates, categories, and disambiguation pages. (To mark an article as “needs assessment” or “not assessed,” simply leave the importance parameter empty, like this: |importance= ) WikiProject Medicine

Source: WikiProject Medicine/Assessment (accessed 9 February 2017)

Article Quality (Class)

There are nine quality levels or classes for the typical Wikipedia article: stub, start, C-class, B-class, GA (good article), A-class, FA (featured article), List, and FL (featured list). These categories are used by the Wikipedia Version 1.0 Editorial Team for deciding how close an article is to being distribution-quality (that is, to the goal of publishing Wikipedia articles in print, CD, DVD, or a combination thereof). Some WikiProjects also use intermediate classes, such as B+. A summary of the common classes is provided below. For more detailed criteria, see the Version 1.0 assessment page; for a categorized list of articles in each class, click on the name of the class in the leftmost column.

 Stub  The article is either very short or a rough collection of information that needs much work. Stub-class articles are adequate enough to be accepted, but risk being dropped from article status altogether. The first step in improving a Stub-class article is usually the addition of referenced reasons that show why the topic is significant.
 Start  The article is developing but quite incomplete. Deficiencies may include inadequate citation to reliable sources or non-compliance with Wikipedia’s style guidelines. Raising the article to C-class typically requires further referencing, improvement in content and organization, and attention to grammar and writing style.
 C  The article is substantial, but still lacks important content or contains irrelevant material. The article should have some references to reliable sources, but may still have significant problems or require substantial cleanup. By the time an article reaches C-class, it typically has at least some infoboxes, photographs, diagrams or other media.
 B  The article is mostly complete and without major problems, but requires some further work to reach GA status. It is properly referenced to reliable sources, using inline citations. It is balanced, reasonably well written, and has a defined structure, including a lead section. Supporting materials, such as illustrations, diagrams and an infobox, should be included where relevant and useful. The article should not assume unnecessary technical background and should either avoid or explain technical terms where possible.
 GA  The article has attained good-article status (indicated at the top of the article by the “plus sign” logo) via an official review. In addition to being well written and following style guidelines, it is verifiable, contains no original research, and has no copyright violations or plagiarism. It represents viewpoints fairly, giving due weight to each, and focuses on the topic without going into unnecessary detail. It is typically illustrated with copyright-compliant images that are appropriately captioned. The article is stable in the sense of not being subject to edit wars or content disputes, though comparison with a featured article on a similar topic may show areas where content could be further developed.
 A  The article is well organized and essentially complete, having been reviewed by impartial reviewers from a WikiProject or elsewhere. GA status is not a requirement for this level, but with further tweaking or peer review, it may also be appropriate for GA or FA status.
 FA The article has attained featured article status (shown by the “star” logo at the top of the article) by passing an official review. It exemplifies the best work on Wikipedia and is distinguished by engaging and professional standards of writing, presentation and sourcing. A concise lead summarizes the topic and prepares the reader for the detail in subsequent sections that are hierarchically arranged and presented in a table of contents. Citation is extensive and consistent. The article has images and other media, where appropriate, with succinct captions and acceptable copyright status. FA-class articles may appear on Wikipedia’s home page, in a “Today’s featured article” section.
 List  The article meets the criteria of a stand-alone list, which is an article that contains primarily a list, usually consisting of links to articles in a particular subject area. List articles are often alphabetized or chronologically ordered and may also be annotated.
 FL  The article has attained featured list status. It comprehensively covers the defined scope, usually providing a complete set of items and annotations that provide useful and appropriate information about those items.

Source: Wikipedia:Version 1.0 Editorial Team/Assessment (accessed and adapted 12 February 2017)

In my next post, I will discuss how WikiProjects, article importance and article quality come together in a format that provides a convenient basis for selecting articles to edit for Wikipedia-based course assignments.

John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.

Wikipedia’s Gender Bias – and What Your Students Can Do About It

Every system has its biases, and Wikipedia is no exception. A common criticism of Wikipedia is its male bias. Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, agreed with the criticism after it conducted a 2011 survey indicating that up to 90% of editors identified as male. This is a problem for a non-profit organization whose mission is “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content … and to disseminate it effectively and globally.”

The mechanisms for the gender bias are various, complex, and the subject of several studies, recently summarized by two New York researchers. They may include the code-heavy interface, called wiki markup, that contributors initially had to use to edit articles. To the extent that wiki markup operated to inhibit female editors, the technical hurdle has largely disappeared: since April 2015, Wikipedia’s VisualEditor is available by default on the Article pages (but not the Talk pages) for about three-quarters of the language editions of Wikipedias. A more troubling and persistent concern may be Wikipedia’s sometimes hostile user culture, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post. In response to these concerns, there has been a series of efforts to increase female editorship. These include edit-a-thons, some organized by Wikimedia Foundation and some independently, to increase coverage of women’s topics in Wikipedia and to encourage more women to edit it. An example is the worldwide Art+Feminism edit-a-thon, the third of which was held last year to coincide with International Women’s Day. Events took place in nine locations across Canada, including Saskatoon, where editors focused on Saskatchewan and Indigenous women artists including Ruth Cuthand, Mary Longman, and Michelle LaVallee. Similar events are planned for the US, Canada and Europe in March 2017.

Anonymous Woman in Green

Woman in Green Dress, Anonymous, c 1825, National Museum in Warsaw. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Educators and their students can help address the bias. In 2012, students in Alana Cattapan’s fourth-year seminar, “The Politics of the Canadian Women’s Movement,” edited, updated, and expanded various Wikipedia articles, including “Feminism in Canada.” Though often serving as a first point of reference on Canadian feminism, this Wikipedia page was underdeveloped, and Cattapan drew on her students to set about correcting this gateway article and other related ones. Librarians have also been active. In September 2016, to celebrate Science Literacy Week, Concordia University Library partnered with McGill Library to host a Women in Science Wikipedia event. The librarians gave a tutorial on how to edit Wikipedia, followed by an editing session in which participants got one-on-one help.

If you’re thinking of wading into the field and wondering where to start, you might want to look at WikiProject Women in Red. The goal of this project is to turn “red links”—internal links that lead to Wikipedia pages that don’t exist—into “blue links”—internal links that lead to actual Wikipedia articles. (More on this later.) Or if you’d rather start by having your students edit existing material, check out the contrapuntally-named Wikiproject Women in Green, an attempt to bring articles on women up to minimum “Good article” status. The project even provides a “Hot 99” list of women’s biographies to get you started—ranging from Aisha to Natalie Wood.

John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.

Teaching the Language of our Disciplines

Bolded words (those terms highlighted in textbooks), matter for they are the building blocks of every language that allow us to communicate complex ideas, convey how we see the world and shape our questions and ways of engaging with the world to answer our questions.

But words, those collected sets of sounds, do not form a language. The relationships (syntax) and the underlying meetings & ideas (semantics) are necessary for fluency.

We see this in students’ work where the keywords are there, but applied incorrectly or are erratically irrelevant. They may start a sentence with one theorists premise and end it with another’s conclusion without noting the misalignment of essential principles. They apply one formula because a keyword appears in the word problem without seeing that the context prompts a different approach.

Continuing the comparison to learning a language, sure you can get me to memorize how to say “hi my name is…” or “where is the grocery store?” in dozens of languages. And with memorization and practice, I could become quite good at stating those phrases. Maybe through experience or prior knowledge I would know generally when to say each phrase, though I might remain unaware of the informality of “hi” and the specificity of the store. Even with the recitation, I still would not know the language.

Even if I learned to repeat a thousand phrases, I still would now know the language. I would not grasp the differences in formality, tense, or nuance connotations between good and passable. I would not know why “is the water hot” is a question, “the water is hot” is stating a fact, and “the water could be hot” giving a tentative caution. Syntax and Semantics (relationships and meaning) would be invisible, and correct application would be due to a mix of luck and surface level knowledge.

Within the discipline it is the ways we connect, distinguish and extend ideas, facts and bolded words that shape what it means to truly know our disciplines. Deep or expert learning of a discipline requires knowing the meaning, conceptual frameworks, norms, relationship between pieces, and more in addition to the piecemeal building blocks themselves.

When we teach, we need to teach beyond rote phrases, beyond the bolded words. We face the question, what does it mean to teach a discipline that we are often first-language speakers where it is just intuitive.


  • Read the key concepts & ways of knowings already identified in your discipline through existing literature on Decoding disciplines ( or threshold concepts (listed by discipline: threshold concepts examples)
  • Experience the sense of getting stuck. Try learning another discipline yourself to see what is different, learn music or dance for the first time.
  • Seek out colleagues who have experience teaching another language or teaching non-majors.

Finally take inspiration. Google has created a software that can learn and create its own language. We humans have taught generations, let’s teach this next generation the language of our disciplines!

What Does It Mean to Say That “Anyone Can Edit” Wikipedia?

In previous posts, I argued for the benefits of having students edit or write Wikipedia articles for university credit. But if “anyone can edit,” doesn’t that make Wikipedia prone to errors, questionable content, edit wars, and vandalism? Well, yes—these things comprise Wikipedia’s dark side and can compromise efforts at using Wikipedia for student learning. For example, Sivan Lerer, mentioned in my first post, found that when her students edited Bahá’í articles that already had substantial content, they “had a difficult time merging what they wanted with what it said in the entry,” resulting in other Wikipedians undoing their edits. But even this phenomenon can be turned into experiential learning. In “Using Wikipedia to Teach Audience, Genre and Collaboration,” Allan Bilansky, who uses Wikipedia in his social informatics course, says that “an informed effort at making contributions that persist within a large community … can be an experience at being answerable to a real audience.” Responding to a student who reported that he “had made a change [to a Wikipedia article], and then it changed back,” Bilansky told the student, “it did not change back;” rather, “[s]omeone changed it back, probably for reasons we can eventually understand.”

In both theory and practice, though, Wikipedia isn’t the freewheeling editing environment that you might think it is. Wikipedia adheres to some key principles, called the five pillars: (i) Wikipedia is an encyclopedia—not a blogging forum, a social networking site, a place to publish original research, or a dictionary (but see its companion lexical project, Wiktionary); (ii) articles adopt a neutral point of view, which includes “document[ing] and explain[ing] the major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence in an impartial tone;” (iii) Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute, so anything that smacks of using Wikipedia for commercial gain attracts censure; (iv) Wikipedia has a code of conduct, or “Wikiquette,” that requires editors to treat each other with civility; and (v) Wikipedia has no firm rules, which means that “principles and spirit matter more than literal wording, and sometimes improving Wikipedia requires making exceptions.”

These principles are fleshed out in specific policies and practices. For example, a Wikipedia article should abide by three core content policies: neutral point of view (NPOV), verifiability (V), and no original research (NOR). Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, after all, which means that it is entirely derivative from other works. Thus, Wikipedians are alert to articles or edits that lack citations to reliable, published sources. Not uncommonly, articles are peppered with “citation needed” admonitions inserted by watchful Wikipedians, or prefaced by warnings that the article may violate NPOV, V, or NOR and be a candidate for deletion. Yet the civility principle means that Wikipedians must be judicious with deletions or other edits. This exhortation takes practical shape in the form of rules like the “three-revert rule”: an editor may not make more than three reversions to an article on a single page—whether involving the same or different material—within a 24-hour period.

Using view history tab on Wikipedia

Click image for screencast on using Wikipedia’s View History page.

To help students imbibe these principles and rules, Bilansky created some innovative assign­ments for his social informatics course. For example, the first assignment required students to read the View History pages (also called page history, revision history or edit history) and Talk pages (also called discussion pages) of Wikipedia articles. Every article has these pages, though most users are probably only faintly aware of them. The page history lists all the article’s previous revisions, including date and time (in UTC) of each edit, the editor’s registered username or IP address, and the user’s edit summary. As Bilansky explains, these features amount to a sort of variorum edition of each article: not only do they preserve every contributor’s minutest work and let you compare two different versions, they also provide opportunities for learning about collaborative writing processes and academic research standards.

The first thing that each of Bilansky’s students had to do was find a Wikipedia article with at least one edit that didn’t persist (that is, changes made by one editor were reverted by another), review the version history, and post to a class discussion thread an explanation of why the edits they examined were undone. (Finding such an article merely requires searching for the word reverted in the revision history.) Bilansky offered prizes for the first student to find a Wikipedia policy cited on a Talk page, which created quite a buzz and an interest in finding more strange-sounding policies or prohibitions, like the endearingly named “sock puppetry” (using multiple user accounts to hide one’s tracks). All this preparatory work smoothed the way for more complex assignments, resulting in engagement on Talk pages and in some cases, collaboration with senior Wikipedia editors (all volunteers—the whole encyclopedia is a volunteer effort) who helped the students navigate their way through what can seem like terra incognita.

I will return to the theme of Wikipedia’s integrity, because there is a lot to say about it. But in my next post, I will consider another critique of Wikipedia—its documented male bias—and what instructors and students are doing about it.

John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621


How Students Are Learning Medicine and Collaborative Skills, And Transforming Wikipedia

In my last blog post, I wrote about the wide range of disciplines represented in student Wikipedia projects. Perhaps the most ambitious effort is the Wiki Project Med Foundation, whose goal is nothing less than “to provide the sum of all medical knowledge to all people in their own language.” Started by Wikipedia enthusiast and UBC clinical professor James Heilman, the foundation is working to this goal by collaborating with various partners. These include the closely allied WikiProject Medicine, the non-profit organization Translators Without Borders, and University of California San Francisco, where fourth-year medical students have been editing Wikipedia for credit in a month-long elective course since 2013.

Amin Azzam, associate clinical professor at the UCSF School of Medicine, found that Wikipedia was second only to Google as the most frequently used source by junior physicians (!) but that there was a clear need to bring medical articles up to par. As he explains in a 2014 interview, he and his collaborators prioritized Wikipedia’s medical articles based on the number of unique visitors to the articles and the importance of the articles from a health perspective. Wikipedia also has a system for ranking article quality, ranging from “stub” to “featured article,” and the collaborators found that many articles were at the low end of the quality scale. Azzam encouraged his students to focus on the intersection of these two—high priority but low quality—and direct their efforts to improving them. Most students picked articles from this list, such as Cirrhosis and Hepatitis, while some pursued articles that held a special interest for them, like “Race and health.” Not only did they edit their chosen articles, but they reviewed articles edited by their class peers. The results, presented at a 2015 medical education conference, were impressive. As measured by Wikipedia’s own quality metrics, the students’ work resulted in improvements to most of the selected articles, and significant improvements to several.[1]

Not only has this work continued to the present, with over 50 articles improved through student work, but UCSF’s School of Pharmacy has recently joined forces with the medical school: Tina Brock, professor and associate dean of Global Health & Educational Innovations, now assigns third-year pharmacy students articles to edit from Wiki Project Pharmacology, an initiative like WikiProject Medicine. In the meantime, the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University has also taken up the initiative. In a recent paper in Education Information Technology, educators Shani Evenstein Sigalov and Rafi Nachmias explain how their students have edited over 128 medical articles in Hebrew Wikipedia, already viewed over 1.4 million times. The paper also presents findings of a related study that focused on students’ learning experience, long-term impact and productive teaching practices.

“But surely” you might ask, “doesn’t Wikipedia’s ‘anyone can edit philosophy’ mean that all this good work can be undone?” I’ll take up that question in my next post.

[1]  Articles that went from “start class” or “C-class” to “B-class” in the first session can be considered to have improved significantly. According to the hyperlinked study, the following articles would qualify as such: “Hepatitis,” “Diabetes,” “Amyloidosis,” “Cholecystitis,” “Toxic epidermal necrolysis,” “Placental abruption,” “Therapeutic hypothermia,” “Premature rupture of membranes,” “Umbilical cord prolapse” and “Omphalitis of newborn.”

John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.


The Wikipedia Manifesto


This blog has been updated to correct some initial errors.

A spectre is haunting academia—the spectre of Wikipedia. And while there was a time when all the old powers would have entered into an alliance to exorcise this spectre, a worldwide community of educators is now taking a radically different approach: they’re assigning students the task of editing and writing Wikipedia’s sprawling content, and giving them academic credit for doing so. In the process, they’re turning students from indiscriminate knowledge consumers to savvy knowledge creators. At the same time, they’re building an open-access and up-to-date storehouse of knowledge that, in certain areas, already rivals traditional reference works. As Clay Shirky explains, this is all part of an interconnected movement—from wikis to open textbooks to interactive mapping applications like Ushahidi—in which technology has made possible methods of collaboration that never existed before.

How did this start? For some instructors, it came from a place of despair. So it was for Sivan Lerer, who teaches an introductory course on the Bahá’í Faith at Hebrew Jerusalem University. In an interview published in December 2016, Lerer explains:

I’ve told my students, for many years, that despite its many advantages (it’s accessible and in Hebrew), Wikipedia’s not an academic source . . . I told them they can use Wikipedia in the beginning but afterwards they have to go to the Encyclopedia of Islam, or The Encyclopedia of Religions. But all my admonitions were in vain. They used only Wikipedia as their source.

Lerer also wasn’t happy with the quality of writing in her students’ exams, finding that in many of their answers, they would just “regurgitate” her lectures. Sound familiar? That’s when she learned about the education program of Wikimedia Israel, whose goals are to cultivate deeper student learning and improve the access to, and quality of, Wikipedia’s resources. With the help of education coordinator Shai Katz and Darya Kantor, an active “Wikimedian,” Lerer redesigned her course to incorporate Wikipedia assignments, from revising existing articles to adding new material, such as a Canadian student’s article on the Bahá’í community in Canada. Altogether, 18 students created or improved 17 articles in Hebrew Wikipedia, with Lerer concluding that it was a positive experience for the students, and that “[i]nstead of memorizing, they really learned.”

Students have now contributed to Wikipedia as part of their course work in agriculture and life sciences, chemistry, community history, geobiology, linguistics, mineralogy, psychology, public policy, and a host of other fields. In March 2016, Wiki Edu’s Eryk Salvaggio, who writes a blog for the Wiki Education Foundation set out five reasons why you might consider assigning such a project instead of a term paper. It’s not hard to do, but before getting into the nuts and bolts of it, we’ll look at some examples of what others are doing. In particular, I want to tell you about some medicine professors who, with their students’ help, are now editing Wikipedia to make high-quality medical knowledge freely available around the world.

John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.

Faculty Fellows Playing Key Roles at GMCTL

The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning (GMCTL) has, for the past 3 academic years, had GMCTL Faculty Fellows. These roles are filled by members of faculty who set aside up to 1/2 day of their time per week to contribute to teaching and learning related work with and through the GMCTL. The Centre and the university benefits hugely from the contribution of these fantastic Fellows whose contribution is planned to align with their particular expertise and experience as well as university priorities. Their work also assists in keeping the GMCTL services informed by and in alignment with the needs and interests of those we serve. Below is a description of each of the Fellows for the 2016/17 academic year and the projects they are leading and contributing to. The names and projects of all Fellows over the past three years can be viewed on our website.

Vince Bruni-Bossio (2016/17)
Vince, an Assistant Professor in the Edwards School of Business, is bringing his wealth of business knowledge and extensive consulting experience to work with the GMCTL on our strategic planning process. Vince has helped us clarify our values, mission and mandate and set strategic priorities for our work in alignment with what the Centre is called to do by the institution. Vince has also been working with us in our team development work.

Jay Wilson (2014/15-2016/17)
Jay, an Associate Professor and Department Head in Curriculum Studies, College of Education, has been contributing to a collaborative institutional research project on faculty use of learning technology. This research has been conducted in partnership with 2 other faculty members and Nancy Turner, the GMCTL Director. This work has informed planning regarding institutional infrastructure and support for learning technology use with outcomes currently being implemented via an action plan governed through the Teaching Learning and Academic Resources Committee of Council. Jay has also contributed to the development of a Teaching Certificate Program to be made available via the GMCTL and the Department of Curriculum Studies in the new year.

Sandra Bassendowski (2015/16-2016/17)
Sandra, a Professor in the College of Nursing, has been contributing to a collaborative institutional research project on faculty use of learning technology. This research has been conducted in partnership with 2 other faculty members and Nancy Turner, the GMCTL Director. This work has informed planning regarding institutional infrastructure and support for learning technology use with outcomes currently being implemented via an action plan governed through the Teaching Learning and Academic Resources Committee of Council.  Sandra has also informed work in the GMCTL on teaching strategies in distributed learning.

John Kleefeld (2017)
John, an Associate Professor in the College of Law, has just begun his Fellowship work with us. John will be focusing on the development of open pedagogies (teaching strategies that use or create open educational resources) at the University of Saskatchewan. John’s particular interest is in utilizing Wikipedia in teaching. He has recently published a scholarship of learning and teaching (SoTL) article on his experience of doing this with his Law students. During his year with the GMCTL John will be working to create a community of faculty interested in open pedagogy as well as developing a series of related institutional events. John will be writing a series of blog posts for us on this work so keep your eyes open for these in the next few weeks! If you are interested in learning more about this work or getting involved in this project please connect with John or Heather Ross.

On behalf of the GMCTL and the institution I would like to thank these amazing faculty members for their contribution as GMCTL Fellows to teaching and learning at the institution. The work of the GMCTL is richer for having your energy, passion and input and we are grateful for your time in collaborating with us and contributing to these important institutional endeavours.

Teaching Students About Research: Open Data = Quality Data with Easy Access

When we teach students research skills and ways of approaching being a researcher, we know that research is more than just plugging in numbers or following a script.

Canadian Open Government Data Lib GuideIn a statistical analysis, being able to select the variables to use (and not use) and the analysis to answer the question is as important as running the analysis.

We want students to design their own questions and analysis. The challenge though is where to get appropriate data easily and ethically?

At the U of S, we are in luck! Our librarians have identified several key Open Data sources:

Canadian Open Government Data
Site has 120,000 data sets that are freely available for anyone to use. They are from ten departments: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; Citizenship and Immigration Canada; Environment Canada; Department of Finance Canada; Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Library and Archives Canada; Natural Resources Canada; Statistics Canada; Transport Canada and the Treasury Board Secretariat.

  • Canada Open Data Pilot Project – “This pilot portal will make more than 260,000 datasets from the following ten participating departments available to all Canadians: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; Citizenship and Immigration Canada; Environment Canada; Department of Finance Canada; Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Library and Archives Canada; Natural Resources Canada; Statistics Canada; Transport Canada and the Treasury Board Secretariat.
” (U of S library guide description)
  • 2011 Census of Canada Web Module
 – Released February 8, 2012
    includes the Census of Population and the Census of Agriculture.
  • CANSIM – “Cansim is Statistics Canada’s key socioeconomic database of survey data. Updated daily. FREE as of February 1, 2012. License Information: This is an Open Access resource freely available on the Internet. Systematic copying or downloading of electronic resource content is not permitted by Canadian and International Copyright law.
” (U of S library guide description)

United States Open Government Data

  • White House Open Government Initiative
  • NASA Open Data

These datasets are either exportable or have web portal access to aggregated data. Contact your Librarian to learn more and for Government data, contact Rob Alary at Data Library Services:

Have a question about teaching research design, or an exciting way to use Open Data in your course? Connect with me at the GMCTE or

(Thank you to Darlene Fichter, U of S Library, for providing feedback and up-to-date information)

Hands up! How We Increase (Or Decrease) Student Participation

We design courses with many opportunities for students to learn by completing assignments, readings and answering questions in class. But does our teaching increase such behaviours or decrease them?

One lens, psychology of learning, suggests we likely do both. B. F. Skinners’ operant conditioning suggests that how we respond to student behavior can either increase (reinforce) or decrease (punish) our students actions including participating in class discussion or completing homework.

What is Operant conditioning?

As Thorndike’s Law of Effect and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning note we are influenced by the consequences of our actions. Good consequences encourage more of this activity, while unpleasant (or unhelpful) consequences encourage less of this activity.

Reinforcement increases the frequency of behaviours through either the addition of a pleasant stimulus (positive reinforcement) or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus (Negative reinforcement).

Punishment” decreases the frequency of valued behaviours through either the addition of an unpleasant stimulus (positive punishment) or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus (negative punishment).

What about Encouraging students to answer questions in class:

Hands up! How We Increase (Or Decrease) Students Answering QuestionsWe might beneficially use punishment to decrease of disruptive behaviours such as disruptive side conversations, interrupting classmates, or answering cell phones by adding the unpleasantness of awkwardness when we stand near by, interrupt to redirect conversation, or let silence fall during the phone call.

Our effect may also be neutral leading to attenuation where the lack of a reward results in decreased responses, including when an instructor neither confirms or discounts the response and simply says “next” until they have 3 responses regardless of correctness.

Over time, behaviours do not need to be (and should not be) actively reinforced each time to maintain higher participation or lower skipping class (see information on schedules and fixed versus variable intervals and ratios).


Try seeing how the number of students’ answers increases (or decreases) with different responses. Predict via the lens of operant conditioning. For example:

  • What happens if I ask questions that are too easy? -> Students likely not rewarded by answering.
  • What happens if I ask questions that are too hard? ->Students might not be able to answer and receive the explicit or implicit feedback that they are wrong.
  • What happens if I present my answer(s) on a slide after I ask them? Students might not be rewarded by answering
  • But what if I skim by pointing out all the parts they identified and building on their answer? -> Students might be rewarded and increase participation.
  • What if I summarize the readings? -> Students who read now have the frustration of listening again and having “wasted time” while students who did not read are reinforced that their decision was correct.
  • What if I have them pull out the readings or use a specific page or section for an activity -> Students who read ware rewarded by not having to quickly skim, students who did not read might experience uncertainty or struggle.

Applying operant conditioning is not about “coddling” or saying “good try” without correcting flawed knowledge, but creating a learning experience that is encouraging of participation, reading and incorporating feedback into later performance. Even when a students’ answer is incorrect there are ways to reward behaviours that lead to improvement (e.g., asking questions) and provide feedback to modify that knowledge by “rewarding” the correct bits, “punishing” incorrect parts, and because we can speak better than pigeons, suggesting how to improve.

While it is useful to be cognizant of how our actions may act to encourage or discourage specific student behaviours, self-determination is still valued and people may not want themselves or others to be treated as treating people like lab rats such as by Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory:


Tools and Strategies for “Hot Topics”- Part 3 of 3

After the difficult conversation or incident in class

I regularly use formative feed-back in my class—feedback that is solicited over the course of a term, allowing me to measure student progress, highlighting concepts that are still unclear, and to hear from the students about what is and is not creating an effective learning environment. The formative feedback tool below is new to me, and will be very helpful in determining if and how the difficult topics are addressed in class were ultimately beneficial, or that they require follow-up.

The Critical Incident Questionnaire

At the end of the day (or week, or unit, or other appropriate time period), set aside 10 minutes for the class to respond, in writing, to a few specific questions.  (This may be especially helpful to do when a class session has been particularly difficult or tense).

  • At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?
  • What action that anyone in the room took did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone in the room took did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What surprised you most?

Keep all of the responses anonymous, and collect them at the end of the class.  Read and analyze the responses, and compile them according to similar themes and concerns.  Most important is that you report back to the group at the next meeting, and allow time for comments and discussion. (Borrowed from Vanderbilt University)

If properly prepared, you will actually find that the difficult topics and discussions allow a class to dig deeply into an issue, example, or situation that can take us beyond classroom readings and into ‘real world’ contexts, making learning even more meaningful, relevant, and transformative.