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Editor’s Note: The editors found this research paper unique and provocative in its analysis of learning activities. It is hoped that the author will continue research in this area.

Using Wikis in the Teaching of a Short Course on the History and Philosophy of Science

Lorna Holtman

South Africa


This paper details the impact of using Web 2.0 social software tools (in this case wikis) in a course on the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). The course is a three-week course offered to Biology postgraduate students. Collaborative work and student engagement was encouraged through the use of collaborative notemaking using wikis. Students worked in the assigned groups and met regularly to complete the wiki pages. They presented their wikis as a final assessment event and also provided feedback on the usefulness of notemaking using the wikis. The wiki construction enabled collaboration, collaborative notemaking and learning in a non-threatening way. Wikis can be extremely effective in enhancing learning. We have now extended the use of wikis to collaborative writing exercises.

Keywords: History and Philosophy of Science, socio-scientific issues, wiki, collaborative notemaking, artifact production, learning, evolution, nature of science


This paper details the impact of using Web 2.0 social software tools (in this case wikis) in a course on the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS).  The course is a three-week course offered to first-year postgraduate students who have a background in the biological sciences.  The course was introduced for two reasons: the instructor saw the value of designing a course which dealt with science but that spoke to the socio-scientific issues; Matthews (1994) advocates the explicit teaching of the history and philosophy of science to students to help them address their misconceptions about science and to get them to understand epistemological aspects of science.  Generic skills for BSc degrees (SAUVCA, 2002) include: demonstrate knowledge and understand concepts of the discipline; access, evaluate and generate scientific information, work as a team member in scientific investigation, communicate accurately (oral, written, presentation), and manage their own learning (http://free.uwc.ac.za/wiki/philosophy_of_science). 

The challenges faced teaching the course

I have grappled with how to get students to learn biology content in a meaningful way and how best to integrate assessment so that it is seamless and authentically measures what students actually learned.  Lectures alone were not effective. Feedback from assessment in such short courses is often not available to students in time to gauge their learning as often in modular systems the feedback from assessments are received after the course is done (Lea and Street, 2000).  The intention in the History and Philosophy of Sscience course was to provide the feedback at each discussion session following an assessment task. 

The course focuses on biologists and the kinds of contributions they have made in order to change the face of biology. In this case I taught the science of evolution which is an overall principle of biology and I focused on the contributions of various scientists to that particular content. The teaching approach I used was largely socio-scientific.  This allowed me to bring in the stories or histories and the contributions people made to science in a way that humanizes science.  Group collaborative work and student engagement were encouraged through the use of collaborative notemaking using wikis.

In the course I teach explicitly about the nature of science.  The Nature of Science (NOS), including scientific habits of mind, is an important goal of scientific literacy (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996; Holtman, 2000; Vhurumuku, Holtman, Mikalsen and Kolstoe, 2006; Holtman, Marshall and Linder, 2006; Vhurumuku and Holtman, in press/2008).  A scientifically literate citizenry will be able to participate meaningfully in decision making on science and socio-scientific issues.  The NOS ideas were elaborated on during the class discussions, DVDs about biological concepts (e.g. the PBS series on Evolution) and in the notemaking process as guided by the organizing questions.

Why wikis

Wikis allow for collaborative work and allow students to develop their writing skills. It allows team members to check on the team’s progress and retains different versions of the “product” (notemaking).  This allows team members to check on and edit the product as it is developing.  The feedback loop is built into the process of notemaking.  The lecturer could also check on progress by accessing the wiki at any time and giving feedback either verbally, by email or within the wiki page.  Effective and substantial feedback in terms of an assessment task is central to the learning process and impacts on students’ development (Davies, 2006; Black and William, 1998).  Feedback and how it is used by students can contribute to achieving Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). Students can work collaboratively so that they scaffold for each other with the guidance of the lecturer and achieve the learning outcomes or learn the skill identified.

Theoretical Framework

This project is underpinned by various theoretical perspectives.  Activity theory and artefact production are theoretical lenses which assist us in making sense of how students learn and make sense of the content in the process of collaborative notemaking and discussions. The artefact production theory fits well with the fact that these students were producing the wikis through the interaction and negotiation with their peers.  The product of the learning, which is the wiki, is something tangible and it provides something tangible where one can measure whether the learning outcomes have been met or not met.

Activity theory provides a lens through which we can look at activities which together contribute to the learning act and takes us therefore beyond the processes of learning which takes place in the mind of the person learning.  We know from the literature that there are many activity systems and within those many activities carried out by people in the world.  These can all impact on an individual.  We will however only focus on the HPS course activity system for this paper and how wikis (product or artefact) enhanced learning.  In this research study, the subjects (students in the HPS course) performed certain tasks and activities: attended classes, participated in discussions, watched video and browsed websites and books and journals, answered questions, asked questions, performed assessment tasks and produced a wiki (as artefact of the learning that took place during the course). They operated under the guidance of the lecturer and were curtailed in their activities by certain rules (university rules, class rules, course rules, group rules), access to tools (e.g. internet connectivity, books, journals articles, computers) and time.  The time each team member had to do the task was extended in a way if they had of-campus connectivity.  This means that individuals could discuss in their teams, divide the task among themselves (division of labour) and go online in their own time.  Learning was not switched off but was continuous; it was not space and time bound. Interest in the topic and planning the layout and content meant they had to understand the sequencing of material, had to read, had to agree on what was contained in the wiki pages.  Group or team work enhanced collaborative and socialization skills and ensured student engagement with the topic and improved conceptual development (Holtman, 2008/working paper).  The outcome or goal of the project was to enhance student learning of biological concepts in the context of a socio-scientific teaching approach and the use of technology (wikis). The measurable outcome here would be the extent to which students would be able to integrate and synthesis knowledge in the wiki.  A subgoal was to integrate assessment and to focus on the formative elements of assessment.  Stiggens (1999) warns teachers that using assessment through rewards and punishment to motivate students to learn does not work.  Students should be motivated to learn by “involving students deeply in the assessment, record-keeping and communication processes (Stiggens, 1999: 29).  Davies (2006) speaks about the peer assessment and how students should be involved in feedback (‘marking’ and ‘commenting’) of each others work.  Wikis allow for editing by group members and records and archives changes made to the wiki page; the research project saw the wiki therefore as a tool by which students could become involved in the assessment process.  The object of the project was the wiki which we can also refer to as the artifact in terms of artifact production.  The detail in terms of conceptual change which occurred during the course is dealt with in another article (Holtman, 2008/working paper).

Research Questions

The research questions pursued in this article include:

  1. How has using wikis in this course enhanced student learning?
  2. What is the impact of integrating assessment in this course using wikis?
  3. How has the use of wikis contributed to collaborative learning?


The study can be described as an exploratory, descriptive study or a case study.  This paper reports on data collected in 2008. 


The study participants comprised 12 postgraduate students registered for an entry level postgraduate degree in the biological sciences (i.e. the BSc Honours degree).  The students were all BSc graduates.  One student was male and 11 were female.  The class was grouped into four groups comprised of 3 students each.  One student struggled to express herself in English; she was placed in a group with two other English speaking females who collaborated on a wiki.  Three of the four groups were comprised of female students and one group included one male.

Data sources and data analysis

Various data collection instruments and techniques were used.  Questionnaires were used largely to assess conceptual development and conceptual change.  One of the questionnaires was based on ideas from a number of sources including the research literature on misconceptions regarding evolution, U.S. National Academy of Sciences publications on evolution and creationism, and a SRnet discussion forum comprised of about a dozen science educators.  It is framed within the content knowledge of evolutionary theory.  The aim was to elicit their prior knowledge on habits of mind associated with science and religion, the history of life on earth and the universe, and the nature of science.  Another pre-test was administered at the start of the course in order to gauge students’ prior knowledge of great minds in biology, and their basic knowledge of Nature of Science (NOS) issues.  Other data sources include the final objective examination, course evaluations, and observations and discussions conducted during the face-to-face sessions.  The wikis of each group was another data source (http://free.uwc.ac.za/wiki/group_1)

Quantitative data (close-ended choices) were analyzed through simple descriptive analyses.  Open-ended responses were analyzed qualitatively through content analysis and provided information for categorizing participants’ profiles and conceptual models for evolution.  Course evaluations, wikis and observational data were analyzed in the same way. 

Results and Discussion

Wiki pages and presentations

Students worked in the assigned groups and met regularly to complete the wiki pages.  They were not told what to include on the wiki and had to negotiate within their groups with regard to the content of the wikis. Student wikis were not made public.  They presented their wikis on the final assessment day and also provided oral feedback on the usefulness of notemaking using the wikis.  Most of the study groups used the organizing questions provided by the lecturer as a framework for developing their wikis.  As the assessor I was able to give feedback on the product of learning, their wikis and suggest ways in which to improve the content, for example, correcting spelling errors and citing sources.  Students felt that developing the wikis helped them to organize their notes and they enjoyed working on the wikis with their peers. Some felt the wikis helped to improve their skills such as digital academic literacy, information literacy and computer literacy skills. 

…it made it a lot easier to understand the work and also the class had a discussion on the wiki so everyone brought their own ideas forward (student 1).

I think it helped organize our notes and in doing it we could share information which helped for better understanding (student 2).

By thoroughly understanding the content to upload to onto the wiki made it better in terms of learning (student 4).

The wikis provided the space for students to interact with each other and to close the gap on both conceptual and technological skills. 

…not only is it easy to use, it also helped improve my computer/writing skills as well as my language skills, and the fact that I can look at other people’s work and which may and will add to my knowledge, it’s a useful tool (student 5).

Class discussions

Integration of assessment is evident when one looks at class discussions and related activities.  These will be discussed theme by theme as each theme had its own approach and contributed to developing a feeling of “community” during the course.  For the most part class discussions were guided by organizing questions, which guided students’ preparation as well as discussion.  Students’ notes were posted on their wikis after reading the notes.  The readings were focused on socio-scientific issues and others focused on biological concepts related to themes.  The biological concepts were related to the principle of evolution and included natural selection, the importance of sexual reproduction, misconceptions about natural selection (e.g. Lamarckism).

The themes covered in the course included:

Nature Of Science & selected “great minds of science”

The National Research Council publication Teaching about Evolution & the Nature of Science (1998) provided the introduction to the course.  We followed the lesson plan as suggested but adapted some questions.  Each group discussed and presented their answers to class. In the past for this course, students displayed their discussion posters in their lab and it was useful when writing their notes. Discussion points were now summarized on the wiki.

An important part of this section was the pretest survey.  It allowed the instructor some insight into what students already knew (or did not know) and to be flexible in her approach to teaching this course and article selection.  Students admitted that at the start of the course, the readings were a little dense and difficult to digest. 

Science, Religion, Evolution and anti-science

This also involved a pretest survey, which prepared students further for discussions.  They enjoyed the assigned readings and reading was easier than in week 1.  Following this discussion session, one students commented that she would like to have more readings like these assigned to expand her understanding of science and the Nature of Science (NOS). Students sought out other articles related to the topic and posted that on their wikis.  (http://free.uwc.ac.za/wiki/group_3#references).

Women, Race and Science

The articles assigned highlighted the issue of girls in science classrooms as well as that of women in science (academia/workplace).  This contrast allowed for lively discussion and some of the female students acknowledged the importance this topic has for their lives.

I feel strongly that we are – largely, not exclusively – a product of our upbringing. The 1989 Equitable Treatment of Girls and Boys in the Classroom (AAUW) article reinforces my opinion that the most drastic changes are to be made at a school (preparatory through to college-entry) level. The most vital evidence gained from these readings is that there exists no evidence for a difference in scientific ability between a male and female mind (Women in Science article), yet these gender differences are instilled in children by parents, teachers and their peers and are internalized (AAUW 1989).[Female Student 6]


Examination questions were stated around the themes that were highlighted during lectures and this allowed students to integrate lecture discussions and their readings in order to answer the questions.  The wikis provided a collaborative authoring environment (Minocha and Thomas, 2007).  The course was structured around a largely formative assessment process where the assessment was integrated with the course activities to achieve the learning outcomes of the course.  Students got feedback from the lecturer during discussion sessions and gaps in their understanding were filled during these sessions through a whole class feedback and lecturer feedback.  Students were allowed to edit their wikis after discussion sessions if new insights had arisen in the session.  Knowledge sharing and creation was evident during the class discussions and the development and presentation of the wikis.  It appears that the course had an impact on their reasoning skills as can be seen in the way the examination questions were answered (Holtman, 2008/working paper).  The impacts of the course are referred to in the examination responses (summative assessment) and course evaluation. 

The test at the end, being open book, . . . and the assessment being more informal, made it more comfortable to express what we’ve learnt (Student 2).

Yes, I think it is better to work hard through the course than at the end with the test. You learn more by working consistently (Student 3).

Think its quite good that its in two parts, you can actually improve in the second part if you did bad in the first part or do good in both and get good marks. The second part also test s your understanding of all work done (Student 5).

Discussion on General Impact

Student evaluations done at the end of the course indicated that they felt that the course learning outcomes were met, they gave constructive suggestions on how the course could be improved for the future and they were generally happy with their own participation in the course.

The results of the course evaluation at the end of the course indicated that students enjoyed the course and that they did not expect to learn so much in just three weeks.  Learning occurred, according to the students, because they discussed and made things clear for each other in the group.  Collaboration therefore was effective and feedback was crucial.  Students saw formative assessment as used in the major part of the course as seamlessly integrated in the course.  Orsmond, Merry and Reiling (2005) assert that feedback should be built into students’ overall learning and should not just be added on at the end of a course.  Usually students dread summative examinations.  Summative examinations are usually viewed by students as something they must do and they move on from it.  In universities summative assessments are usually written at the end of a module and students do not get feedback on it other than the final mark or grade.  In the case of the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) course however, students saw it as an opportunity to show how much they had learned and what they had learned was reflected in the way in which students were able to synthesize from the different sources available to them.  The development of the wiki provided the practice for students to synthesize their knowledge.  What we see in the wiki (the product) is in fact the artefact of their actual learning.  Students noted in our final discussion that assessment was integrated. I used a technique called "organizing questions" which allow students to read material with a purpose in mind.  The students felt that it provided structure for them as they collaborated on their wikis.

Their information literacy skills were developed and a firmer foundation in this skill was laid in preparation for the even more demanding disciplinary focused modules following my module.  Students conducted literature searches and interviewed female or black scientists for one assignment.  This was included on the wiki (http://free.uwc.ac.za/wiki/group_1#assignment_2gender_and_race; http://free.uwc.ac.za/wiki/group_2#interview_with_a_black_female_scientist).
The idea here was that these scientists serve as role models for young scientists and in fact some of these students are currently under the supervision of some of the people they interviewed.

Students took pride in putting together their wikis and claimed authorship by citing their wikis in the final written examination.  Producing artifacts such a laboratory reports, scientific reports, popular articles and research articles are expected of scientists and the students were learning the basic skills during the development of the wiki. 

There was a seamless integration of ICTs in this course; the wikis (object, product or artefact) and other technology used were tools to enhance learning (learning goal or outcome) and mediate the processes between subject (students) and object (Rizzo, 2003).  Rules such as time available to complete the wiki, the wiki (object) as collaborative artifact and group assessment for the final product also mediated these processes.  In addition division of labor and the expectation that each team member would contribute to the wiki also played a role.


Students enjoyed the fact that they could claim authorship of the wikis.  We started the wiki pages by asking each student to publish a profile.  Students appreciated this and it impacted on their commitment to the course and wiki production.  Wiki can be extremely effective in enhancing learning as a tangible measurable outcome of learning and as a product of learning. In this case then integrating assessment had a positive impact on learning.  We have now extended the use of wikis to collaborative writing exercises including writing articles for publication.

This course provides the opportunity for students to experience a seminar-like teaching style which is often new to them at the start of the postgraduate level.  It also provides students with the opportunity to develop and hone communication and presentation skills early on in the skills year and informs them of their knowledge gaps early enough so that they can invest in remediating these (e.g. by reading, taking a course or two).  Wikis allowed students to enhance their learning from peers and the resources available to them (access to the internet, books, online journals, the lecturer and subject experts consulted).  It would appear therefore that artefact production, learning, becoming knowledgeable and developing or refining skills (e.g. technical and information and digital literacy skills) were happening seamlessly (Julie, 1998) during the three week period. 

The few negatives such as internet downtime and team members not contributing equally until the group addressed the issue did not impact significantly on the wiki production. 

The instructor also has the opportunity to inform new students about the fields of interest of the department in an informal way.  Furthermore, the course enabled discussion around issues that students needed to get to grips with (discipline specific knowledge) as well as issues that were relevant to society at large (race and science, women in science, religion and science, under-representation of women and non-whites in science).  The wiki construction enabled collaboration and collaborative notemaking in a non-threatening way. 


  1. American Association of University Women (1989) Equitable Treatment of Girls and Boys in the Classroom (AAUW), Washington DC, USA.
  2. Black, P and William, D (1998).  Assessment and Classroom learning.  Assessment in Education, 5, 1: 7-74.
  3. Davies, P. (2006).  Peer assessment: judging the quality if students’ work by comments rather than marks.  Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 43, 1: 69-82
  4. Holtman, L.B. (2000). The Effects of the Laboratory on College Students’ Understanding of Evolution: Implications for Conceptual Change. Published doctoral dissertation. Available via Bell-Howell Publishers online. ISBN: 9998685
  5. Holtman, L, Marshall, D and Linder, C. (2004) Undergraduate Science: Two examples of Curriculum Responsiveness.  In Hanlie Griessel (Editor). Curriculum Responsiveness Case Studies in Higher Education. South African Vice Chancellors Association, Pretoria, South Africa [ISBN: 0-62-33085-6
  6. Holtman, L.B. (2008).  The impact of a short course on the History and Philosophy of Science on student understanding of the nature of science and socio-scientific issues.  Working draft. 
  7. Julie, C. (1998).  The production of artefacts as goal for school mathematics? In: A. Olivier & K. Newstead ( Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd Conference of The International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education. Stellenbosch, South Africa: University of Stellenbosch.
  8. Lea, M. R. and Street, B.V. (2000).  Student writing and staff feedback in higher education: new contexts. Buckingham, The Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University. 
  9. Minocha, S. and Thomas, P.G. (2007).  Collaborative Learning in a wiki environment: experiences from a software engineering course.  New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 13: 2, 187-209.
  10. National Academies of Science (1998).  Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science.  Washington DC: National Academies Press.
  11. Orsmond, P, Merry, S. and Reiling, K. (2005).  Biology students’ utilization of tutors’ formative feedback: a qualitative interview study.  Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 30. 4: 369-386. 
  12. Rizzo, A. (2003). Activity Centred Professional Development and Teachers’ Take-Up of ICT. http://crpit.com/confpapers/CRPITV23Rizzo.pdf (accessed 23 May 2008).
  13. Stiggens, R.J. (1999).  Barriers to effective student assessments.  The School Administrator, USA.
  14. Vhurumuku, E., Holtman, L., Mikalsen, O., & Kolsto, S.D. (2006). An investigation of Zimbabwe High School Chemistry Students’ Laboratory Work Based Images of the Nature of Science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42 (2), 127-140.
  15. Vhurumuku, E. and Holtman, L. (in review). The impact of explicit curriculum and instruction on undergraduate students’ understandings of the nature of science.  African Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education.
  16. Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


We would like to thank the Shuttleworth Foundation for their generous support of
the Rip-Mix-and-Learn project at the University of the Western Cape.

About the Author

Dr Lorna Holtman is currently the Deputy Dean of Natural Sciences (Teaching and Learning) and Director of the Postgraduate Enrolment and Throughput Project at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Cape Town, South Africa.  She has been at UWC for 20 years and her research interests include widening access to science, biology education, evolution education and the integration of ICTs into teaching and learning.

Email: lholtman@uwc.ac.za

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