Claire McDonnell explores the use of wikis to facilitate group collaboration and assessment

Wiki spelled out in computer keys

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When students leave education and enter employment they often need to be able to work with a team towards a shared goal. The requirement to assign grades to these activities makes it difficult to provide opportunities to practice group work in schools or colleges. Common issues encountered include group members who have not contributed significantly obtaining a better grade than is merited and students who perform strongly on an individual basis being anxious that they may receive a lower mark than usual. An assessment rubric that incorporates individual and group elements, and considers the collaborative group process as well as the product, can be used to overcome these issues. Peer and self-assessment can also be useful but clear guidelines are required.

The extent of each group member’s contribution to both the process and the product can be difficult to determine directly and a group wiki can be a very effective tool for achieving this. A wiki is an online document or website developed collaboratively by a community of users, where any user is able to add and edit content. Wiki is a Hawaiian word meaning ‘quick’ and this name was chosen by the original wiki developer Ward Cunningham to emphasise that they can be generated easily. Many wikis are open access and Wikipedia is the best known example. However, it is possible to restrict access only to those invited to join the wiki.

In education, closed group wikis are starting to be used to produce collaborative reports, presentations or webpages – depending on the type of project being undertaken. Participants can then focus on the task set instead of being distracted by concerns that their individual input may not be recognised. The teacher can also give formative feedback as the work is developing instead of having to wait until a draft is submitted. For more reasons to use a wiki as a pedagogical tool see Advantages of using wikis.

Advantages of using wikis

  • The software is easy to use and allows students to work and write collaboratively to create, edit and link web pages.
  • An archive of all the information that is relevant to the assignment is generated as the project proceeds.
  • Changes made are incorporated continuously. Previous versions of each page can be accessed and no work is permanently overwritten.
  • Contributions made by participants can be tracked to assess their quality, quantity and whether they were made across the entire timeframe of the assignment.
  • Students can contribute anywhere and at any time that they have internet access.
  • Peer and tutor feedback and review are facilitated by commenting and page editing options.
  • Pages can sometimes be saved as pdfs or Microsoft PowerPoint slides. Students have also used zip file copies of wikis to showcase their collaborative work to potential employers.
  • Wikis are regularly used in organisations to allow groups to collaborate and the ability to use one is a valuable transferable skill.

Case studies

Students using computers

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At Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) in Ireland, we have incorporated wikis into a number of student assignments. Molecules that matter is a short activity – carried out over a three week period – for third year undergraduate students. The assignment involves groups of three to six students preparing a webpage on a molecule they have chosen from a selection provided. The teams are given guidelines on the sections that should be included and told that their target audience is school students aged 15 to 18. At the halfway point, formative feedback is posted to the wiki by the tutor to inform the group of any changes that need to be made in sufficient time before the deadline. The assessment mark is comprised of a group component with a weighting of 50% and an individual component with a weighting of 50% (based on the quality and quantity of the contribution to the wiki that can be tracked using the page history and activity functions).

At DIT, we have also developed four context and problem based learning (C/PBL) resources with funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry and the National HE STEM (Higher education science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programme (see C/PBL resources developed at DIT). C/PBL incorporates activities based on real-life applications of the principles, techniques and experiments students encounter in their undergraduate courses.

All four of these C/PBL resources incorporate a wiki as a means of facilitating and assessing student collaboration and are available on the RSC’s Learn Chemistry webpages. They were trialled at eight higher education institutions in Ireland and the UK in 2012. Some participating tutors had not used wikis in their teaching previously and a sample wiki was set up to allow space in which various tasks could be tried out such as creating and editing a page, linking pages and adding comments. This sample environment also provided an example of a structure that could be drawn on when setting up wikis for their own students. In the evaluation that followed, all of the trial participants said that they would continue to use the C/PBL resources and to incorporate the wikis in their teaching as they considered them an integral element. We found that the local context was important to consider however. In one instance, the students were quite competitive and did not want to share their ideas initially. It was decided to remove the individual component for the wiki and only allocate a group mark and this was found to solve the problem.

The use of wikis has also been widely reported by others as a means to facilitate a range of collaborative projects for students. Examples include use when teaching advanced materials analysis,vibrational and rotational spectroscopy2 and forensic analysis.3

C/PBL resources developed at DIT

Molecules against malaria Medicinal chemistry, drug design Workshop and lecture
Small materials to solve big problems Nanochemistry, energy, medicine, materials Workshop and lecture
Faster greener chemistry? Organic and inorganic synthesis, catalysis,
green chemistry
Pollutant detection and remediation Physical chemistry, adsorption,
advanced auto-oxidation processes, kinetics

Assessment criteria

Individual students’ contributions to wikis are normally assessed as a combination of both their contribution to the content and how well they worked as part of a team. There has been a lot of work done on assessment criteria by others worth investigating:

  • Hands on computer mice

    © Juice Images / Alamy

    A wiki can be a very effective tool for assessing an individual’s contribution to a group project

    A simple assessment rubric based on the frequency and quality of contributions as well as evidence of collaboration with fellow group members has been developed by Debbi Weaver and Craig McIntosh at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.4
  • An alternative method that includes a formula to quantify individual contributions is also used.5
  • Web-based tools such as CATME (Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness) for managing student teams – designed for any type of group project – could also be applied.6
  • James and Margaret West from Western Illinois University, US, have designed rubrics for assessing the process and outcomes of a wiki project to generate a group mark for collaboration.7 They also describe a midpoint assessment that can be used alongside these to explore individual contributions.

Formative feedback

It is a good idea to provide regular feedback to the students as they progress through the project. We usually post comments on each group’s page, although general feedback on a central wiki could also be used when similar issues have cropped up or if time was an issue. It is useful to save comments in a Microsoft Word file, as these can often be modified and then reused. We have found that tutor input during the first week of the project is particularly important as participants may be reticent about being the first to add to a page and often need encouragement.

Students may also find it helps them to get started if they add files containing their draft work in advance of their first face-to-face group meeting and then decide at their meeting what will be added to the page. We ask each group to post a short summary of their weekly meeting (decisions made and resulting actions, people responsible and dates to be completed) to the wiki. In this way, groups that are not making progress are easily identified and, also, work undertaken that may not otherwise be apparent from the wiki is captured.

Good practice

As with other pedagogical approaches, common obstacles and problems can be encountered when implementing wikis to facilitate and assess group work. Many of these issues are not unique to the use of wikis and measures can be applied to address them.

Easy-to-use software should be selected. There are several products available such as PBworks and Wikispaces and, generally, a basic version of the wiki software is free to use but a subscription is charged for one with extra features. Also, most virtual learning environments include a facility to incorporate a wiki.

Students working together

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Wikis can enhance communication and collaboration between students

It is also necessary to ensure that both tutors and students are familiar with the software selected. Tutors may need training on how to use wikis from learning technology support staff; this should not take more than an hour. It is also helpful for tutors to set up a trial wiki initially. If the students have not used wikis before, it is recommended that time be booked in a computer lab to allow them to practice on a demo wiki or on the wiki you have set up for each group (creating and editing pages, linking pages and adding comments). This should take 30 minutes maximum.

To ensure appropriate netiquette, it is good practice to remind students to read over their comments carefully before adding them to the wiki to make sure that there is no ambiguity. Students should also be reminded to be respectful in their online communications with each other.

Working in a group can be very productive but it requires communication, planning and compromise. It is useful to ask the students to develop ground rules about working together initially, such as to provide constructive feedback to peers (for example by posting a comment first before making changes to someone else’s work), to respond to a query or message within a reasonable timeframe and to consult with the group in relation to important decisions.

To ensure against plagiarism, students may need to be reminded of the importance of providing references for information (and acknowledging the sources for images used), and of the requirement to use their own words to incorporate ideas and information from various sources. Students could be asked to sign a declaration of originality and, if felt necessary, they could be asked to submit their final report to plagiarism detection software.

Wikis can enhance communication and collaboration between students but they are only useful when underpinned by an appropriately designed learning environment and effective facilitation. Good teaching practice is at the core and wikis are simply a technological tool that can enhance and support this. Some tips have been provided in this article on implementing wikis effectively as well as dealing with the common obstacles and issues that can crop up. I hope that, like me, your experience is that the initial time investment is offset by the longer term pedagogical benefits.

Claire McDonnell is a lecturer in organic chemistry currently on secondment to the  Learning Teaching and Technology Centre at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland


I would like to thank my colleagues Michael Seery, Christine O’Connor and Sarah Rawe, who worked with me on the C/PBL activities described as well as the DIT Learning Teaching and Technology Centre staff for the initial wiki training.

Further information