Understanding the capabilities and limitations of AI tools will help educators create meaningful writing assignments to assess learning.

5 key strategies for teaching in the era of ChatGPT

Understanding the capabilities and limitations of AI tools will help educators create meaningful assignments to assess learning without undermining academic integrity

Key points:

  • AI tools aren’t going away—instructors should determine how to fit them into teaching and learning
  • Redesigning writing prompts can deter students from turning to AI
  • See related article: Education in the age of AI and smart technology

Since the release of ChatGPT last year, there has been much productive discussion about the role of artificial intelligence (AI) writing assistants and other generative AI tools in education today and how they might impact education in the future.

The simple truth is, we still don’t know the full scope. What we do know is that these tools aren’t going away—and we’ll have to figure out how AI writing assistants and AI-generated text fit into K-12 and higher education classrooms and lecture halls.

ChatGPT and other generative AI tools are disruptive technologies that require new ways of thinking about how we teach and design student assignments and assessments. While the considerations are broad and varied, here are five practical strategies for approaching instruction in the age of AI.

1. Explain the end goal and relevance of assignments. 

One reason students might be tempted to have AI or any other “shortcut” complete their assignments is because they see too little value in doing the work for themselves. Giving students assignments they find engaging and relevant can help address this problem, which is essentially lack of motivation.

Students will be more likely to complete their own work when the tasks are meaningful and intrinsically motivating. Try to design assignments that encourage reflection and critical thinking. Where possible, give students choices in what to write about, so they can engage with the assignment in a way that has personal meaning. Explain the key competencies students will gain through the learning activities, including why these are important to their development, so that students understand the value of the work being assigned.

2. Redesign writing prompts.

Consider testing writing prompts by running them through ChatGPT first. Are the essays that it generates acceptable, or do they return answers that seem dramatically off from your expectations? If the AI-generated essays are in fact satisfactory, that is revealing. When AI tools can respond effectively to a writing assignment, the assignment needs to be revised.

For instance, AI-based writing assistants do not work as well in response to highly specialized or personalized prompts. Ask questions that require higher order thinking or personal experiences, such as “explain the impact on your life or the life of someone you know.” Another option is to create assignments based on classroom discussions, requiring them to synthesize this very specific content, not replicable by AI. Whenever applicable, require verifiable sources and citations as another way to safeguard assignments.

3. Assess the process, not just the end result of projects and assignments.

Ask students to complete pre-writing such as outlines or graphic organizers and submit drafts that demonstrate their revisions, creating documentation of the work developing and evolving. These are time-tested good writing instruction practices, and it helps ensure the integrity of their writing. All too often, there is more emphasis placed on the end product, when the process of revising and rewriting is where the real learning occurs. In fact, another level of protection can be assured by asking students to reflect on their own writing choices; this encourages them to think critically about their own writing while also serving as an opportunity for instructors to ask probing questions about the development of the work should the need arise. 

Approaching writing assignments as an iterative process will not only improve students’ skills; it will also reduce the likelihood that students will take shortcuts and simply submit AI-generated text, misrepresented as their own work. As an added bonus, these early writing samples are helpful not just for talking with students about their work, but also for learning each student’s unique writing style.

4. Teach students how to use new AI tools ethically and effectively.

Tools like ChatGPT are not going to disappear. In fact, given their dramatic impact on productivity, they will almost certainly become more powerful and plentiful. Students will be graduating into a world full of generative AI tools. They need to become familiar with them, how they work, and their capabilities and limitations. They’ll need to understand how to leverage their potential without sacrificing their own voices or quality. Where better to learn such lessons than in a classroom under the guidance and direction of a skilled educator?

Now is the time to begin exploring how AI tools and AI writing assistants may be incorporated into classroom activities. For instance, consider having students use AI as a brainstorming or research aid for assignments, particularly for students who may face additional challenges. Require students to verify research that AI produces by exploring primary source documents for themselves. Discovering that there is no primary source document and that AI actually fabricated the information is a powerful lesson all by itself. When AI tools are used, make sure students cite their use to ensure transparency and integrity.

Another option is to produce AI-generated examples and ask students to analyze the essays with a critical eye, even applying a rubric to see specific strengths and weaknesses. Help them understand the advantages and limitations of AI as a writing tool. Discuss the ethical uses of AI in class, and help students understand how to work with the technology responsibly in a way that has value.

5. Consider using AI detection technology in support of campus policies.

If AI can produce written content, can it also help determine whether a piece of writing was generated by AI or by a human being? That’s what companies are testing with new AI detection capabilities. Instructors can use AI detection technology, which offers teaching and learning tools—such as resources for teaching alongside generative AI. These, combined with good teaching practices, help ensure the integrity of student work while preparing them for a future where generative AI usage is widespread. 

Never forget that the technology itself is just a tool. It is not a substitute for a skilled educator who knows their students and their writing styles. Instructors should use AI reports only as an additional form of insights, and they should always make a final determination for themselves after talking with the student and evaluating the full context.

Adapting to a new reality

Nothing takes the place of engaging with students and knowing their previous work, including their strengths and weaknesses; however, the strategies outlined here can help to form an even more comprehensive approach. What’s more, students must be given clear guidelines about when—and how—AI tools can be used acceptably. They also need to know that AI-generated writing can be detected, and if their work shows signs of AI misuse, they will be expected to show the progression of their work and be knowledgeable about the subject in question.

In and outside the educational realm, AI might be one of the most significant disruptive technologies of our time, but understanding its capabilities and limitations will help educators continue to create meaningful writing instruction and to assess student learning without undermining academic integrity. Together we can move forward, continuing to teach critical writing and communication skills and leveraging the power of writing as a way of building critical thinking while also adapting to our new reality.

Related: Upskilling for the AI era: Empowering teams to harness generative AI

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