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Why I encourage my college students to use #Wikipedia as a “gateway” source

April 27, 2011

Like most college and high school teachers, for years I told my students that Wikipedia was off-limits as a source. I gave them the regular song and dance about the lack of credibility and undependability of Wikipedia. One day my beloved Comp director, who has some 30 or 40 years of experience in the field, remarked how ridiculous it is that teachers tell their students not to use Wikipedia when we should be looking for any tool that will get them into research. He had a point, I thought. After all, I often use Wikipedia when I want a quick overview on some event or practice or person. Sure, it just gets me started, or gives me an idea, but if that practice is good enough for me (and I feel certain it is for most teachers except the hardcore purists who refuse on principle), why should I discourage the practice in my students? Wouldn’t it be better to take the opportunity to teach them the proper use of a source like Wikipedia?

Well, that’s what I decided to do in my research writing class. This semester, I stepped it up a notch. I started the class by telling them they were going to write about Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow. I put the Wikipedia article on Flow (which is very good) up on the screen and walked them through it, then pointed toward the sources in the bibliography at the bottom. I picked a couple of those sources and had the students write summaries and responses on them. Then they went out and got their own sources, applied the concept of Flow to their own lives, and wrote their essays. They had a lot of fun and produced some excellent writing.

In the end, they were affirmed in the use of a tool with which they are comfortable, and learned the value of Wikipedia as a site from which to cull primary sources. Or, as a student put it one day, “Oh, I see, Wikipedia is like a gateway source.” I like that. A gateway source. I think he got it.

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One Comment
  1. Hank permalink

    Yes, a gateway. And it is self-correcting over a far shorter timeframe than paper reference works.

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