Teaching with Writing in the AI Age

Abstract digital art depicting a three dimensional mapping of computer data to symbolize a neural network.

The rise of AI and ‘large language models’ such as ChatGPT poses challenges for educators and students, particularly with regard to teaching and learning writing. The suggestions below are intended to support faculty in continuing to use writing and to teach with writing in their courses.

Explore the available AI ‘chatbots’ like Bard and ChatGPT.

Try asking AI to complete one of your writing assignments and see what it produces. Does AI produce what you’re looking for? What can you change about your assignment so that students give you something that AI can’t? Which steps or components of the assignment can AI complete and which seem outside of AI capabilities? Can you envision AI serving as a tool that students could use in some of those steps? Keep track of the prompts or questions you pose, AI’s answers, and your reactions as you explore.

Be explicit and clear in your instructions and your expectations.

AI is everywhere and we all use it to some degree in daily life and in academic endeavors. We use search engines to find information, Alexa to set timers, and Word or Grammarly to proofread our documents. Forbidding AI entirely is impossible and unrealistic, but you can and should articulate your expectations around which, when, and how students use available tools in your course. Faculty expectations will differ across courses, so the more precise and transparent you can be, the better. Can students in your class consider AI a resource or a tool to use in a paper or project, perhaps as a counter-argument collaborator or a proofreader? How would you like students to indicate their use of such tools? Consider giving students a menu for using different types of AI for a given assignment and the commands for generative AI that you would accept; be sure to also provide your expectations for documenting any use of generative AI within a paper or assignment.

Invite conversations about the ethical issues of generative AI. 

As of early 2024, several lawsuits are pending against AI companies like OpenAI for the ethical and exploitative issues of their generative AI programs. Comedians, writers, and artists are suing for the use of their material by these programs. Hundreds of authors angered by the unauthorized use of their material by these programs signed a petition asking tech companies to solve compensation and acknowledgment issues. This year’s screenwriters and actors guild strike includes concerns about AI replacing writers and using actor likenesses without compensation or approval. How might all of this contemporary strife complicate their embrace or use of AI for their own purposes?

Keep in mind that AI can be a tool and students will need to know how to use it. 

Generative AI can offer mostly-accurate summaries of information, provide creative and analytic responses to questions, and offer editing and proofreading suggestions. Help your students to know when and how to use these tools. “AI, tell me about what causes allergies to cats.” “AI, what is typically included in an affidavit of truth?” “AI, how can I combine these several sentences into one concise sentence?” “AI, give me suggestions to correct the punctuation errors in this paragraph.” You can model for students ethical, efficient use of these tools while still encouraging intellectual participation. What is the primary cognitive task you want students engaged in? Will using AI to some degree impede that task or support it? Is there a way to guide students to use this tool in order to do something more impressive, creative, or personal?

Teach elements of writing through reading.

Students can learn a great deal about content and communication in a discipline through close, analytic reading that they can eventually apply in their own writing, thereby minimizing anxiety, increasing confidence, and lowering the likelihood they would rely on AI to write for them. Show students how to thoroughly and precisely analyze a text, and integrate a variety of intentional reading activities into your curriculum. Ask students to analyze, discuss, and/or take notes on elements such as organization, headings, evidence, voice, point of view, analysis, detail, conclusions, vocabulary, source use, and even grammar. Reading activities can serve multiple goals: explaining disciplinary conventions, teaching effective argumentation, demonstrating methods of evidence use, or analyzing AI-generated text.

Integrate activities that critique content produced by AI.

Together, you could ask AI to summarize something or create an outline in response to an assignment; then ask pairs or students to critique the response and figure out ‘what’s missing.’ Similarly, ask AI to apply a lens or concept to something the students know quite well (use a feminist lens to analyze your favorite TV show). Then, ask students to figure out what AI is not getting right, both in terms of the concept and in terms of the application to the thing they know well (no, that’s not how that TV show works, and no, that’s not an accurate application of this concept). Have students compare the bibliographies of academic texts with the content or citations that AI might produce on the same discipline and topic: which citation list is more reliable?

Design assignments that require some use of AI.

Most students will need to know how to use AI in their careers, so rather than forbidding AI or only showing what it does poorly, help students learn how to effectively employ these tools. Generative AI can be a debate partner, for example, and can help a student notice gaps in their evidence or logic. Include a step in a project when students must ask AI about the commonly held beliefs about a topic or issue and use the generated list as they consider how best to connect with possible audiences. Require students to ask AI a grammar question about a single sentence or paragraph, apply what they learned to other text, and share their learning with you or another student. Provide AI’s response to a prompt and ask students—in pairs, perhaps—to write a response or develop a short oral presentation in which they challenge or extend that initial response.

Continue to prioritize information literacy. 

We’ve all heard about the AI “hallucinations,” those instances in which AI puts forth an answer that sounds like it could be right but, upon investigation, is comprised of inaccurate information. This is indicative of the fundamental nature of the chatbot as a complex large language model. Rather than seeking to give you actual citations and references, it is giving you what it deems to be the most likely strings of text that take the form of official citations. Perhaps most important in this age of AI is the technology user’s ability to employ these tools, which includes knowing what terms and phrases to use in prompts, knowing how to cull and filter generated answers, and knowing how to spot mis- or disinformation. Information literacy is a cornerstone of higher education and the WSU undergraduate experience, so continue to prioritize activities in which students seek out sources, analyze them, and use them in creative ways. 

Create authentic assignments that engage and motivate students.

Use a template such as RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Task) to give the writer a role, establish an audience, and make it authentic and based in real life. Locate some aspect of the assignment in Pullman, on campus, or in hometowns. Provide a real problem for students to solve, or have students identify a problem themselves and then solve it. Look for personal incentives and opportunities for students to think and write from their unique perspectives and locations in the world.

Add a physical, kinesthetic element to an assignment.

Ask students to write about, reflect on, or otherwise engage with that experience throughout a project/paper. What human aspects can you include in the assignment? How can students connect some aspect of their lives with the assignment? Ask students to explore, experience, or analyze something on campus, in town, etc: for example, have students take photographs of certain plants on campus or in their neighborhood, describe the plants with sensory details, analyze the plants through course concepts, and compile it all into an academic yet creative document like a local plant portfolio.

Quirky, fun, creative applications of content can motivate students to engage in the assignment.

AI is certainly capable of responding to these types of assignments, but you can pique student interest and foster motivation by inviting students to demonstrate their creativity. For example, ask students to create a dating profile for nitrogen, ask students to compare something with a story from their childhood or family lore, or have students select and describe someone in their life who shares traits with a course concept. Some students might use AI to remind themselves of the course concept in question, and some might even use AI to get an idea of the application of that content, but many students will jump at the opportunity to be playful and personal.

Add multimedia components or otherwise incorporate something other than an essay into your assignments.

Incorporate visual or audio elements into a project or assign something other than a solely-text based essay. AI might offer content for a podcast, but the student will still have to record the podcast itself. How might students use Legos or Lincoln Logs to demonstrate their understanding of something? Ask students to grow a plant and keep a journal about it. Ask students to take some action in the world rather than just writing essays about the world.

AI can make up reflective answers, but it cannot reflect for students.

Typically, when AI is given a prompt such as “what did you learn” or “what do you think about ___,” the response is a summary of the information or sometimes even a response about not having thoughts. Provide meaning-making and reflection opportunities for students by asking them to consider their prior knowledge, learning, challenges, process, relationships and connections, future plans, curiosities, and lingering questions. These questions could be explored in take-home writing assignments or in-class, impromptu, informal writing or discussion activities: what did you know about this topic before this project; what process did you use to complete this project; what did you find most challenging; what does this reveal about you as a learner; what do you want readers to take away from your paper; what is something you would do differently next time; what do you want to know more about?

Require students to engage directly with texts that AI cannot access. 

AI does not have access to anything behind a paywall (i.e., peer reviewed articles that our libraries can access) and any texts that are unavailable for free on the internet. If your prompt includes instructions to analyze specific sentences or paragraphs, AI will respond with a note about not being able to see the specific text and, most likely, will offer summary-style information related to the topic. So, rather than asking students to respond generally to a reading, consider asking them to do something with specific elements of that text. For example, you could have students select five of the most important sentences from a text and explain their thinking, both in terms of those sentences as representations of the whole text or content and in relation to the larger course focus. You could ask students to draw direct connections between multiple texts (chapters, articles, etc.) by comparing the methods used in multiple articles, analyzing the use of a certain theory by different authors, or illustrating the evolution of a scholarly conversation with examples from readings.

Teach students that good writing is specific and precise.

Typically, AI generated content reads like a summary—a polished, grammatical, well-organized summary. Build assignments that elicit specificity. Ask students to locate and then analyze specific sentences in a text; require students visit a space on campus and then describe specific details of that space; or assign an annotated bibliography that includes quotes and analysis of those quotes. Many students are able to write more precisely when they write from their experience, so invite students to write something in the first-person point of view. The ‘I Search’ assignment in which students document their research process and reflect on seeking, reading, and analyzing might yield writing that is personal, specific, and engaged with the course content in ways that AI cannot replicate.

Communicate and connect learning outcomes to all writing assignments.

Students sometimes don’t know why they are completing an assignment which may result in disengagement. Help make connections between the assignment and the course learning outcomes, and help students connect learning outcomes to the world outside of the classroom. When students know the value of the work, they will be more likely to engage. Big, formal essays will have a lot of associated learning outcomes, while smaller, informal writing activities have fewer; regardless, show students how the endeavor will contribute to their success in the course, to their understanding of course content, or to any other number of important skills or habits. Likewise, including reflection opportunities during and after writing assignments will foster metacognition and encourage future engagement.

Consider how your grading communicates your priorities to students.

Students believe their professors expect ‘perfect,’ ‘polished,’ ‘academic’ writing, and because most undergrads do not own or employ that level of language, many turn to AI or other forms of support to ‘level-up’ their writing. You might expect this level of writing at times, but there may also be instances for students to process, draft, or otherwise communicate their learning to you without the pressure of producing ‘perfect prose.’ Give students the opportunity to think and communicate about course content in formats and language familiar to them. Low-stakes, informal writing activities can provide you with insight into student learning and provide students the chance to grapple with content without the anxieties related to formal writing.

Be proactive, flexible, and adaptive.

Consult your colleagues. Consult your students. Participate in conversations and professional development around AI and other technological innovations: Teaching Academy, Writing Program, AOI, TCI, Vet Med Teaching Academy. Find your community and learn together.

Get in touch with the Writing Program:

This resource was developed in collaboration with:

  • Kate Watts, Director of Composition in the English department
  • Daniel Rieck, Web Coordinator and Developer in DAESA

The Writing Program will continue to update this page with resources, new considerations in light of AI development, and professional development opportunities.