High quality, respectful classroom dialogue

This post is the third post in a series of the “Charter Chats” related to our new charter.  The others are linked on the bottom of this page. The chats are informal introductions to a charter educator commitment or commitments.  They explain what that commitment means for educators, and suggests one or two implications for teaching in a higher ed setting.

High quality, respectful classroom dialogue is essential in helping student learning.  When students are engaged in actively thinking about their own learning and discussing it with others, they are more likely to understand deeply. If students are just listening to an expert talking without the interaction, they are less likely to remember the learning 6 months later.  However, understanding more deeply and remembering more works best if the interaction in class is focused on the most important learning and it is safe and encouraged to share your ideas, even if they are not fully correct or are different. There are 2 key areas to pay attention to if your goal is improved learning through high quality, respectful conversation.

Open and healthy dialogue

The instructor is essential but not sufficient in creating open and healthy dialogue.  Good dialogue occurs when diverse perspectives are welcome in the group and genuinely considered, and that requires all group members. However, you can make a big difference to how likely good dialogue is.  Some key actions you can take are:

  • Share diverse perspectives and debates in disciplinary theory to make it clear good scholarship requires considering different ideas deeply. When possible, make space for plurality, rather than just one or two ways of thinking or being. We live in Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Metis, therefore including Indigenous informed perspectives and content along with Western ones is an essential first step in welcoming diversity
  • Describe what you mean by open and healthy dialogue before the first conversational opportunity starts.  In subsequent opportunities, discuss anything that needs “a refresher” to be a bit better than the last time. Focus on ways of communicating that are problematic, rather than describing specific students or ideas that are a problem
  • Have students work in smaller groups much more often than asking questions of the full class.  More students will get to participate, and most will feel safer to say more about what they think if they are only speaking to a few people
  • Overtly praise students who raise a potentially contentious activity delicately and effectively. Brave spaces are important
  • Warn students in advance if the content about to be discussed will be difficult or triggering, so they can manage their own emotions and expectations more effectively

How to create a shared, positive space in your class

Students know what it is to be positive in your class by what you do.  Your language, demeanor, and willingness to allow student to help shape the thinking and decision-making all help communicate what your classes will be about.

  • Use language that includes rather than excludes potentially marginalized groups
  • When dealing with a complex issue in class, ask yourself, “What story am I telling myself. What story might the other person be telling about themselves or about me?” Thinking it through helps with defusing, rather than escalating, potentially problematic moments
  • Co-create, with students, a shared space for learning through co-constructing or brainstorming together and working often in small groups as a part of daily class interactions
  • Raise errors as opportunities to learn.  Praise students who ask for clarification or surface their thinking about how to do something, even if it is wrong. Don’t pretend their processes are correct if they are not, but do point out that it was great to ask, and it is a very common misconception.
  • Don’t just share good examples.  Share examples with common errors and ask small groups to find the problems and explain why
  • Provide choice and voice anytime you can
  • Learn more about engaging with students and peers in a respectful manner with some tips for managing interaction in class, and use those strategies regularly
  • Ask students to set personal goals for the class, then allot time and marks to those goals
  • Use strategies like cooperative learning strategies or power sharing approaches like a talking circle to give student the opportunity to share the gifts of their identities in relationship with one another.  Seem to far from your disciplinary perspective?  Consider these 4 easy cooperative learning structures that are good across STEM and humanities courses

Learn more:

  • Attend Gwenna Moss Center for Teaching and Learning sessions on leading effective discussions or take our short courses on critical conversation
  • View other Charter Chats.

Building Broad Minds: Active learning strategies for large classrooms

Building broad minds is not about back filling.  Broad minds are the byproduct of encountering diverse ideas, thinking deeply about them, and integrating those ideas into our own worldviews and cognitive frameworks.  In higher education, the opportunity to be exposed to the thinking of a wide variety of disciplines usually happens at the first year level. However, those are also often large courses where the primary method of instruction is listening to your professor speak.  To actually get broad minds, our learning activities have to be active, even in the large classrooms where active learning strategies are limited by the room, and even when students are first encountering the subject mater.

A great simple rule for broad minds is the 10:2 ratio. It basically means that for every 10 minutes of lecture, and student needs 2 minute of social processing to make sense of it. Lots of the time, we think group work in classes is all about assignments.  Actually, it is much more about helping us make sense of what we learning. To encourage broad thinking, consider pausing at least every 10 minutes and doing a short activity that allows student to make sense of what you’ve just tried to teach them.

Use daily active collaboration in increase understanding

  • Having students problem solve in pairs
  • Having students turn and talk to each other about the implications of a new idea you introduced or why it matters
  • Provide opportunities to try something and get feedback from a peer. You don’t have time to provide all that feedback in a large class, but feedback is helpful in both improving and remembering, and there are many other people in the room who can help.  Giving feedback also refines our understanding, so your students are learning when giving and receiving feedback.
  • Have students teach each other something quick (not a big group presentation). Read more from the research about why this is one of the best ways to improve student understanding (Topping and Stewart, 1998).

Have students engage in critical thinking and think from multiple worldviews
Developing broad minds requires encountering the major debates of the discipline early and considering them from multiple perspective.  Although it is hard to have teams of two students debate other teams of two students in a large lecture theater, all students can think and speak simultaneously.  Want to see how it would work?

 

Learn more:

Top Hat: How is it being used at the U of S?

The University of Saskatchewan has a continuing commitment to a technology-enhanced learning environment for students and in January 2016 acquired a campus-wide license for the Top Hat student response system. Top Hat is a software-based student response system, incorporating a “bring-your-own-device” solution, that is available at no direct cost to instructors and students. The primary goal of Top Hat is to enhance the teaching and learning experience for both instructors and students by bringing more engagement and interaction into traditional passive lecture-style learning approaches.

Who we are

We are a research team at the University of Saskatchewan who are interested in student response systems with a specific focus on Top Hat, their pedagogical effectiveness, and investigating the best teaching practices for these systems. Our team is organized under the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) cluster titled “Technology-Enhanced Learning: An Assessment of Student Response Systems in the University Classroom.”

  • Carleigh Brady, PhD, Instructor, Dept. of English
  • Soo Kim, PhD, B.Sc.PT, Professor, School of Rehabilitation Science
  • Landon Baillie, PhD, Professor, Dept. of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology
  • Raymond Spiteri, PhD, Professor, Dept. of Computer Science
  • Neil Chilton, PhD, Professor, Dept. of Biology
  • Katherina Lebedeva, PhD, Instructor, Dept. of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology

In March of 2018, we invited all individuals with a Top Hat instructor account at the University of Saskatchewan to participate in a survey about the use of Top Hat on campus and to share their experiences.

Results

 A total of 58 instructors responded to the survey. We found the majority of instructors using Top Hat at the University of Saskatchewan:

  • incorporate it in class to assess student concept understanding, test student recall, and share student perspectives (opinions, experience, and demographics)
  • use it for asking questions, creating discussions, and monitoring attendance
  • prefer “multiple choice question,” “word answer,” and “click on target” formats
  • think that the greatest advantages of Top Hat are: increased participation and engagement, student assessment, instant feedback from students, and the system’s ease of use/functionality
  • consider that Top Hat’s biggest disadvantages to be the time investment for software setting-up and grading, design issues, and technical issues (e.g. room connectivity)

In summary, we found that most instructors using Top Hat found it effective in facilitating a collaborative teaching and learning environment. Top Hat encourages students to participate actively during lectures by asking questions and polling student responses online. Despite some disadvantages, Top Hat is still preferred over clickers for its increased functionality (various question formats, interactive functions, and use of graphics), as well as its instant feedback and results polling.

However, further studies should be conducted to systematically evaluate the effect of Top Hat on student academic performance.

 Find more information

Getting More Active (and getting more learning)

The holidays are a time of year that are almost inevitably followed by a feeling that you should be more active after all those treats and large meals.  Many educators want their students to be more active and engaged, but like the post-holiday feeling that you should be more active, it is hard to turn that good will into consistent action in your instruction.  This post focuses on easy changes to make your course more active.

Step 1- Clarify the purpose of active learning in your class
Active learning is time in your classroom when students are actively thinking, talking, and making sense of ideas.  It is contrasted with passive learning, when students are being receptive (listening, note taking, etc.)  An individual class is typically considered active when 60% or more of the time is students thinking and talking, rather than the instructor explaining. To get started with active learning, identify a key or threshold concept (Meyer and Land, 2003) that students need to understand well and use often, but seem to struggle with.  That’s a great place to focus on active learning, because active learning processes make it more likely your students will be able to retain and apply what they have learned.

Step 2 – Consider options
Before you make any type of change, you often need to consider possible options.  Start will some videos  or browse some resources and think about the strategies that might fit well given your content and discipline. It is essential that the specific strategy fit the concept you need student to make sense of, so you can’t just pick one at random.  For threshold concepts, strategies like error analysis, concept formation/concept attainment etc. are often the most effective.  If you’d like someone to help you consider some options best suited to you, but you don’t want to wade through the options, make a short appointment with Gwenna Moss. We’ll suggest some great options given what you explain about the concept that you are teaching and the size of your class.

Step 3 – Try something small

  1. Start by really clarifying how the process will work in your own mind.
  2. Identify what you’ll still need to teach directly so students have enough knowledge to do the active task.
  3. Choose a class you are comfortable in, and explain how important the concept is and why you’ll be using an active strategy.  If you haven’t used the particular strategy you are trying, explain the process and what behavior you’ll expect explicitly.
  4. Use the strategy, circulating to help or prompt students often.
  5. Once you are done with the activity, summarize the key takeaways and implications with your students.  Next time this key concept comes up, refer back to the activity and the lessons learned.  You use the summarizing and references to prior learning to ensure students are connecting the learning well, and didn’t miss anything essential.

Learn more:

 

Is Your Instruction Designed to Produce Student Learning?

Lecture is an efficient way to transmit information, especially in large classes. We inevitably feel there is a lot of content to cover, since the gap between what novice students know and expert professors know is large. However, large, uninterrupted blocks of lecture are very inefficient ways to learn, because they are passive. Learners get cognitive overload and stop processing, have trouble paying attention, and remember some ideas that they struggle to apply or connect conceptually.  All of these occur, even with strong learners, and even with instructors who provide exceptionally focused, clear delivery of information. The mind just learns more if it is actively engaged in thinking.

As a method of direct instruction, lecture is focused on a well-organized, clear presentation of information.  Its cousin, explicit instruction, is much better aligned with what we know about how the brain learns, because it is active.

Explicit instruction:

  • students are guided through the learning process with clear statements about the purpose of learning the new skill
  • teachers give clear explanations and demonstrations
  • students engage in supported practice with feedback at intervals throughout the entire class, not just at the end

The key distinction is that while there are periods of telling information, student are asked to demonstrate the skill they are learning and practice it with feedback.  As a result, they are much more likely to remember, make fewer errors, are more focused, and more motivated.  They are also more likely to describe the learning and important and describe how to keep improving. There is clear alignment between the goal of having students understand more deeply, and the activities they are asked to participate in to support their learning.

Why does all this mater?

When we set the goals for what our students will be able to know and do by the end of class (outcomes), we need to think carefully about how remembering information is essential, but not sufficient, learning. We want students to be able to correctly apply the new information in a process, to make decisions and informed judgments, and to use new information for reasoned arguments.  That means our classes need help students develop these competencies and practice them with feedback. Our outcomes, our instruction, and how we assess all need align and work cohesively together to support effective learning processes. If they don’t, we become Professor Dancelot of video fame, with good intentions and little actual learning.

Learn more:

  • Interesting Book: Donald A. Bligh, What’s the Use of Lectures? (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), pp. 252, 11.
  • Oft cited scholarly history: C. Bane, “The Lecture vs. the Class-Discussion Method of College Teaching,” School and Society 21 (1925); B.S. Bloom, “Thought-Processes in Lectures and Discussions,” Journal of General Education 7 (1953).

Building Relationships With Students Before They Arrive at the University of Saskatchewan



By Murray Drew, Professor, Department of Animal and Poultry Science

I am a member of a committee which is exploring whether there are teaching practices that support student mental wellbeing in the classroom. You are probably thinking that this means talking about mental health directly with students. That’s not what we are interested in. Instead, we want to find out how instructors can create a classroom environment that is more conducive to student mental wellbeing.

There has been some research in this area but it is a relatively new approach. In the few studies that have been published, several teaching strategies have been reported to improve student mental health. One of these factors is creating a sense of belonging and connectedness in students by promoting the development of positive relationships with fellow classmates, instructors and the university as a whole. I would like to tell you about something that I am trying this term to accomplish this.

This idea originated with Glorie Tebbutt who is a sessional lecture, teaching first year classes in English and Women’s and Gender Studies. I sat down with her one afternoon to discuss her take on effective teaching practices for student mental wellbeing. She gave me some amazing ideas that she has used in her own classes, including the one I am trying out. She contacts her students several weeks before the start of class and requests a selfie plus something they would like to share about themselves. She also asks two questions: 1) What do you need from me to be successful in class and 2) What do you need from each other to be successful in class. I thought this would be a great way of achieving the goal of building connectedness, even before students arrive at the U of S so I decided to try it in my own first year class.

I teach ANBI 110: Introduction to Animal Bioscience. The class has 67 students this year; over 90% are female and most of them are interested in becoming veterinarians. They know they will need excellent grades to be accepted into the vet med program so they are already under a great amount of self-imposed stress. It is also the only course they take that is delivered by our department in the first term. It is our one opportunity to connect students with our department and make them feel that they have an academic home. With these things in mind, I emailed this to the ANBI 110 students.

Hi everyone 

I am Murray Drew and I will be one of your instructors for ANBI 110: Introductory Animal Bioscience. I teach the laboratory component of the course and this is my favourite teaching activity. My main goal in sending you this email, before classes even start, is to find out more about you and what you need to be successful in my course, and at the U of S. I also want to build a community and help you feel connected to your classmates and instructors. One of the best things that you can do to be successful and happy at the U of S is to develop relationships with your classmates and professors. I want to start that before you even get here. 

I have two requests.

First, please send me: 1) your name and a picture of yourself (with an animal if possible), 2) one interesting thing about yourself, 3) what you want to achieve at the U of S and 4) what you need from me to be successful. My email address is (address provided). Here’s an example of what I’m looking for.

Murray Drew

Murray Drew and a horseThis summer I went to Iceland and rode an Icelandic horse on a tour through a lava field. I am the world’s 2nd worst rider. 

I want inspire students to love animal science and get them involved with animal research.

This is what I need from you. I need you to participate in class. Ask questions, challenge me, interact with your classmates. Take control of your education.

Second, please join the class Facebook page that I have set up. I hope to use this to stimulate a few conversations about the course. The group’s name is Animal Bioscience 110 for 2018.

Thanks for doing this. I look forward to seeing you next month.

In the week since I sent this, I have had 32 responses. Very thoughtful responses. Most students said that making myself available if they were having trouble with course material was very important to them. Some mentioned that they had ADHD or suffered from anxiety and that they hoped I would be understanding if they were having difficulty. Virtually all of them ended their email thanking me for contacting them and said it helped them feel a little less stressed about starting classes. I also have a class Facebook group and most students have joined it. I have posted a few questions and hope this will start some discussions and get students interacting with each other.

Of course, I know that doing this isn’t always going to be feasible. It would be almost impossible to do in classes with hundreds of students. ANBI 110, however, is a special case where this practice is workable. But, it remains to be seen if this will have a significantly beneficial effect on students. I’ll have to see what happens once the students get here.

 

 

 

 

Promoting Academic Integrity: Some design questions for instructors

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Here are some propositions about students’ academic integrity that I’ve been working with:

  1. Students are more likely to do their work honestly when they see the personal value in what is to be learned.
  2. Students are more likely to do their work honestly when they believe the assessment produces actual evidence of what they have learned.
  3. Students are more likely to do their work honestly when they’ve had the chance for practice and feedback.
  4. Students are more likely to do their work honestly when they know the rules and expect them to be enforced.

Designing assessments for academic integrity is much more than tight invigilation processes and tools like Turnitin and SafeAssign (thankfully). There is much that instructors can do to set students on honest learning paths when they design and teach their courses.   Below, I offer some prompting questions instructors can ask themselves when designing course materials, assessments, and learning activities that relate to the four propositions above.

“See-the-Value” Questions for Instructors:

  • How can I convey/demonstrate the value of what students learn in my course?
  • How can I share my enthusiasm for learning this and the value I place on it?
  • How can I connect students to the benefits this learning brings for them individually, for their families or communities, for society or the world?
  • How can I provide opportunities for students to follow their individual interests and values in the context of this course?

“Evidence” Questions for Instructors:

  • What kind of evidence does this assessment provide that students have learned what I wanted them to learn?
  • What other forms of evidence could I use to determine this?
  • What alternatives could I offer students to show me what they have learned?
  • How can I make explicit to students that an assessment is transferrable to other contexts?

“Practice and Feedback” Questions for Instructors:

  • What do students need to be able self-assess their progress before grades are at stake?
  • How can I provide early feedback so that students still have the opportunity to improve?
  • How can I stage larger assignments with feedback so that students have time to improve (and avoid last minute temptations)?
  • How could I best equip students to provide feedback to each other?

“Rules” Questions for Instructors:

  • What are my rules for my assessments within the academic integrity policy framework?
  • How can I clearly explain both the assessments and the rules so that students know how to best proceed?
  • What are some common misconceptions/errors that I can address early on?
  • How can I help students learn how to follow the rules, especially when it involves technical components like a new citation or referencing protocol?
  • How can I show students that I am committed to enforce my own rules?

We have a workshop coming up at the GMCTL on November 14 that will explore assessment practices that promote academic integrity. Please consider registering.

When Performing Gets in the Way of Improving

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I encountered the following video in the spring and have been sharing it with faculty and groups with an interest in questions of assessment.  I think it lays a useful foundation for discussions on (1) what it takes to master skills and knowledge, (2) the value of lower stakes practice, (3) the necessity of formative feedback for learning, and (4) recognition that moments of “performance” or assessment for grades are also needed.

Additionally, this video supports the thinking behind a core element of the Instructional Skills Workshop—an internationally recognized workshop and certification offered regularly at our Centre.  For that workshop, participants practice the facilitation of a 10 minute “mini lesson” so valuable for improving instructional skills.  Here’s a link to more information about that workshop.

Happy to discuss the learning zone and the performance zone with Educatus readers!

Fostering Successful Intercultural Group Work: A Summary and Response to article “Rethinking multicultural group work as intercultural learning.”

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When I read the above article, I was immediately reminded of an article I read a few years ago, called “’I know the type of people I work well with’: Student anxiety in multicultural group projects.”[1] The authors of that article identify the “cognitive anxiety” and “affective anxiety” of students doing group work with diverse cultural representation within the group (anxieties that seem to be higher among domestic, rather than international students). Each form of anxiety is attributed to “uncertainty…the phenomenon affecting the way we think about strangers” (Strauss, et al, 816). As a result of these anxieties, English-first language speakers were far more likely to, if given the chance to self-select their groups, invite other English-first speakers and to form more homogenous groups. At times, English-first students actually requested not to be put in groups with EAL students, and believed EAL students to be “novices, incompetents or apprentices” [!!] (819). The authors identify that at the time (2011), “there does not seem to be any consensus as to the best way to structure these [diverse linguistic and cultural] student groups” (817).

Returning to the Reid and Garson article, it seems as though they are answering the call and are providing possible strategies for forming functional, multicultural groups. First, I will outline the strengths of the article, but will then highlight some questions and concerns I have. These do not negate the positive aspects of the article, but perhaps will help us dig a little deeper, should we decide to venture into applying Reid’s and Garson’s strategies.

As might be expected, the authors note that it is more likely to achieve culturally diverse groups for group work when they are formed, deliberately, by the instructor. Before placing students in groups, a single intercultural lecture (including activities) was delivered before undertaking their group projects. This lecture included “valuing diversity in teams, exploring the role of stereotypes and assumptions in team selection…and understanding the dimensions of cultural frameworks” (200). In part, this may resolve some of the cognitive and affective anxiety experienced by intercultural group members.

Another strategy was to have each group member write down what they believed to be the top 6 characteristics of a successful group, and on another paper, their own, personal, 4 strengths they brought to the group (200). This, too, should build confidence and competence working together, as students are able to identify different responsibilities based on identified strengths. This exercise should help mitigate “domestic” students’ preconceptions about the contributions of those from a culture other than their own. In addition to collecting this information about groups’ strengths, the instructor also generated a class list with the students’ “country of origin and gender, to form groups that aligned complimentary skills with cultural and gender diversity”(200).

Despite the authors delivering positive results, I do have some concerns about the Reid’s and Garson’s approach, which I think could result in a great conversation. I’ll identify my concerns in point form:

  1. Asking students to self-identify their country of origin risks making cultural generalizations about that student. A student may have been born in Bangladesh and did not leave the country until their university years. Another may have come from Bangladesh when they were 3 months old.
  2. “Domestic” students also come from diverse cultural groups. Asking for a student’s country of origin, if they reply “Canada,” will not reveal, for example, Indigenous peoples’ cultural presence.
  3. I don’t feel comfortable with the instructor asking the students to identify their gender, as this may be very personal. Asking students to identify their gender may circumvent an instructor’s assumptions about a student’s gender, but still puts the student in a very vulnerable spot.
  4. The one-off pre-lecture may actually reinforce cultural stereotypes. From the article, it sounds like there is a heavy focus on cultural dimensions (that is, from the work of Hoefstedde and others in the 70s and 80s, and the general, dichotomized characteristics of cultures around the world). These dimensions can be useful, but must be introduced carefully, as people commonly use these dimensions to “understand” people from cultures other than their own, applying them with a broad stroke and not taking into consideration variances and evolutions in cultures and also individuals.
  5. The 2011 article talks about “multicultural groups,” while the 2017 article talks about “intercultural groups,” which are very different concepts. It might be a useful exercise to explore the multicultural and intercultural aspects of these articles, as the distinction between multicultural and intercultural is very significant.
  6. This brings me to my last point—the coaching seems to lack an unpacking of one’s own culture, and does not seem to address intersectionality, which is also disconcerting.

There is a lot more that can be discussed around this article, beyond what I’ve noted above—by no means is my response exhaustive, but hopefully it opens a channel for reflection and discussion.


Reid, R, and Garson, K. (2017). Rethinking multicultural group work as intercultural learning. Journal of International Education, 21, 3, 195-212. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1028315316662981

[1] Strauss, P., U, A., and Young, S. (2011). ‘I know the type of people I work well with’: student anxiety in multicultural group projects. Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 36, No.. 7, 815-829. Accessed: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075079.2010.488720

Putting it All Together

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In this blog, I pull together several of the concepts discussed in previous posts, such as Portals and WikiProjects, and consider how you can begin to develop course materials and assignments for a Wikipedia-based course.

Let’s say, for example, that you are teaching a physics course and want to assign students the job of editing or writing physics-related articles. A good place to start, for both student and instructor, is the Physics portal, which briefly reviews the field and links to the main article on Physics (see excerpt below).

Physics Portal Main PageIt also has a tab entitled “Topics, Categories, Textbook, and Featured articles,” which links to Wikipedia articles on classical physics, modern physics and cross-disciplinary topics, as well as a “textbook” that slots Wikipedia physics articles under chapter headings. While the textbook remains a work in progress, it is a more efficient way to gauge Wikipedia’s coverage (or lack thereof) than simply using the Wikipedia search engine. Apart from the main Physics portal, other relevant portals might include Astronomy, Cosmology, Electromagnetism, Gravitation, and Science.

The third tab on the Physics portal page is “WikiProjects and things to do,” which I turn to next.

WikiProjects

Table of physics articles by quality and importanceThe Physics portal lists four WikiProjects and task groups: WikiProject Physics, WikiProject Space, WikiProject Time, and WikiProject Cosmology. WikiProjects are valuable both to the quality of Wikipedia and to instructors; for an explanation, see my two-part blog, “WikiProjects, Article Importance, and Article Quality: An Intimate Relation­ship” (http://bit.ly/2l8fSEa and http://bit.ly/2lH9hjJ).

One of the key things that a Wiki­Project does is rank Wikipedia articles for importance and quality on a two-dimensional grid. For example, shown here is the grid from WikiProject Physics (screen shot of 27 May 2017, linked to the current version). I’ve selected 822, which is the number of stub-class articles of mid-importance to WikiProject Physics, a list of which can be accessed by clicking on the number.[1] Stub-class articles can be a good starting point for student projects, though start-class articles are also good. An example of a start-class article that is also considered to be of top importance (of the seven in this category) is Classical physics.

It is a good idea for students to become familiar with the different categories of importance and quality in Wikipedia articles, so they know what to strive for and how things can be improved. For example, it would be instructive for them to review at least a couple of the project’s 61 Featured articles,[2] one of the six List articles,[3] a few of the 144 Good articles,[4] and a smattering of the remaining categories. Reading the Talk pages associated with these articles and looking at their View History pages is also a good introduction to the kinds of issues that student editors might face. See, for example, the “Classical physics” Talk page.

One of the things an instructor should consider doing is creating a list of articles that need work and that are within the scope of knowledge for a particular course. Students choose an article to edit from this list, and may also be assigned the task of peer-reviewing another student’s edits to that student’s chosen article. Both the editing and the peer reviewing can be graded. The aim should be to take assigned pages to Good article status, or as close as possible. (Students can make significant contributions to articles, even if, for example, they only start within C-class status, which is not the same as a “C” grade on the U of S grading guidelines.) Here are some Wikipedia articles that might be candidates for editing in a basic Physics course, arrayed in a table that also shows their importance and current quality assessments within WikiProject Physics, along with assignments to a hypothetical set of 15 student editors and peer reviewers:

Article Importance Quality Editor Reviewer
Aerodynamic force Mid Stub-class Student 1 Student 15
Avogrado’s law High Start-class Student 2 Student 14
Electrical energy High Start-class Student 3 Student 13
Focus (optics) High Start-class Student 4 Student 12
Liquefaction of gases Mid Stub-class Student 5 Student 11
Magnet High C-class Student 6 Student 10
Materials physics Mid Stub-class Student 7 Student 9
Measure (physics) Mid Stub-class Student 8 Student 8
Neutron-proton ratio Mid Stub-class Student 9 Student 7
Newton’s laws of motion Top C-class Student 10 Student 6
Pressure Top C-class Student 11 Student 5
Quantum mechanics Top B-class[5] Student 12 Student 4
Quantum vortex Mid Start-class Student 13 Student 3
Rarefaction Mid Stub-class Student 14 Student 2
Time dilation High C-class Student 15 Student 1

The Wiki Ed Advantage

Instructors should also take a close look at the Wikipedia Education Program, set up through the Wiki Ed Foundation to support instructors and students. Help ranges from accessing brochures to training to designing and implementing a 12-week course with Wiki Ed support and an instructor dashboard. The dashboard is a powerful resource that lets you see what aspects of the training that students have completed, as well as all articles or other projects they are working on. You can get started at the main page for educators and proceed to various pages, such as the one that provides case studies of assignments and grading.

Let’s consider an example of a Wiki Ed course, this time from the life sciences. The course is “Molecular Genetics” and the main course page shows that it was taught this spring by Eric Guisbert of the Florida Institute of Technology, with assistance from Wiki Ed’s Ian Ramjohn. Clicking on the Dashboard link takes you to the details for the course; the header excerpt, linked to the Dashboard, is shown below.

Wiki Educator Molecular Genetics Page

This header, and further information found by clicking on its links (Timeline, Students, Articles, etc.) show that of the 27 students who registered for the Wikipedia option, 23 completed the training, and that this cohort edited 55 articles and created three new ones—about 1100 edits comprising some 31,400 words. The articles were viewed by Wikipedia users about 1.7 million times during the course, which provides a sense of the real-world impact—positive or negative—that student editors can have.

Let’s look at the work of one student with username Ncameron2013 (accessed via the “Students” link). Ncameron2013 was assigned (or chose) the article “Receptor Tyrosine Kinase” to edit and was also assigned (or chose) three other articles for peer review—that is, the student was tasked with reviewing and commenting on the work of the three student editors for those articles.[6]

View of student changes page

We can find out what Ncameron2013 did by clicking on the dropdown arrow on the right. The resulting screen shows that after completing the training modules and preliminary assignments,[7] Ncameron2013 was active, first in the Sandbox, commenting on the work of LBates2008 and Cbyrd2011 and creating a new section of the article entitled “Regulation” (March 12–15); then working on the article live from March 15–16. (See below.) Clicking on the “Show” button for any of these entries allows us to see the work that Ncameron2013 did on these occasions. This feature is helpful in giving an instructor a precise understanding of a student’s contribution to article development; it is especially useful in the event that another Wikipedian edits or deletes the student’s work (as has happened more than once with my students).

Table showing list of changes and contributor user names

In the case of Ncameron2013, the most extensive edit was the 8148-character addition on March 15 at 3:29 pm adding two new sections to the article—“Regulation” and “Drug Therapy”—as well as subsections, body text, references, and a table. (See the excerpt from the “Show” screen below; It shows the first two sentences and the relevant citations in Wikitext format.)

Snapshot of changes made by a student during one session

Ncameron2234 continued to modify this addition to the article over the next 24 hours before wrapping up on March 16 at 3:20 pm. You can see the net effect of Ncameron2013’s edits by using the “diff” feature in the View history tab for the article:

Changes made by an individual student in a 24-hour period

This generates a page that shows the differences between the version of the article before Ncameron2013 started working on it (version saved by Headbomb on 2 March 2017 at 5:30) and the by the time Ncameron2013 finished working on it, ignoring any edits in between (version saved by Ncameron2013 on 16 March 2017 at 21:20).[8] The current version of the article (with subsequent edits by others) can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Receptor_tyrosine_kinase. A screen shot from that version, reflecting Ncameron2103’s additions, is shown below:

The version of the page after student has completed updates

Finally, the citations that Ncameron2013 added to support these edits are shown below:

Citations included by student to reference sources

I hope that these blog posts have provided greater insight on how you can use Wikipedia assignments to help your students make the leap from consuming knowledge to creating it. From here, my recommendation is to “just do it” and learn how to adapt all of this to your own context. And if you’re excited about getting more involved, consider attending the annual international Wikimania conference, being held this summer in Montreal. Conference themes include the contributions of academic and cultural institutions within the Wikipedia movement, privacy and rights, and the role of technology in disseminating free knowledge. As for me, this will be my last blog post in this series before I take up my new position next month. I thank the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning for giving me this forum to share my thoughts, and invite you to stay in touch with your stories about the use of Wikipedia in higher education.


John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law, a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, and incoming dean of law at the University of New Brunswick. 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.


Notes

[1]    Hyperlinks in this grid direct to an external site, Wikimedia Labs. The link for the first 1000 entries in the stub-class, mid-importance category (that is, the intersection of these two ratings) is https://tools.wmflabs.org/enwp10/cgi-bin/list2.fcgi?run=yes&projecta=Physics&namespace=&pagename=&quality=Stub-Class&importance=Mid-Class&score=&limit=1000&offset=1&sorta=Importance&sortb=Quality. However, each of these categories has an equivalent article in Wikipedia itself; here, the relevant article link is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Stub-Class_physics_articles_of_Mid-importance.

[2]    See https://tools.wmflabs.org/enwp10/cgi-bin/list2.fcgi?run=yes&projecta=Physics&quality=FA-Class or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Physics#Featured_articles.

[3]    See https://tools.wmflabs.org/enwp10/cgi-bin/list2.fcgi?run=yes&projecta=Physics&quality=FL-Class (see especially the Featured List article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nobel_laureates_in_Physics).

[4]    See https://tools.wmflabs.org/enwp10/cgi-bin/list2.fcgi?run=yes&projecta=Physics&quality=GA-Class or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Physics#Good_articles.

[5]    This is a former Featured article, which means that the quality has slipped over time (see the articles’ Talk page).

[6]    The articles, not shown here, were “PLCG1,” “TLR4,” and “Classical genetics.”

[7]    See https://dashboard.wikiedu.org/courses/Florida_Institute_of_Technology/Molecular_Genetics_(Spring_2017)/timeline. See also the thorough set of assignments there, designed to gradually bring students up to speed on Wikipedia conventions and editing practices.

[8]    Times shown here are Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), closely related to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and used by Wikipedia to keep track of edits. For the “diff” comparison between former and revised versions, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Receptor_tyrosine_kinase&type=revision&diff=770669168&oldid=768683561.