Friday, October 8, 2010

Questioning Wikipedia: Enhancing Research Skills with Google Apps

In prior years while teaching The Crucible, I found that students became so involved in the play that they’d often forget that the characters are representative of the true historical figures.  I constantly would point students to the historical note Miller includes at the very beginning.  I suppose I should feel fortunate that students were getting into the drama, but I wanted the history to be more at the forefront of their thinking.  

Consequently, I wanted students to find out more of the background information about the real lives of the people Miller dramatizes.  All seventy-five students had to add a fact to the spreadsheet above about the people Miller writes about from the Salem Witch Trials or facts on Arthur Miller and McCarthyism.  The reason why a Google Spreadsheet is an essential tool is because students had to review all other students’ responses in order to research and contribute a new fact.  Even though it was a fairly short assignment, all of my American literature classes collaboratively completed in-depth research because they built their research on many other students’ work.  

The three right hand columns in yellow were not apart of the original assignment.  I spoke with my high school’s media specialist, LaDawna Harrington, about helping students begin to evaluate their sources and she suggested the three tasks listed below.  Students had to “do a background check” of the writers of their original sources and then compare their research results to the same topic searches on Wikipedia.  This was a short assignment, but I reinforced the importance of summarizing research in their own words and evaluating the credibility of the sources.  For the reflection part of the assignment, I emphasized that it was okay if they did not find the most credible sources, but it is something to recognize and learn from.  

Many students reflected on how most of the information they found was comparable on Wikipedia, but how one source is never enough to validate information.  One student wrote, “Because the information in the original article and the Wikipedia article were very similar, it’s implied that this information is probably accurate. However, it certainly stands questionable when referencing Wikipedia whether the information is correct or not, and that will be kept in mind.”
Another wonderful aspect of the spreadsheet is that I was able to share it with some of my students' history teachers as well as our school librarian. Sharing our resources will help us make cross-curriculum connections and I value their imput on the students' research.


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  2. Great lesson! I do something similar in my 9th grade biology class. I have students compare a section of our textbook to the Wikipedia article. I have been surprised that, although they use wikipedia all the time, my students are quick to judge Wikipedia as an unreliable source because "anyone can edit it." It appears that the English teachers have been hard at work. I'm doing what I can to teach the students how to evaluate the quality of a source. It's not always black and white!