The Psychology of Engagement

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Professor Greta Munger and students.

Students in one cognitive psych class strut their stuff on Wikipedia.

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By Bill Giduz

Efforts to involve Davidson students in civic engagement are reaching beyond the real world and into cyberspace for one psychology class.

Instead of assigning students in her “Cognitive Psychology” course a traditional research paper, Professor Greta Munger has enrolled them in a project to improve the entries dealing with psychology in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Her students are among those at about 70 colleges and universities working on Wikipedia’s psychology entries at the request of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). The APS Web site explains, “Wikipedia is the most commonly used general reference source on the Internet— but its articles vary tremendously in quality. Because we recognize the power of Wikipedia as well as its unrealized potential for our science, AP S is launching the Wikipedia Initiative to improve the quality and quantity of the information about psychology in Wikipedia.”

Munger fully supports the effort. “People are using Wikipedia to find out information about psychology,” she said, “and as professionals in the field we need to take ownership and make sure the information is accurate.”

Munger also recognized the APS appeal as an exercise in public scholarship that might interest the college’s Center for Civic Engagement. She discussed her plans with administrators of that office, who subsequently gave her one of their $1,500 development grants to support the integration of community-based learning into existing courses.

Munger spent last summer developing assignments for the course, and attended an APS conference at which the Wikipedia program was launched. She also wrote a Wikipedia article about her field of expertise, “representational momentum,” to learn the technical aspects of posting articles. Wikipedia is facilitating the APS program by offering participating institutions online support with technical issues from volunteer “Campus Ambassadors.”

Wikipedia includes approximately 5,500 articles related to psychology. Munger selected 30 entries appropriate to her cognitive psychology course, sorted her 29 students into two-person teams, and allowed each to select a topic from among those offered for consideration. Topics they chose include childhood amnesia, confabulation, eyewitness memory, flashbulb memory, music and emotion, and subliminal stimuli.

Most of the articles students selected were “stubs,” entries that included just a small amount of information that students could expand. Others needed to be updated to reflect more current research on a topic, simplified for a lay audience, or reorganized.

Wikipedia’s Web site for the project notes, “Assignments can teach students so much— that even the simplest ideas are hard to communicate to general audiences; that logic, strength of argument, flow and clarity of writing, citations of the appropriate literature, and, above all, accuracy need to be mastered in order to be a member of this guild.”

Two student groups did so exceptionally well that their articles were listed in Wikipedia’s “did you know” home page section, which points readers toward new, high-quality content. They were Jessie Li ’15 and Linnea Ng ’15, who wrote about “Global Precedence,” and Catherine Hare ’14 and Caitlin James ’14, who wrote about “Misinformation Effect.” Articles by two other groups of students may also be listed.

The assignment also re-oriented the standard pedagogy for the class. Munger explained, “Most of the class is about students learning cognitive psychology, but this project got them thinking from an outside point of view about communicating science to the public, which is a major current concern in the field.”

She concluded, “One of the things Davidson fosters is the importance of community, and this assignment expanded the sense of community to a worldwide public. It’s been a great way to engage students with the academic content we normally teach, and help them do a public good. They were excited to be working on a public document their friends and family might read, rather than just their professor!”

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