by Amy Dayton and Amber Buck, English
On campuses across the US, faculty, administrators, and students alike are talking about ChatGPT. If you haven’t heard, ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence tool that mimics human conversation and writing using predictive text. It can expound on almost any topic, from climate change to literary criticism. It can write emails, sonnets, stories, and brochures. It can suggest revisions to specific sentences and phrases (such as resume bullet points). And it can write academic papers on almost any topic, in remarkably cogent, grammatical prose. Because it generates content rather than scraping the web for it, ChatGPT can also circumvent popular tools for plagiarism detection, like Google searches or TurnitIn.
For some educators, the new technology is cause for alarm. How do we ensure that students are turning in their own work and not something that’s written by a machine? But while ChatGPT offers challenges to educators, it has also created an opportunity to consider how and why we ask students to write. Below, we suggest ways to approach teaching and assigning writing in this new ChatGPT era.
Redesign Conventional Assignments
ChatGPT is good at replicating conventional writing tasks. It can summarize well-known texts, define terms, and present both sides of an issue. It is less effective, however, at tasks that require deep thinking or analysis. There are several ways to foster those skills when designing assignments:
- Avoid Wikipedia-style assignments. Construct writing assignments that move beyond simple fact regurgitation and analysis. Anything that students can cut and paste from a Wikipedia article or find on a paper mill website could also be generated via Chat GPT.
- Assign writing tasks that require higher-order thinking skills. Instead of asking students to define terms, list elements, or explain a particular concept, ask them to analyze, synthesize, and apply class concepts to specific situations. ChatGPT can provide serviceable definitions, but it has a more difficult time analyzing material or applying knowledge.
- Drill down to specific concepts, illustrations, and examples. To encourage critical thinking and deep learning, create assignments that ask students to engage narrowly rather than broadly, analyzing specific sets of data, visual charts and graphs, or specific passages from readings.
- Devise layered assignments, using one text or theory as a lens to analyze another. Ask students to take a theory they have learned in class and apply it to a text or set of data. Or, have them critique a recent article in light of previous studies or research findings.
- Use new material. Current AI technology draws on data that dates back 1-2 years; it does not contain real-time information. You can ask students to apply a class concept to something currently in the news.
- Ask students to re-think conventional wisdom. The nature of GPT is that it regurgitates material based on what’s already been said about a topic. Asking students to argue against a received theory or find flaws in existing models puts more emphasis on original thinking.
Rethink Your Assessments
ChatGPT not only provides us with an opportunity to reconsider how we assign writing, it should also make us rethink why we assign writing and how we assess it. Are we teaching students a disciplinary practice they will need in the future? Are we asking them to understand and apply course concepts? Here are some things to consider as we assess these activities:
- Put less importance on mechanics. ChatGPT and similar AI products can produce grammatically correct writing and competently format a reference list in APA and other styles. You might consider placing less value on technical correctness, if even a robot can manage it.
- Place value on the specific over the general. Along with asking students to work on higher-order thinking skills, you should also give credit for those skills. Create rubrics that reward specific examples, deep connections to other class material, and/or personal connections. These elements are things the AI can’t easily produce.
- Emphasize writing to learn & assess student thinking/reflection. Use process writing to assess student understanding and thinking. Instead of assigning a large term paper at the end of the course, you can assign short, in-class writing assignments as check-ins to see how well students understand class material. This approach does not grade a product but instead assesses how a student applies class concepts along the way.
Emphasize the Writing Process
In the Writing Center, we encourage students to focus on process over product– taking time to brainstorm, plan and outline their papers, generate a draft, revise, and proofread. In the classroom, we tend to emphasize final products. One approach to teaching writing in the ChatGPT era is to return to a focus on the writing process.
In a process-based approach, you might ask students to show evidence of paper development (outlines, introductions, revised drafts, peer responses and feedback) and, more importantly, assign credit and points for this work. This approach won’t necessarily increase your grading time, since you don’t have to read every word of students’ drafts or assess the quality of early work. When grading final papers, you might ask students to annotate their drafts to show where they made changes, or write a brief reflection describing the revisions they’ve made along the way.
Another version of the process approach is the inquiry-based class, where students’ writing projects develop throughout the semester. They might begin with annotated bibliographies or research proposals, then find sources or data, and write up their work at mid semester. As a final project, you can ask students to present their work in a new form, such as a writing portfolio, multimedia project, or poster presentation with visuals.
Privilege Students’ Voices
ChatGPT can produce a lot of text. But it tends to generate boring prose that sounds vaguely like a student who hasn’t done the reading– like the following lines we got when we asked the bot to respond to Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird“:
“Overall, this book was a great read for anyone who wants to improve their writing and gain insight into the creative process. It’s honest, relatable, and inspiring, and I highly recommend it to any writer, whether they are just starting out or are already established in the field.”
ChatGPT, to state the obvious, is not human. It doesn’t have a unique voice or identity– but our students do! Encourage writing that reflects students’ own voices, perspectives, and identities. Invite students to take risks or try new strategies in their writing, such as experimenting with structure, using humor, or blending different genres of writing. Putting their own voice in writing is a rewarding experience for students, and for faculty, it’s more rewarding to read and respond to.
Instead of fearing this new technology, consider ways that you can use it in your teaching. It’s quick and easy to generate an AI response in class to almost any prompt– but the material it produces may or may not be accurate. With AI texts, you can begin a class discussion about the limitations of the technology. You might ask your class to critique ChatGPT’s answer, to add more depth and examples to the prose generated by ChatGPT, or to rewrite it entirely.
ChatGPT will often make up citations or repeat misinformation. Challenging students to evaluate this information and to track down these sources will illustrate to students the limitations of the AI program. Replacing this information with actual class texts will also give them an opportunity to synthesize classroom content.
Recent scholarship on computer algorithms has drawn attention to the ethical problems inherent in software tools built by humans, especially gender and racial biases. It remains to be seen how ChatGPT might reproduce larger social inequities, but this topic might be one to explore with students as the technology becomes more embedded in our daily writing practices.
In time, ChatGPT – like calculators, word processing software, and spellcheck– may become a tool that we regularly use in the classroom– one that can do some things well (like produce a lot of prose in a short amount of time) but that falls short in the higher-order skills that are essential to a strong college education. Rather than serving as a source of panic, this technology can (we hope!) spark some new conversations about how to teach writing and to design assignments that generate thoughtful, high-level analysis and engaging prose – something that, in other words, doesn’t sound like it was written by a robot.
Resources for Faculty:
Bogost, I. (2022, Dec 7). ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think. The Atlantic.
Bowman, E. (2023, Jan 9). A college student created an app that can tell whether AI wrote an essay. NPR.
Ceres, P. (2023, Jan 26). ChatGPT Is Coming for Classrooms. Don’t Panic. Wired.
D’Agostino, S. (2023, Jan 12). ChatGPT Advice Academics Can Use Now. Inside Higher Ed.
Strang, B. (2023, Jan 12). My First Chat With the Bot. Inside Higher Ed.
Warner, J. (2022, Dec 5). Freaking Out About ChatGPT—Part I. Inside Higher Ed.
Warner. (2023, Jan 4). How About We Put Learning at the Center? Inside Higher Ed.
Amber Buck is associate professor of English and coordinator of the MA/Phd program in Composition, Rhetoric and English Studies.
Amy Dayton is associate professor of English and director of the University Writing Center.