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Survey Data: Multiple-Choice Questions

In terms of course competencies, the survey demonstrates that the majority of students felt the assignment sequence could accomplish a broad range of traditional skills, as well as one of the more recent additions to the competencies, which deals with visual rhetoric. Specifically, 88% of students agreed that the assignment sequence allowed them to utilize visual rhetoric and to consider the connections between visual and alphabetic texts. 100% of the students found the assignment sequence effective in exposing a variety of writing styles, although the degree of this efficacy varied. 94% of students reported growth in terms of research skills and 88% reported increased understanding of rhetorical concepts ethos, pathos, and logos. In terms of surface-level writing skills-- such as documentation, grammar, spelling and punctuation-- 94% of students agreed that the assignment sequence offered opportunities to practice these abilities. Finally, 100% of students found the assignment sequence increased their understanding of source evaluation and incorporation.

Although it doesn’t necessarily speak to the assignment’s capacity for collaboration, student responses do show a positive assessment of the sequence’s social element. 100% of students found the sequence more social than writing tasks in previous composition courses in terms of online Wikipedia editors and classmates. In addition to engaging in writing as a social act, students also learned about writing as a recursive and multi-layered process by examining the history functions for each article on the encyclopedia; 100% of students reported the assignment sequence to be effective at exposing them to the writing process. For most students, the assignment sequence led to an awareness of audience that hadn’t been available to them in other courses. 88% of students reported an increased sense of audience compared to other writing assignments, while 12% reported no change. Furthermore, students also gained an understanding of how audience shapes the rhetorical situation, with 100% of the sample responding positively, in varying degrees, to the sequence’s usefulness in contributing to their rhetorical understanding of the concept of audience. The final issue addressed by this question type dealt with overall experience. Students did not report any dissatisfaction with the sequence; instead, their responses ranged from “slightly satisfied” (6%) to “extremely satisfied” (59%). In terms of the technology, however, responses came back more mixed. 18% of students felt that the use of technology “slightly detracted” from the experience while 82% felt technology enriched the sequence.

Survey Data: Short Essay


Analysis of the first of two Type 2 (Short Essay) questions produced three specific response categories. These categories or themes, along with the frequency of student reports, are shown in the table to the right.  Students reported frequently on the capacity of the assignment sequence to provide opportunities to engage in and and practice the following: 

  1. writing as a more social experience with a wider audience
  2. research, source retrieval and incorporation
  3. general writing skills, style and tone

The first and most prevalent category codes data from responses that addressed the social element of the assignment. Multiple students stressed the public nature of these articles: “This social aspect of writing was extremely beneficial because I took my time creating this page, knowing that it was up for the world to see. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by putting up a sloppy and incomplete piece of work” (Response 3). Other students identified a similar motivation as the effect of an audience beyond the instructor. Additionally, students tended to feel positively about the multiple opportunities for feedback afforded by the assignment, both from Wikipedia administrators and by their classmates: “When it wasn’t good, we had our peers and the reviewers on Wikipedia to tell us what our article was lacking and what could be improved. Getting other people’s opinions can enhance your writing dramatically.” (Response 3). 

Another common theme reported by students was the opportunity to gain experience in researching, with most students directly addressing source retrieval and incorporation. Despite the fact that students were only required to utilize 3-5 sources for the initial article entry, one student admitted “a high amount of research for this project, where as if I were writing simply a paper, I don’t think I would have utilized the sources I did” (Response 10). Another describes the process as aiding their ability to select and examine potential sources: “It helped to gain a better understanding of how to find good websites and articles. I was also finding myself reading the articles more in order to determine its credibility.” (Response 1). Yet another student compares the research he performed in this assignment sequence to past experiences with writing assignments: “I learned more from this assignment about finding, analyzing, and incorporating sources than any other writing assignment I’ve done” (Response 5). 

A final theme from these short essay responses included students’ recognition that the assignment sequence allowed them an opportunity to improve general writing skills, especially their knowledge of tones and styles. Because encyclopedic entries follow a set genre, students were able to practice a neutral tone and third-person, objective style. Most students perceived this exercise as valuable: “I also learned about adapting my writing style and tone to fit the paradigm of a specific discourse community" (Response 5). However, one student expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the tone and style requirement did not provide opportunities to practice persuasive writing: “the article itself does not provide the opportunity to argue one’s beliefs about a particular subject, due to the neutrality of Wikipedia” (Response 8). 

While these results provide some data about what students perceive to be the assignment sequence’s primary educational benefits, an additional essay prompt asked students what they would revise about the assignment to improve it. Responses to this prompt were not as consistent, but a majority did offer constructive and helpful advice. Perhaps the most prevalent issue was with wiki syntax. Students wanted more time devoted to learning the codes needed to write an article. Somewhat related to this is one student’s inclination to recommend more explanation of the article format. This suggestion that students do a practice “edit” of an existing page before creating their own article also appeared, which might alleviate these issues with code. Another common suggestion involved issues with topic invention. One respondent emphasized the importance of feeling connected to and interested in their topic selection, while another recommended that the instructor provide more examples of topics and freedom in selecting topics. An additional suggestion emphasized the need for more peer review and peer collaboration. Finally, a few students reported that no changes were needed.

Reflection Essay Data

Data gathered from students' reflective essays also utilized a form of thematic analysis to code data. In my reading and interpretation of these reflective pieces, four major themes emerged which demonstrate student growth in understanding: 1) textual authority and ethos, 2) writing as a social/collaborative act, 3) rhetorical impact of audience, and 4) writing processes. Purdy (2010a) argues that Wikipedia allows us an opportunity to deconstruct authority of “published” texts through the recognition of error, but composing an article also allows this lesson, as one student realizes below:

I guess in some ways that’s what surprised me the most throughout this project: the revelation that I personally had contributed a legitimate article and added to the knowledge on Wikipedia.  Also though, it did make me realize that many of the articles I had read and fully trusted over the years may have been put together by people that didn’t know what they were doing any more than I did at that moment.  It was something to think about for sure. (Reflection Sample 1)

The ability to doubt or question authority in “published” material is a crucial critical thinking skill. But it remains to be seen whether or not such a lesson transfers to discourse beyond Wikipedia. Another student seems to think that the displaced model of authority seen in Wikipedia does apply outside its bounds, although his identification of an alternate target, academia, seems misplaced:

With the creation of Wikipedia and the participation of its users, one begins to see the formulation of a new method of constructing academia. One in which an expert or authority with an area of expertise does not maintain hegemonic power within that particular area. People can bring their knowledge together and decide  upon the validity of material as a community. (Reflection Sample 2)

This student’s realization that Wikipedia represents a new model of communal rather than individual authority is particularly astute. In another passage in the reflection, the same student discusses the more fluid roles of author and audience the encyclopedia allows:


When contributing to the discourse community of Wikipedia, one offers their partially completed product up for deliberation between those that wish to partake of the knowledge the article provides. However, the major difference of the relationship of writer and reader in this case is that the writer and reader can literally reverse their roles and provide their input from both perspectives....Therefore, as the original author I am supplying the community's readers with material to observe and analyze. Then when the readers have input to provide they can become the writer and do so instantaneously. (Student Reflection 2)


Yet academia—and I made a similar comment in my feedback on his essay—is resisting rather than adopting this model due to its incompatability with institutional traditions of individual effort. Communities that are adopting a similar model can easily be found online, as well as in computer technology and programming communities. Think open-source software, or online music collaboration communities (Moxley & Meehan, 2007). The tendency of this student to reflect on the collaborative authorship of articles was consistent across other responses as well. Many of these, however, provide a more personal account of how Wikipedia administrators or other editors made an impact on their writing. One student in particular, who edited an existing article rather than creating a new one, identifies the discussion page (a feature of every article in which contributors talk through revisions or conflicts) as influential on the writing process:

Another way I used the Discussion Board was to help answer people’s questions. I felt I had a huge advantage with contributing to that page because the State Hospital was located right down the road, and I had primary sources within the library.  Someone had previously asked how many square feet the facility took up, so I dug through the entire plot plans and there were records circa 1960, stating how much square footage the hospital truly took up.

(Reflection Sample 3)

This student was adding information to the article for a local historical site and was able to use the discussion page to discover a gap in research, an entry point for her own contribution. This kind of engagement within a specific discourse community is rare in the undergraduate composition class, yet Wikipedia provides such opportunities.Passages that demonstrated excitement about the article's audience were the most rewarding to read because the prose is so vibrant and the writer so honestly ecstatic. “Going live,” or publishing their articles on Wikipedia, was an exhilarating moment for these students because they had produced something of value for an outside audience: “Once completed, I went live! This was incredibly exciting for me. I called my family and friends and asked them to search it and they found it! I felt very accomplished and proud that I had contributed to something public and informative” (Reflection Sample 4). Students who edited an existing article, on the other hand, experienced another type of audience-- that of other contributors: "Getting permission to revise an already existing article was really interesting and laid the pressure on a lot more. The original article was created years ago and had been edited over a hundred times already.  I felt as if an audience was watching me as I wrote down the facts that I pulled out of the archives" (Reflection Sample 3). In both cases, students were given an opportunity not only to negotiate audience, and to realize their rhetorical import, but to feel that thrill of “real” writing, writing that goes beyond an academic exercise and involves outside audiences whose presence informs the text.

A final theme consistent across these reflections was that of writing processes. Like other themes, this too was part of the assignment prompt, which was inspired both by Carra Leah Hood’s research on Wikipedia as a tool to teach process and a section on “Writing Processes” in the textbook used for the course-- Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs' Writing about Writing (2011). Here’s how one student describes what we can learn about process from the encyclopedia: 

Wikipedia is forever changing the way we see knowledge and how it is distributed in the twenty-first century.  It allows us to see the dynamic process that is writing, and demystifies the processes behind the writing.  Before Wikipedia we were never able to see the whole process from start to finish.  We were only able to see the finished product, the ink on the pages that had been printed only after several edits and revisions…. Now, with Wikipedia we can look back to an article’s poor first draft all the way to its much more robust and meaty current state. (Reflection Sample 5)


What the student is referencing here, of course, is the history feature of Wikipedia, which allows readers to access past revisions of any article. Such access is valuable on multiple levels . Most importantly, students need to realize that nearly all rhetorically effective writing undergoes multiple drafts. Doing so will initiate the discovery of their own writing processes, and ultimately improve their writing.