Getting a "quick fix": First-year college students' use of Wikipedia
First Monday

Getting a quick fix: First-year college students' use of Wikipedia by John C. Garrison



Abstract
College students use Wikipedia frequently, despite educators’ highly divided opinions about it, and so it is important to understand how and why they are using it. This study followed a first-year class of undergraduate, liberal arts students over the course of their first semester to see how they used, were influenced about, and rated Wikipedia. Data was collected via two surveys of the first-year class, as well as focus groups and a survey of college faculty. This study found that first-year students are uncertain about the variety of ways to use information sources like Wikipedia, and that a direct and balanced approach to this area from instructors may lead to better outcomes than strict prohibition or silence.

Contents

Introduction
Literature review
Methodology
Results
Limitations
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

As the information landscape continues to evolve, the quality of sources that students use to learn and conduct research remains a top concern for academic librarians and higher education itself. Founded in 2001, Wikipedia has become a more and more influential player in the online information ecosystem. According to Alexa (2014), a Web site that tracks commercial Web traffic, Wikipedia is the sixth-most visited site in the world. It should come as no surprise to librarians and faculty that Wikipedia is one of the most visible and tempting information sources for college students, and so there is a need to determine just how students are using it.

The influence of Wikipedia on higher education has attracted much attention, and in recent years research on various aspects of its impact has been growing. Academics have questioned Wikipedia’s model as a platform for scholars to disseminate their research in specific disciplines like history as well as its more general epistemological value (Fallis, 2008; Rosenzweig, 2006). This work set the stage for further research on Wikipedia, which has increased dramatically in the years since — including studies of its impact in higher education. These studies include those examining student information-seeking habits more broadly (Biddix, et al., 2011; Connaway, et al., 2011; Denison and Montgomery, 2012; Purdy, 2012). However, there are a number of studies directly examining Wikipedia, in regard to information literacy instruction (Konieczny, 2012; Jennings, 2008), students’ skills assessing source credibility (Lim and Simon, 2011; Lim, 2013; Menchen-Trevino and Hargittai, 2011), and even its use in scholarly publications (Park, 2011).

The goal of this study is to contribute to the growing body of research on how college students are using Wikipedia for their academic work. This study examines Wikipedia usage by first-year students at a four-year liberal arts college. It shows how students from this subset of the higher education landscape use Wikipedia in research and regular class assignments; how highly they regard it as an informational resource; and how peers and instructors influence their use of Wikipedia.

 

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Literature review

Over the last few years, the research topic of college student use of Wikipedia has begun to develop, with different aspects highlighted. In 2008, a study by Schweitzer reported that Wikipedia seemed to be a promising resource for psychological information, but that few students used it for academic work. Lim and Kwon’s 2010 study examined gender differences in college student use of Wikipedia. It found that male students were more likely to use it and also were more positive and confident about doing so (Lim and Kwon, 2010). A qualitative study focused on student opinion and use of Wikipedia ended up with valuable insights comparing it to the use of library resources (Colón-Aguirre and Fleming-May, 2012). That study defined students as “avid”, “occasional”, or “avoider” in their patterns of library use, and it found that “occasional” or “avoider” students used Wikipedia most frequently, but usually after first searching via Google or other search engines.

Several quantitative studies have focused on the rate and nature of Wikipedia use by college students overall. Sook Lim’s 2009 study surveyed students at a Midwest public university in the U.S. (Lim, 2009) Nearly 40 percent of respondents used Wikipedia frequently, about a third used it moderately, and the rest (27 percent) used it occasionally, or one to five times. Lim then looked for correlations among various factors within the survey including expectations of outcomes and factors affecting use. Lim found that users had positive experiences with Wikipedia, yet not particularly high perceptions of its quality. Students mostly looked for reasonably good, background information on Wikipedia.

In 2007, Alison Head led a study to begin exploring students’ research process in light of popular perceptions that habits had primarily shifted away from the library and toward the open Web (and sites like Wikipedia). The study found that students had not yet abandoned the library or human sources of assistance, and in fact largely relied on course-provided materials at the start of research (Head, 2007). Head subsequently co-founded Project Information Literacy with Michael Eisenberg to further study this issue, and the pair published a study in 2010 with findings on Wikipedia use among students (Head and Eisenberg, 2010). The multi-campus study found that 52 percent of students used Wikipedia frequently; 23 percent occasionally; and 9 percent never used it. The most common reasons for using it were related to ease of use (69 percent) and use of background information (82 percent). The results produced a correlation between use of Wikipedia and students’ majors (positive in the sciences) and use of other resources (positive with Google, negative with library use). The survey data, along with input from focus groups, led Head and Eisenberg to conclude that Wikipedia use among college students is driven by “currency, coverage, comprehensibility and convenience.” (Head and Eisenberg, 2010)

 

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Methodology

This study was designed to capture the features of Wikipedia uses and perceptions of first-year undergraduate students at a liberal arts college. By taking first-year students as its sample, the study attempted to identify how Wikipedia was used in students’ first college experiences, compared to both their use in high school and to their changes in use during their first term in college. This study examined use of Wikipedia similarly to previous studies in order to have a point of comparison, but it also examined other features (in addition to its focus on first-year students). These included how students were influenced by others (instructors, classmates) in their use of Wikipedia and how they personally rated Wikipedia. Students’ background information, gender and field of study, were also recorded for purposes of comparison. All told, this study sought to narrow the survey of student use of Wikipedia by level of experience (first-years) and to measure correlating factors in order to shed more light on these students’ information-seeking behavior.

Three surveys and two focus groups were conducted to collect data. The first survey was given to faculty members at Westminster College in April 2013. In order to achieve as large a sample as possible, the second survey (S1) was distributed to all first-year students at Westminster College in September 2013. A follow-up survey (S2) was distributed to all first-year students in December 2013. Finally, a pair of focus groups were conducted in October 2013 for more detailed responses to questions on the surveys (use of Wikipedia in high school, influence of teachers and classmates, rating of Wikipedia).

F1

F1 was designed to gather information about the use and perspectives of Wikipedia by Westminster College faculty members. This data was intended to help describe the environment in which the primary sample population (first-year students) used and perceived Wikipedia. An online survey was created, and distributed via e-mail to the entire full-time faculty population of Westminster College.

S1

S1 was the first of two surveys of the first-year student population. S1 was distributed to the students in the first few weeks of the fall semester, and was the most extensive survey in the data collection. The timing was chosen in order to gather information on how they had used Wikipedia during high school; how they intended to use Wikipedia during college (before completing any major assignments); how they had been influenced about using it; and how they perceived various qualities of Wikipedia. An online survey was created, and distributed via e-mail to the first-year students.

Focus groups

Two focus groups were conducted in October 2013 in order to collect qualitative data about the use, influence on, and perception of Wikipedia. The first focus group consisted of two students; the second was attended by five students. Discussion followed the outline of S1 but sought further explanation of student responses.

S2

S2 was the final data collection tool, a survey distributed to first-year students at the end of their first semester at Westminster College. S2 was designed as a brief follow-up survey that repeated several of the questions asked in S1 in order to examine changes in behavior that may or may not have occured during the semester within the first-year class as a whole. This survey was distributed in paper to first-year seminar classes.

 

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Results

Faculty (F1)

Sixty-four full-time faculty members completed the survey, for a response rate of 55 percent. Respondents were evenly split — 32 each — between male and female. Most (35.9 percent) were tenured faculty having served between 10 and 20 years at Westminster College, followed by pre- or non-tenure (31.3 percent), tenured with 21 or more years (17.2 percent), and tenured with fewer than 10 years (15.6 percent). Humanities faculty represented the most common disciplines at 40.6 percent of respondents, and social sciences and natural sciences each made up 29.7 percent.

Faculty members were asked if they had used Wikipedia for either class preparation or for their own research process; 75 percent said that they had. The next questions asked to what extent they felt student use of Wikipedia was acceptable for both research assignments and for other assignments. For research assignments, “any” use was acceptable to 4.7 percent; “some use, with restrictions” was chosen by 65.6 percent; and “no use at all” by 29.7 percent. Student use for other assignments resulted in slightly more faculty acceptance: 7.8 percent accepted “any” use, 76.6 percent “some use, with restrictions”, and only 15.6 percent indicated “no use at all”.

Faculty members also had the option of making any comments about the use of Wikipedia by students for college assignments. Thirty-one comments contained one or more elements describing Wikipedia in a positive way; 34 comments contained one or more elements describing it negatively. By far the most common positive aspect mentioned was use of Wikipedia for background information (26 comments); also mentioned were use of its cited sources (8), definitions of terminology (5), teaching of evaluative techniques (4), and strength in a particular discipline (3). Among negative comments about Wikipedia use, concerns of credibility and students’ need for scholarly sources were the most popular at 15 comments each. Also included were comments about students citing Wikipedia (5), weakness for certain disciplines (3), and difficulty of use (2).

S1

The first survey collected information for the primary population, first-year students at Westminster College, on three aspects of Wikipedia: use, both during high school and planning for college; influence of others, including high school teachers, professors, and classmates; and rating of information sources, including Wikipedia, other Web sources, and library resources. Out of 311 first-year students this survey was distributed to, 145 participated (46.6 percent). The results of these three aspects are found in Figures 1a–e. Students also provided background information — gender and primary field(s) of study — that will be addressed later in this paper.

 

Types of assignments

 

 

Frequency of use (high school)

 

 

Method of use

 

 

Influences
Note: *excluding teachers/faculty/classmates who did not talk about Wikipedia.

 

 

Ratings
Note: *students rated each facet of each resource “excellent” (4), “good” (3), “OK” (2), “poor” (1), or “bad” (0).

 

S2

The second survey that first-year students completed was composed of four questions on their use of Wikipedia, and professors’ and classmates’ influence on their use and/or perception of Wikipedia. Out of 311 first-year students this survey was distributed to, 194 participated (62.4 percent). This survey did not collect background information on the students, and was conducted at the end of the semester as a follow-up to the more extensive S1 survey at the beginning of the semester. Results are displayed in Figures 2a–c below.

 

Types of assignments

 

 

Methods of use

 

 

Influences

 

Focus groups

Two focus groups were conducted with a total of seven first-year students. Students discussed questions related to the three main areas of S1: Wikipedia use, influence, and ratings. Listed below are statements representing the range of views from participating students, as well as a few particularly intriguing comments, regarding these three areas.

Use

  • “We were told not to use it, and the only thing I would use it for was to get a basis of where to start if I didn’t know anything about the topic.”
  • “I wouldn’t use it for school but I would definitely use it for self-knowledge. I would look up biographies of Presidents ... quick little facts that I could use.”
  • “I think it’s a good start when you’re looking up information, but I also think that it would be not helpful if the information were inaccurate.”
  • “I’ve heard stories of people in college saying they used it for everything in high school, but I haven’t heard about them using it in college.”

Influence

  • “I only had a few teachers ever tell me it was a bad thing in eighth grade and then they expected everyone to know after that.”
  • “The librarian at my school really disliked Wikipedia ... she would always say, ‘don’t use Wikipedia!’ ”
  • “[My professor] said, ‘I don’t understand what the big fiasco is about using it, but I can understand where they’re coming from ... just use the external links ... use Wikipedia but don’t just use Wikipedia.’”
  • “From what I’ve heard, the general consensus is that, ‘Wikipedia is a good thing.’”
  • “[Wikipedia] is kind of like a drug. Teenagers see it as nothing bad, it’s just a quick fix of knowledge, but the adults are like ‘oh no, it’s bad, it’s bad, it’s not credible’ ... like marijuana, they see the effects. But as a teenager it’s not that big a deal.”

Rating

  • “They have a lot of information and it’s all central ... it’s right there. It’s also the majority, what people as a whole think.”
  • “For some reason I have this trust with Wikipedia and I have nothing to back it up with.”
  • “Sometimes I can just read [Wikipedia] and see that it’s biased.”
  • “I trust Wikipedia even if I know a little bit of information on something. It’s when I know absolutely nothing that I need to be sure I get [correct information].”

 

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Limitations

Several factors present in this study may have created limitations or biases in the results. The primary limitation is the very nature of the topic: studying the use of an academic resource that many instructors talk about negatively or even prohibit. Despite being given assurances of the confidentiality of individual responses, this factor may have led students to respond in ways that they believed either their instructors or I would want — the social desirability bias.

In addition, the sample populations did not always accurately reflect the population or provide as much data as desired in certain areas. More than twice as many females as males participated in S1. While females are a majority of the Westminster College student population, they do not represent that large a proportion. There were also nearly twice as many social sciences and natural sciences majors who participated in S1 as humanities majors. S2 did not collect this background information, but since it was distributed to individual courses of first-year students in person, there is likely less concern of unbalanced student backgrounds.

Finally, a large majority (>80 percent) of participants in S1 reported that neither college faculty nor classmates had talked about Wikipedia yet. Because of this, results on the influence of college faculty and classmates on the use of Wikipedia by students may not be as representative as the results for the influence of high school teachers (only 2.1 percent of whom did not talk about Wikipedia). This is almost certainly due to the timing of S1 being distributed at the beginning of the semester. By the end of the semester, the proportion of college faculty and classmates who had not talked about Wikipedia dropped to 6.7 percent and 23.2 percent, respectively, for S2.

 

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Discussion

The data collected in this study on the use of Wikipedia by college students focuses on three specific elements: use of Wikipedia (the types of assignments and the methods of use), the influence of others on use and perception of Wikipedia, and the perception of Wikipedia as an information source (determined by its ease of use, quality of information, variety of topics, and credibility). Discussion is divided into each of these areas, including the effects of background information where available. The interaction of use, influence, and perception of Wikipedia follows.

Use

Interesting trends emerged about which assignments students use Wikipedia for, how they use it, and even whether or not they use it. In comparing high school and early college usage, student intentions do not match actual use. The percentage of students who did not use Wikipedia at all in high school (37.2 percent) remained almost the same for the first semester of college (37.6 percent). However, only 24.8 percent of students predicted at the start of the semester that they wouldn’t use Wikipedia — and by the end of the semester, only 13.4 percent planned not to use it in future college courses (p=0.007; 145 students at beginning of semester, 194 students at end of semester). For those who did use Wikipedia, planned and actual use also differed. While predicted college use in only non-research assignments was 51 percent, just 19.1 students ended up using it in this way (p<0.001; 145 students at beginning of semester, 194 students at end of semester). However, 15.9 percent of students said that they would use Wikipedia for all assignments but 27.8 percent used it for all assignments (p=0.009; 145 students at beginning of semester, 194 students at end of semester) which is more similar to actual high school use, 29 percent. This indicates that college students are poor predictors of their own information use, at least early on in their studies.

The reasons that students predicted they would use Wikipedia also changed from the beginning to the end of their first college semester. Use for background information remained the highest throughout, and even increased from 55.9 percent to 64.9 percent of all students (p=0.09; 145 students at beginning of semester, 194 students at end of semester), while intention to use Wikipedia to help find a topic (34.5 percent to 43.8 percent; p=0.082, 145 students at beginning of semester, 194 students at end of semester) and to use its cited sources (14.5 percent to 19.6 percent; p=0.22, 145 students at beginning of semester, 194 students at end of semester) also increased. Several other potential uses for Wikipedia declined. Getting basic data (44.8 percent to 29.4 percent; p=0.003, 145 students at beginning of semester, 194 students at end of semester), and using Wikipedia as a source (7.6 percent to 2.6 percent; p=0.031, 145 students at beginning of semester, 194 students at end of semester), were less likely uses by the end of the semester. These results seem to show that students’ use of Wikipedia trends toward the beginning of assignments (finding topics, background information) and away from the end (using it as a source); this finding is in line with other studies (Head and Eisenberg, 2010).

There was also association between the types of assignments for which students used Wikipedia and how they would use it. Those who used it for all assignments retrieved background information from Wikipedia more than the others (85.2 percent versus 70.3 percent for non-research assignment users and 63.3 percent for research assignment users; p=0.497, 145 students). Additionally, students who used it only for research assignments were the most likely to use Wikipedia’s cited sources (33.3 percent versus 24.1 percent for all assignment users and 21.6 percent for non-research assignment users; p=0.613, 30 research-assignment users, 145 students) and those who used it for non-research assignments were most likely to find a topic with Wikipedia (54.1 percent versus 37 percent for research assignment users and 46.7 percent for all assignment users; p=0.481, 145 students). These data show that emphases on particular uses of Wikipedia based on assignments seem fairly logical: for example, those who use Wikipedia for research assignments likely need more sources than others, and therefore use the listed cited sources on Wikipedia pages more often.

Students’ gender and field of study also played a role in how they used and planned to use Wikipedia. Increased attention has recently focused on the demographics of contributors (disproportionately male) to Wikipedia and other open, online forums, and so the demographics of consumers of this content are also important to consider (Reagle, 2013). Female students were more likely to avoid Wikipedia completely than males; 29.3 percent did not plan to use it in college versus 15.2 percent of males (p=0.068; 145 students). Male students were also more inclined to use Wikipedia for research assignments in high school (13 percent to 2 percent; p=0.007, 145 students), and to use it most or all of the time (30.4 percent to 12.1 percent; p=0.007, 145 students). Although male students showed more willingness to use Wikipedia overall, female students planned to use it for the same reasons, proportionally (for background, cited sources, etc.).

Students identifying as social science majors were the least likely to use Wikipedia, in high school or college. In high school, 43.9 percent of future social science majors did not use Wikipedia, compared to 35.9 percent of natural science majors and 22.9 percent in the humanities (p=0.247, 145 students), and 31.8 percent did not plan to use it in college, compared to 18.8 percent in natural sciences and 17.1 percent in humanities (p=0.208, 145 students). The same basic pattern of assignment usage did apply to each discipline, however: planned use of Wikipedia for non-research assignments rose while use on all assignments or none declined from high school to college. While they are still new to college, social science majors seem inclined to continue their previous avoidance of Wikipedia more than those in other disciplines. Humanities majors showed greater likelihood than the others of using Wikipedia for basic data, at 60 percent versus 43.8 and 43.9 percent for natural and social sciences, respectively (p=0.467, 145 students), and use as a source, at 14.3 percent versus 9.4 percent for natural sciences and three percent for social sciences (p=0.137, 145 students). Students in the humanities therefore may be more willing to use Wikipedia beyond the beginning stages of an assignment than students in the other disciplines.

Influence

Students were negatively influenced overall about the use of Wikipedia for assignments, but significant differences were found in the influencers and types of students. High school teachers were by far the most negative influencers of student use of Wikipedia, representing 78.2 percent of those who talked about it, and of the others, 19.7 percent presented a mixed view and only 2.1 percent a positive position. Students reported significantly less negativity from college faculty (52.2 percent; p=0.008, 145 students). Classmates provided much more positive influence on Wikipedia (37.5 percent) than high school teachers (2.1 percent; p<0.001, 145 students) or college faculty (8.7 percent; p=0.02, 145 students). As a significant majority of students use Wikipedia in some way, it’s no surprise that they talk about it more positively than their instructors. However, it’s important to note that college faculty are significantly less negative than high school teachers, a finding that is supported by the faculty survey indicating 87.5 percent (64 participants) find at least certain types of use of Wikipedia to be acceptable.

Having completed one semester of college, the influence of college faculty and classmates as measured in S2 was quite a bit different. College faculty influence was particularly varied. Many more students reported that faculty had made them “less likely” to use Wikipedia (24.7 percent) than “more likely” (5.1 percent). Despite instructors supposedly influencing students to use Wikipedia less, though, the percentage of students who didn’t use Wikipedia at all in their first college semester increased only 0.39 percent over those who didn’t use it in high school. A considerable 38.7 percent of students reported that faculty “improved their understanding of Wikipedia,” while another 33 percent said that faculty did not affect their use of Wikipedia at all. It seems that either instructors vary significantly in their ability to effectively communicate about Wikipedia, or there is a significant segment of the student population that has already made up its mind about Wikipedia; or perhaps both of these conditions exist. Clearly, current faculty influence on students’ use of Wikipedia is not uniformly effective. Finally, most faculty did not speak about Wikipedia until later in the semester — perhaps when introducing a research project. Only 6.7 percent said that no faculty had talked about Wikipedia at the end of the semester, compared to 84.1 percent after the first few weeks.

Classmates did not seem to influence each other about Wikipedia much at all by the end of the semester. Just 11.3 percent were either more or less likely to use Wikipedia, or to have improved their understanding of it, due to such interactions. Two-thirds (66 percent) were not affected at all by what their classmates said.

Female students interpreted others’ perspectives on Wikipedia to be more mixed, and less positive, than male students did. This proved especially true with high school teachers’ influence: female students were more negatively influenced than male students (82.5 percent to 68.9 percent; p=0.068, 145 students), and reported positive influences (0 percent vs. 6.7 percent; p=0.01, 142 students) were lower than male students. Male students were also more likely to be positively influenced by college faculty (22.2 percent to 0 percent; p=0.065, 145 students) and by classmates (50 percent to 31.3 percent; p=0.371, 145 students). Although sample sizes from college faculty and classmates are small, the results are consistent with those from high school teachers indicating that male students are more likely to get positive influence about Wikipedia — or at least to focus on any positive elements.

No significant differences on the influence of faculty and classmates were found based on students’ disciplines of study.

Ratings

Wikipedia was ranked among the best for ease of use and variety of topics, but did poorly in quality of information and credibility. Wikipedia was rated highest in ease of use at 3.25, ahead of students’ other preferred Web sources (3.18) and library resources (2.84) (p<0.005 for library resources; 145 students). Library resources were considered to have a slightly better variety of topics (3.41) than Wikipedia (3.37) or other Web sources (3.25). However, where the library excelled in quality of information (3.54 versus 2.18 for Wikipedia; p<0.005, 145 students) and credibility (3.66 versus 1.59 for Wikipedia; p<0.005, 145 students), Wikipedia was rated poorly.

When taking students’ backgrounds into account, male students and those majoring in the humanities rated Wikipedia most highly, while female students and those majoring in the social sciences rated it least positively. Male students rated Wikipedia more highly than female students in every category, with the biggest differences in ease of use (3.46 versus 3.15; p=0.029; 145 students) and variety of topics (3.57 versus 3.27; p=0.03, 145 students). Therefore, male students seem to rate Wikipedia even more highly in the categories that both genders rate Wikipedia highly, while they rate Wikipedia more similarly to female students in the two categories in which it gets poor scores. Greater use of Wikipedia by male students might then be partly because they focus more on its positive aspects than the negative. Ratings based on students’ major disciplines were similarly consistent. Humanities majors rated Wikipedia the highest on all categories, slightly ahead of natural sciences, and social sciences majors rated it the lowest.

Influence and use, Ratings

At the beginning of their first semester in college, students who were influenced in mixed ways by high school teachers planned to use Wikipedia (89.3 percent) more than if they had been influenced in other ways or if their instructor had not talked about Wikipedia (71.8 percent) in college (p=0.054; 145 students). Students who received mixed influence from college faculty also planned to use Wikipedia (100 percent) more than others (73.5 percent) (p=0.075; 145 students). Instructors, both high school and college, seem to make their students feel more at ease to use Wikipedia if they talk about it in a way that is not entirely negative. However, students who were positively influenced by classmates weren’t any more likely to plan to use Wikipedia (77.8 percent) in college than those who were influenced in any other way or did not talk to their classmates about it (75 percent) (p=0.852; 145 students). The influence instructors have over their students’ Wikipedia use does not seem to be shared by those students’ classmates.

Similarly, students with a mixed influence from high school teachers or college faculty used Wikipedia in more ways, compared to students who received other types of influence or were not talked to by their instructors. Such influence from high school teachers led to elevated use in finding topics (42.9 percent to 32.5 percent; p=0.299, 145 students), background information (64.3 percent to 53.8 percent; p=0.317, 145 students), and cited sources on Wikipedia (21.4 percent to 12.8 percent; p=0.245, 145 students). Mixed influence from college faculty had an even bigger effect, particularly on use of Wikipedia for background (88.9 percent to 53.7 percent; p=0.039; 145 students) and basic data (77.8 percent to 42.6 percent; p=0.04, 145 students).

By the end of the semester, college faculty and classmate influence on students’ use of Wikipedia remained varied. Similar to the way mixed influence led to greater student planned use at the beginning of the semester, those whose instructors improved [their] understanding of Wikipedia were also more likely to use Wikipedia (77.3 percent) than if the instructor had not improved their understanding or not talked at all about Wikipedia (52.9 percent) (p=0.001; 194 students). Those same students with improved understanding of Wikipedia were also more likely to plan to use it later in college (96 percent) than those who didn’t gain an improved understanding from instructors (80.7 percent) (p=0.002, 194 students). Students whose classmates improved their understanding of Wikipedia also used it more, but very few classmates actually did provide this help. As in the results from early in the semester, these data indicate that students whose instructors do not ignore or strictly prohibit Wikipedia — in this case, those instructors who in fact teach their students about Wikipedia — allow their students to feel able to use Wikipedia in some form.

College faculty and classmates alike were much more likely to have talked about Wikipedia over the course of the semester than at the very beginning. When they did not talk at all, however, it had significant effects on first-year students’ use of Wikipedia. College faculty who did not talk about Wikipedia were more likely to see them not use Wikipedia (61.5 percent) than if they had talked about it in any way (35.9 percent) (p=0.065; 194 students). On the other hand, the other 38.5 percent of students who did use Wikipedia used it in all types of assignments. Even when classmates did not talk about Wikipedia, this correlated with 51.1 percent of students not using Wikipedia as opposed to 33.6 percent who did not use it when their classmates talked about Wikipedia in some form (p=0.033; 194 students). In this case, though, students who did use Wikipedia were spread among research, non-research, and all assignments. Silence appears to be the best way to ensure that early stage college students do not use Wikipedia, whether from their instructors or classmates, but it also removes the opportunity to teach and attempt to guide those who would use it anyway.

First-year students’ ratings of Wikipedia also seem to be influenced by their high school teachers, college faculty and classmates. Generally, positive influences corresponded with positive ratings of Wikipedia, and the reverse. When students received mixed influence from high school teachers, however, they rated Wikipedia’s quality of information significantly more towards the positive (46.4 percent) than the negative (0 percent) (p<0.005; 145 students). Mixed influence from college faculty had a similar effect on quality of information ratings (44.4 percent positive versus 0 percent negative; p=0.025, 145 students). Mixed influence from instructors did not result in more positive ratings for Wikipedia’s credibility, however. Once again, we find that mixed influence from instructors leads to more openness to Wikipedia from students. However, considering that Wikipedia’s credibility did not receive similarly positive ratings under such influence, it’s possible that many college students do not interpret positive instruction on some aspects of Wikipedia as positive instruction on all aspects.

 

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Conclusion

The results of this study lead to a variety of insights into the impact of Wikipedia as an informational resource for first-year liberal arts undergraduate students. How students think of Wikipedia, use it, and are influenced about those two things are important to understand as educators work to develop skills and best practices in learners, particularly those new to rigorous academic study. The following are patterns of Wikipedia use, rating, and influence by first semester college students as identified in this study.

Wikipedia use is concentrated near the beginning of assignments, as other studies have found, and occurs despite significant reservations by the students. Finding a topic and using for background information ranked as two of the most common types of planned use for first-year students, and by the end of the semester this emphasis only grew as compared to other uses such as for basic data. Students rated Wikipedia’s ease of use and variety of topics highly, compared with other Web sources and the library. Thus, in spite of a widespread perception of Wikipedia’s weakness in quality of information and credibility, students seem to use it for its convenience. Indeed, these findings confirm those discovered in Project Information Literacy (Head and Eisenberg, 2010).

Differences emerged among students’ use, rating and influence of Wikipedia based on gender and discipline of study. Male students rated Wikipedia significantly more highly and were more likely to use it than females. Based on the influence female students perceived about Wikipedia, as well as the ways that they used it, they seem to tend to be more cautious and thoughtful about Wikipedia overall. Humanities majors were slightly more open to use of Wikipedia than other disciplines, and social sciences majors were the least. These gender and discipline differences make it clear that just one way of talking about Wikipedia will not work for all, and so instructors will need to shape their discussion based on the audience.

Influence of instructors had a significant impact on student ratings and use of Wikipedia. Often, influence had direct correlation: positive influence resulted in positive ratings and increased use, for example. Although influence was much more negative than positive overall, mixed influence was more likely to lead to increased use and higher ratings. Since academic use of Wikipedia has been a stigma for years, perhaps even slightly moderated discussion of the resource is encouraging to students. This increase in use of and favorability toward Wikipedia also applied to those students whose instructors improved their understanding of the resource during their first college semester. On the other hand, students whose instructors did not mention Wikipedia at all were likely to use it for either everything or nothing. It seems that when instructors discuss Wikipedia, highlighting both positive and negative aspects, their students are more likely to feel free to use the resource. If the discussion is appropriate to the audience — taking into account the tendencies of both genders and differences among disciplines — this can result in appropriate use by students. But when instructors don’t talk about Wikipedia, their students typically do not fully understand it and instructors lose control over how it is used.

Despite growing use and discussion of Wikipedia, there remains significant uncertainty about its appropriate use — and even what defines use. Seventeen percent of students at the beginning of the semester indicated that they would not use Wikipedia in any college assignments. However, in a following question, those students indicated that they actually would use it in some form (finding a topic, getting basic data, etc.). This is likely due to one or both of the following reasons: students are inherently hesitant to indicate that they use Wikipedia in a general way; and/or students are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with how to handle sources that they don’t end up citing. Therefore, this study seems to reinforce the imperative that, despite the ubiquity and popularity of Wikipedia and common warnings from secondary school instructors, it is important for postsecondary instructors to teach students how to properly approach this Web site.

Wikipedia is a unique and very powerful information resource, one that is saturated into student life even as academics continue to debate its proper role in scholarly work. It is therefore important to continue to monitor how students are using it in order to ensure that they are receiving the best education possible in a rapidly changing world. End of article

 

About the author

John C. Garrison is Serials and Electronic Resources Librarian in the McGill Library at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa.
E-mail: garrisjc [at] westminster [dot] edu

 

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Editorial history

Received 29 May 2014; revised 9 February 2015; accepted 2 October 2015.


Creative Commons License
“Getting a ‘quick fix’: First-year college students’ use of Wikipedia” by John C Garrison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Getting a “quick fix”: First-year college students’ use of Wikipedia
by John C. Garrison.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 10 - 5 October 2015
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5401/5003
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i10.5401





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