How to combat misuse of AI in student writing

by Admin
At ISTELive 24, AI is all around--but so are vetted educator resources to teach students how to use AI as a student writing tool.

Key points:

As AI cements itself firmly into classrooms, one large and lingering question concerns when and how students can use it appropriately. It takes only seconds to plug a writing prompt into a generative AI tool and receive a completed assignment. Instead of forbidding generative AI tools, it’s critical that teachers show students how and when it’s appropriate to use AI in student writing.

The bottom line: When students are confident in their writing skills, they will be less tempted to run directly to AI to generate a writing assignment. Then, teachers can demonstrate how and when it’s appropriate for students to use AI to their benefit.

During an ISTELive 24 session, Sarah Mauel, Amy Miller, and Tahlia Remer, instructional technology trainers in Arizona’s Tempe Union High School District, shared strategies to help students improve their writing skills, thereby improving their self-confidence, along with sharing examples of how to appropriately use AI tools in student writing assignments.

It’s generally easy to determine if students have used an AI tool to generate a response to a writing assignment or to generate an entire essay. The biggest tell is that the writing will sound nothing like any of the student’s other submitted assignments. Teachers can also look for:

  • Flawless writing: The grammar is nearly error-free, and the longer the response, the more bloated sentences that repeat the same concept
  • Lack of original/authentic thinking: AI can only compose what it finds on the internet
  • Advanced language: Use of uncommon vocabulary terms when trying to write at a higher level, or using obvious casual language to tone it down
  • Format and structure are traditional and robotic: Consider what a 5 paragraph essay typically looks like when using an outline
  • Use of lists or outlines: AI likes to create subtopics, label them, and then provide encyclopedia-type responses

The advent of generative AI also raises the issue of plagiarism–and how educators can (and should) rethink plagiarism and cheating.

Teachers should include an AI use chart (like this one from Ditch That Textbook) with their course descriptions and have clear-cut discussions with parents and students about when AI use is and is not acceptable.

Before bemoaning students’ urge to rely completely on AI, it’s important to identify and address the reasons students use AI to write. Those reasons may include: lack of writing skills, insecurity around writing skills, struggles with time management, confusion about the topic, missing grammar and organizational skills, having no motivation or interest, missing real-world relevance, poor work ethic, lack of access to resources, and home/personal life stress.

It’s important to make the writing process less intimidating.

“Accepting late work and allowing revisions can really determine if students use AI,” Miller said. “If you’re not going to accept it late and they’re not going to have any time [to do the work], they’re going to go ahead and use AI.”

Revisiting the steps of the writing process, particularly because students are still struggling with learning losses post-pandemic, can help students build stronger writing skills so that they don’t immediately turn to AI to complete writing assignments.

Offering students different options through which to demonstrate their understanding and their writing skills is another way to discourage them from automatically using AI.

“We have to rethink the full-length essay as the end-all, be-all for assessing student writing skills,” Miller said. “It’s intimidating. We can assess their understanding of what they read and their ability to write through shorter bursts of writing. I still think there’s value to [the full-length essay], but they don’t have to do it all the time.”

For an in-depth exploration of different writing assignments to help students build confidence and demonstrate skills, watch the recorded version of the session. Examples include small-group brainstorming and “Mini Socratics” (small-group Socratic Seminars), gamification methods giving students points for each component they’ve completed in an assignment, small-group peer reviews where students reflect on each other’s ideas instead of correcting errors, and more.

Although students should develop their own writing skills and abilities, AI is not going away, so it’s worthwhile to identify the things AI can do in the writing classroom. AI can help personalize content for students based on their level of knowledge, learning speed, and desired learning goals; provide one-on-one learning experiences outside the classroom; give students quick responses to questions to save time; and serve as a 24/7 chatbot for learning to provide learning equity, Mauel said.

Creating assignments that require things AI is not good at is one way to circumvent widespread student AI use. For example, AI is good at conducting research, synthesizing information, using different levels of vocabulary, and adopting a particular tone. AI is not good at offering subjective explanations, evaluative critical thinking, sharing personal experiences, and offering personal reflections. (MagicSchool.AI offers a tool to make assignments AI-resistant.)

Teachers can use AI to craft assignments for special student populations, as well, including creating writing prompts designed for different student needs, for idea generation, to simplify language and directions, and to use speech-to-text and/or text-to-speech for language translation.

If you do suspect a student has submitted an assignment entirely generated from AI, approaching the issue carefully can ensure open conversations:

  • Recognize your biases and don’t assume the student’s intention
  • Come from a place of support rather than words/actions that shame the student
  • Consider how much AI assistance was used to write the assignment
  • If the piece is 100 percent AI, offer zero credit for that assignment and give the student an opportunity to rewrite it

It’s important to communicate with families about AI writing, too. Define what AI-generated writing is, provide a range of acceptable use of AI within your classroom, provide a discipline matrix showing actions for AI use violations, and emphasize that AI has some great tools to assist students with writing, but not in generation of entire assignments

Important considerations for classroom AI include:

  • AI is here to stay–it’s a companion and helper, not a replacement for humans
  • Revamp and revise your approach to teaching with AI in mind
  • Try something new, like shorter bursts of writing and/or collaboration, to assess skills
  • Train your students on how to use AI ethically–when is it appropriate to use AI?
  • Work on helping students gain confidence in their writing

“AI’s going to be there–we have to go back to best practices in teaching,” Miller said. “We need to look at it again. Best practices are going to help us help our students to gain that confidence.”

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