We already mentioned two simple ways you can use Wikipedia in academia:
But wait, there's more!
You should actually look at the talk tab BEFORE you read the main article. The top part of the talk page for the 2011-2012 Egyptian Revolution aritcle looks like this:
Then there's the table of contents and actual content of the talk page. Here's an example from the article for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act :
Wikipedia currently has over 1000 portals, which are introductory pages for broad topics that give you a basic introduction and link you to further articles and information. Portals not only give you an overview, but can help you narrow down a research topic.
WikiProjects are groups of editors who work together to improve Wikipedia. Frequently, they elect to keep track of articles within a particular portal. Volunteer editors work as a fact-checking crew; they sign up to monitor certain articles and receive an e-mail notification if any changes are made. If an article is part of a portal or WikiProject, the talk page will include that information.
Why does this matter? Because some portals are so thoroughly edited that faculty will accept those Wikipedia articles as low-level academic resources (similar to print encyclopedias). It never hurts to ask your instructor if it's OK to use (meaning cite as a credible reference) a particular Wikipedia article or if they'll accept articles from a particular portal or project.
With the exception of news media, traditional publishing takes time. If you're working on a very recent topic, you may request permission from your faculty to use non-traditional resources, including Wikipedia. If you do so, remember that the entry is LIKELY to change and so the history and talk tabs become more important should you need to go back and review some aspect of the article.