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ChatGPT essay writing is a hot topic, especially in the realm of teaching and learning where it can impact academic integrity. Should teachers incorporate ChatGPT and AI writing into their teaching curriculum? Or should AI writing be entirely banned and eschewed? The teacher response is incredibly bifurcated, with those who are using it or thinking of using it to facilitate early drafts. And then in the other camp, there are those who don’t want to use it at all and see any use of AI writing as a form of misconduct.

We are at the point of no return when it comes to AI writing. Companies are using it for blog writing and other purposes. Newspapers have long used AI writing. Consequently, AI writing may become a skill students need to enter the workplace. At the same time, AI writing misuse—when students use AI writing and represent it as their own original work—is a real concern within education.

To that end, we want to focus not on AI writing but on AI writing misuse, beginning with what ChatGPT is, what students understand about ChatGPT, discussing concerns around ChatGPT misuse, and how to then talk to students about AI writing and academic integrity. 

What is ChatGPT?

OpenAI, an AI and research company, launched ChatGPT on November 30, 2022 and became the fastest growing consumer app in history, corralling 100 million active users within two months of availability. In comparison, TikTok took nine months to hit that number of users; Instagram, two and a half years (Ortiz, 2023). 

ChatGPT is a natural language processing tool powered by AI that allows users to interact with a chatbot using human-like discussion. It can answer questions in human language and compose emails, essays, and code. ChatGPT runs on a language model architecture called the Generative Pre-trained Transformer (the “GPT” in ChatGPT). An interesting tidbit is that ChatGPT only has access to information up to 2021, compared to Google, which has access to the latest data. 

What do your students know about ChatGPT essay writing?

It’s important not to make assumptions and instead know what it is your students understand about ChatGPT before opening a discussion about AI writing. Students are extremely aware of ChatGPT’s existence; and many have a very astute grasp of AI writing and its intersection with academic integrity. 

The New York Times asked students to respond with their thoughts about ChatGPT, and student responses were insightful and very much a reflection of the discussions educators are also having. They, like educators, acknowledged ChatGPT as a powerful and sometimes inaccurate tool, expressing concerns about its impact on learning should students rely too much on AI writing. “One of my biggest worries is that I would rely too much on these tools and lose the capacity for critical and creative thought,” states one student. “I personally want to learn how to communicate myself clearly and to find my own distinctive voice as a student. If I always rely on ChatGPT to generate material for me, I might not be challenged to improve as a writer” (Faris). 

Some students said that AI writing is flat-out a form of cheating. And some students embraced AI writing, stating, “If students are never taught about, and never learn how to operate ChatGPT in their schools, they will be unprepared for their life ahead, which will be filled with writing AIs” (Whit, Byfield, MA).

The above reflects the results of a survey of K-12 teachers and students aged 12-17 conducted by Impact Research for the Walton Family Foundation. The results from both groups were not dissimilar. For instance, the survey found that “Teachers and students agree ChatGPT will be important to incorporate into schooling. Two-thirds of students (65%) and three-quarters of teachers (76%) agree that integrating ChatGPT for schools will be important for the future” (Impact Research, 2023). 

Another survey by Intelligent also falls in line with The New York Times student insights, stating, “Three-quarters of students who have used ChatGPT for homework say it is ‘somewhat’ (46%) or ‘definitely’ (29%) cheating. These numbers increase when including students who say they are familiar with ChatGPT but haven’t used it themselves. With this group included, 80% say it is ‘somewhat’ (48%) or ‘definitely’ (32%) cheating.”

And yet, “When asked how popular they believe the use of the tool is among other students, 76% say its use is ‘somewhat’ (50%) or ‘very’ (26%) popular.” In other words, even though they believe AI writing use is a form of misconduct, students use it anyway (Intelligent, 2023). 

Bottom line? Students are ready to talk about ChatGPT, AI writing, and academic integrity. They have awareness of ChatGPT and their own preliminary thoughts; it’s up to educators to bring nuance and clarity about ChatGPT and academic integrity and define AI writing misuse.

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How can you discuss ChatGPT essay writing with your students?

As with all academic integrity concerns, it is important to make your students feel seen and supported in a conversation about AI writing and ChatGPT. Research has shown that students who feel connected to their teacher are less likely to cheat (Orosz, Tóth-Király, Böthe, Kusztor, Kovács, & Jánvári 2015). Ergo, how a discussion about AI writing and ChatGPT use and misuse is executed is an opportunity to strengthen student-teacher relationships, deepen bonds to academic integrity, and sharpen understanding of AI writing and ChatGPT use. A few key points to keep in mind as you discuss ChatGPT essay writing with your students include:

  1. Center students
  2. Create a safe space
  3. Offer clarity and nuance
  4. Provide room for reflection

  1. Center students 

One of the most straightforward ways to begin discussing ChatGPT is to ask your students what they know or to have them write you a letter about what they know and what their concerns and questions may be. This letter, for the record, can even be anonymous to engender more honesty. Centering their established understanding of AI writing and addressing their questions is one effective way to begin a discussion about AI writing, ChatGPT, and academic integrity. Some students may still want an introduction to the concept, and of course, educators should share what they know, but by interviewing students first, engagement can increase.

2. Create a safe space

The topic of AI writing and ChatGPT within education is so heated that students may feel it is entirely taboo or too risky to discuss. Create a safe space around an AI writing conversation by having students discuss questions and opinions about ChatGPT and AI writing within small groups before sharing within a larger classroom discussion (this way, it’s harder to pinpoint who said what). Another way to create a safe space might be to ask students to anonymously submit questions about AI writing and ChatGPT on slips of paper beforehand. 

It is also safer to discuss a topic that is presented more objectively. Perhaps, too, have students respond to a third-party journalism article on AI writing so that any insights are a reaction to words written by someone they do not know. 

Before discussion begins, provide ground rules or guidelines, whether you provide them or invite the class to form them. They can include rules about courtesy and respect and safety, such as critiquing ideas and not people, and allowing everyone a turn to speak. Having ground rules prior to discussion gives everyone an opportunity to refer back to them should things get tense. 

3. Offer clarity and nuance

Focusing on how to properly use AI writing generators is the crux of how to talk to students about AI writing, ChatGPT, and academic integrity. While it’s tempting to paint a black and white picture of AI writing use or ban it altogether, the reality is that AI writing and ChatGPT are a large presence that should be addressed head on and with nuance. The reality, too, is that students will be eventually faced with AI writing use; providing them with tools and knowledge to understand what constitutes misuse versus valid use of ChatGPT is critical to lifelong learning and academic integrity. 

While a reliance on AI writing tools can impact critical thinking, talking about AI writing tools has incredible space for critical thinking and analysis. This is also an opportunity to check out resources on AI writing and academic integrity, including a guide to approaching AI-generated text. What is its impact on learning, both positive and negative? When AI writing is prevalent outside of academia—for instance, in journalism—what is the difference between use and misuse? How is it being used properly? How is it being used improperly? These questions and more can lead to a deeper understanding of how, when, where, and why to use or not use AI writing tools. 

4. Provide room for reflection

Reflection is an important part of learning. Consider having students write their reflections on the class discussion, whether anonymously or as a graded assignment, so that different types of learners have a chance to synthesize class discussion and demonstrate their knowledge. This is, coincidentally, an opportunity for educators to have insights on what exactly students felt were the key takeaways from a class discussion on AI writing. The assignment can focus on class discussion points (which coincidentally, makes it very difficult for ChatGPT misuse). 

This summary reflection can also be an opportunity for students to express how they felt about the discussion or to share any questions that remain unanswered for them. 

Check out AI writing resources

What are some talking points around ChatGPT essay writing and how can you address them with students?

While a discussion with students about AI writing and integrity is not something that can be controlled to the minute, it is important to have discussion points. And those discussion points will center around concerns and benefits around ChatGPT use in education. The following are some talking points you may want to consider.

What is the biggest concern about AI writing in education?

According to the National Education Association, “The biggest concern is cheating. More than one-fourth of teachers have caught students using the chatbot to cheat, the Study.com survey found. An influx of ChatGPT generated work has left many educators spending more time checking for AI plagiarism and revamping lesson plans to be ‘AI-proof’” (Blose, 2023). 

A discussion with students may involve asking them if they agree with this concern and what they feel “AI-proof” assignments might look like. 

Why is AI misconduct hard to define?

AI writing misconduct is muddied by how it is used in education versus industry. The most analogous example of this conflict is in software development and programming.

In software development, it is standard procedure for engineers to work in collaboration with others. It is also standard procedure to use the code of other engineers made available on Github or via open source software without attribution. On the other hand, when students in software engineering courses use others’ source code, it is called programming plagiarism and in the case of collaboration for an assignment that is meant for individual assessment, collusion. 

In both cases, collaboration and using shared resources aren’t “bad things,” depending on the context, particularly in industry. AI writing, when not disclosed and when students represent it as their own, can often qualify as misconduct just as when software engineering students use an open repository like Github for answers to their individual assignments. 

And unlike contract cheating, there are viable use cases for AI writing, such as when teachers incorporate it into their curriculum and students use it in a way that is transparent. 

The difference between journalists using AI writing and students using AI writing, of course, is that students are still learning and need to demonstrate their understanding to instructors; AI writing in classrooms, when used as a shortcut solution without transparency, impacts learning and thus qualifies as misuse. 

It is important to highlight that students engage in learning; any AI writing use should be disclosed. Bottom line: if students are using AI writing tools and claiming that work as their own individual, original work without attribution, that may be a case of misuse and misconduct. 

Should AI writing tools be banned? Why did some school districts ban them?

In the early weeks and days following the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, many schools throughout the world, from the United States to Australia to the UK banned ChatGPT use outright. 

This is a discussion point that provides an opportunity to discuss nuances in AI writing use. And it’s a way to discuss AI writing in a way that isn’t as personal and instead, more academic. We now see that AI writing tool bans aren’t effective; both students and teachers have slowly come to accept ChatGPT as having useful potential. What might those positive uses be?

What is AI writing’s relationship to learning?

AI writing can help students with brainstorming and structure. It can help those who are learning a new language like English, overcome language barriers while absorbing new concepts, because AI writing tools can translate content for students. Discussing ways in which AI writing can harm or benefit learning gives students ownership in the discussion and helps them understand AI writing’s impact on learning more deeply.

Check out the ethical AI use checklist for students

How does ChatGPT essay writing impact learning?

But even when AI writing tools can be used, a reliance on ChatGPT can shortcut learning.

One way to emphasize the shortcomings of ChatGPT misuse is to ask it the same questions you ask your students within discussion and show how their discussion was more nuanced and detailed and comprehensive. Here, we asked ChatGPT about impacts on learning (yes, we used ChatGPT). This is ChatGPT’s response: 

“ChatGPT, as a language model, can have several impacts on learning:

1. Information Access: ChatGPT has access to a vast amount of knowledge and information, making it a valuable tool for learning. It can provide quick and accurate answers to questions, helping users gain knowledge on a wide range of topics.

2. Learning Assistance: ChatGPT can act as a learning assistant, providing explanations, examples, and clarifications. It can help users understand complex concepts, solve problems, and guide them through the learning process.

3. Personalized Learning: ChatGPT can adapt to individual learners' needs and preferences. It can provide tailored recommendations, resources, and study materials based on a user's specific requirements, making the learning experience more personalized and effective.

4. Language Practice: ChatGPT can engage in conversation and provide language practice opportunities. Users can improve their writing, speaking, and communication skills by interacting with ChatGPT and receiving feedback on their language usage.

5. Creative Exploration: ChatGPT's ability to generate text can spark creativity and encourage exploration. Users can brainstorm ideas, discuss possibilities, and receive suggestions, fostering a more innovative and open-minded approach to learning.

6. Collaboration and Peer Learning: ChatGPT can facilitate collaboration among learners. Multiple users can interact with ChatGPT simultaneously, creating a shared learning environment where they can exchange ideas, discuss concepts, and learn from one another.

7. Continuous Learning: ChatGPT can be continuously updated with new information, ensuring that learners have access to the most up-to-date knowledge. It can keep up with emerging trends, advancements, and discoveries, providing users with the latest insights and developments.

It's important to note that while ChatGPT can be a valuable learning tool, it should not be seen as a replacement for traditional forms of learning or human instructors. Its effectiveness depends on how it is utilized, and it should be used in conjunction with other learning resources and strategies for a well-rounded learning experience.”

Note the vague and basic language, and lack of examples, let alone ChatGPT’s self-promotion; not only is the content self-laudatory without criticism, it doesn’t center learning or students in its response. Furthermore, the claim that ChatGPT has access to the “most up-to-date knowledge,” is questionable, as various sources report that ChatGPT only has access to information up to 2021 (it is now 2023). Even if Microsoft, as of late March 2023, integrated Bing into ChatGPT, this is an evolving situation. 

Rewriting this is imperative. Here’s the list again, written by a human (me).

ChatGPT impacts learning in the following ways:

Student knowledge

ChatGPT has access to many information venues, mostly via the internet and has the potential to provide a breadth of answers; however, ChatGPT is dependent on human inputs and resources, so it can also be flawed and thereby further misinformation. If students are fully reliant on ChatGPT and AI writing, they may walk away with erroneous data that goes against the goals of education. It is important to know that ChatGPT is reliant on the average or median of a data set and if that data is biased, then the output is not based on facts but on opinions. 

According to neaToday, ChatGPT’s own website states that “ChatGPT occasionally generates misinformation, untimely and biased responses. The program is only as knowledgeable as the information it has been introduced to and trained with. Even creators acknowledge that the program is not a credible source of factual information and should not be treated as an academic source. Many teachers worry that ChatGPT will make teaching and learning—particularly writing assignments— more formulaic” (Blose, 2023).

Scaffolding for beginners

Particularly for students who are learning a new language, ChatGPT can provide scaffolding to write in a new language; students can practice, receive feedback, and ask for help from ChatGPT. AI writing tools can help students express their ideas while bypassing language barriers. At the same time, this scaffolding must not be a replacement for learning, because students will eventually have to have an awareness, if not a deep understanding, of all components of writing.

Brainstorming 

ChatGPT may be useful for the brainstorming process; however, there is a limit to its output and it is up to the student to come up with their own analysis and introduce their original ideas. Furthermore, ChatGPT is intelligent, but can misunderstand context, leading to incorrect output. Again, it is up to the user to discern whether or not the output is correct or offers new insights. That said, ChatGPT is very good at providing structure to arguments and can help students formulate their narratives.  

24/7 availability and personalized learning

ChatGPT is available 24/7 whereas teachers cannot be available at all hours. When a student has a question, ChatGPT can be a resource at any time. Furthermore, students can formulate questions according to their interests and ChatGPT can then examine that interest further. Even when the output might be cursory, this helps students ask “good questions,” and fine-tune their thinking in different ways. 

Technology dependence

Students can become reliant on technology and “skip” important steps in the learning process. In the example of calculators, students need to be able to add and subtract and perform the functions of a calculator; a calculator, in sum, is not a substitute for knowledge but an aid. Similarly, ChatGPT can provide scaffolding, but it shouldn’t replace learning.  

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is an important learning outcome. When AI writing tools and ChatGPT essay writing are misused extensively, students may not be able to think for themselves. This concern is a great one. The Brookings Institution addresses this issue, adding, “More centrally, however, is that the bot is more of a synthesizer than a critical thinker. It would do well on a compare-and-contrast essay, but is less able to create a unique thesis and to defend that thesis” (Hirsh-Pasek & Blinkoff, 2023). 

Original thinking and student voice

Because ChatGPT can produce whole essays, and when students don’t disclose their use of AI writing tools and don’t revise ChatGPT output extensively, it is not only a lack of original thought but academic dishonesty and misconduct. This is one of the most significant concerns surrounding ChatGPT and the reason that AI writing detection tools are in development. Without writing practice, students don’t have the opportunity to develop their authorial voice and writing confidence. Providing a space to “fail safely” is important and a way to mitigate AI writing misuse. Furthermore, ChatGPT’s writing output is less than engaging and in many ways, vague and passive; it isn’t the optimal model from which students should learn.

When ChatGPT is used as a shortcut solution, it can negatively impact student learning outcomes for myriad reasons. Students may learn incorrect facts, and when dependent on ChatGPT, not advance to original and critical thinking. But when used correctly, it can aid students in learning, much like tools like calculators. 

What are some positive impacts of ChatGPT essay writing? How do you communicate that to students?

Without advocating AI writing tools as a blanket solution for all learning, how do you communicate positive impacts of ChatGPT to students? 

Students understand that ChatGPT essay writing is here to stay; and that it is a skill they will most likely be asked to use in the workplace after their academic journey. By highlighting the nuances of positive AI writing use, it is easier to help students understand how AI writing can help them learn (but also avoid misconduct).

The unique situation of students today is that they experienced the launch of ChatGPT simultaneously with their teachers. Some educators felt that ChatGPT would severely compromise the existence of essays as an assessment format or the entire way students are taught. As a result, students witnessed the initial panic from the education sector, with some school districts banning AI writing tools outright. In a humorous example of this panic, one person on Reddit joked that ChatGPT will bring typewriters back as a writing platform (Fonky_Fesh, 2022).

But months out, educators are reevaluating what AI writing tools mean for the educational journey. The unique situation of students today, too, is that they can be a part of this discussion.

Transforming assessments

While AI writing tools aren’t undermining education as much as previously imagined, it will make assessments more thoughtful. According to an Insider article, Dr. Leah Henrickson, a lecturer at the University of Leeds, “thinks that artificial intelligence, if used carefully, might even make education fairer.” Henrickson states that the University of Leeds is also “looking at modifying its assessments in reaction to the rise in artificial intelligence. It hopes to focus more on critical analysis and judgement [sic]—a human skill—rather than straightforward information retention, which a chatbot like ChatGPT can easily replicate” (Stacey, 2023). 

The goal of education is to help students understand concepts and come up with their own  original thoughts so that they can then enter the global marketplace of ideas. And if assessments move towards measuring a depth of knowledge, then we are all in a better place. 

According to The New York Times, one student states, “A teacher at my school recently asked her class to use ChatGPT to write papers on the novel they were reading in class. The students also wrote their own papers, and compared the results. I found this teaching method to be extremely accommodating and productive. Rather than framing ChatGPT as a way to cheat, and therefore encouraging students to secretly use the forbidden program, teachers can show their students how to use it to their advantage, while still keeping their own original ideas. In today’s world, technology is quickly becoming more intelligent, but I don’t think we have to fear it” (Devin).

By modeling proper AI writing tool use within a classroom, students can learn how best to use tools like ChatGPT.

Making the writing process more transparent

ChatGPT provides opportunities to make the writing process more transparent; for instance, using it as a way for students to critique ChatGPT output helps them refine their reviewing skills. Having students revise ChatGPT-produced first drafts gives students direct access to the revision process and to demystify revision. 

Emily Donahoe, a writing tutor and educational developer at the University of Mississippi, says that “ChatGPT could help teachers shift away from an excessive focus on final results,” and now “asks her students to use ChatGPT to generate an argument and then had them annotate it according to how effective they thought the argument was for a specific audience. Then they turned in a rewrite based on their criticism” (Heaven, 2023).

Using ChatGPT to provide more insights into writing can help teachers communicate to students how best to use AI writing tools. 

Helping language learners

ChatGPT can help language learners because it has the ability to translate assignments into a student’s native language. By prompting ChatGPT with a simple “translate this reading into Korean,” educators can bridge learning gaps (Blose, 2023). 

Furthermore, because ChatGPT engages in conversation, learners can practice their grammar and syntax by conversing with ChatGPT, which can provide feedback to increase language proficiency. In their Medium post, Michael King states, “I started testing ChatGPT as a German tutor, I quickly realized that it was much more than just a source of information. ChatGPT’s unique ability to actively test my learned skills and provide suggestions for improvement made it a true game-changer.”

ChatGPT’s impact on language learning has many more benefits, including instantaneous feedback, personalized learning, and increasing exposure to the target language (Cai, 2023). Using ChatGPT as an actual learning tool can help students understand its benefits while becoming aware of its pitfalls.

Conclusion: How to talk to students about ChatGPT essay writing and academic integrity

Students come to our classrooms with an awareness of AI writing tools. While many students comprehend that AI writing can be misused, it’s important to define the difference between proper and improper use of tools like ChatGPT. Having a discussion about learning and the ways in which ChatGPT can help or inhibit the ways in which students absorb information can highlight the intersection of AI writing tools and academic integrity.

Students know how to use new AI writing tools. And what they need to learn is why ChatGPT may result in lower grades. What they need is to be in synchronization with the learning journey and educator goals. Having an in-depth discussion that is nuanced helps clarify the gray areas regarding AI writing tool use; for instance, that while used in professional writing, they are still learning and need to produce their own original writing, even if ChatGPT might be used to generate a first draft.

Pedagogy, too, is evolving. Students are at an amazing flex point in this point in history and they should know they are privileged to be a part of the conversation. And that it is going to change the future, including the ways in which knowledge is measured. 

The Brookings Institution quotes Adam Stevens as saying, “ChatGPT is only a threat if our education system continues to ‘pursue rubric points and not knowledge.’ It is critical for all educators to follow their colleague’s example…The old education model in which teachers deliver information to later be condensed and repeated will not prepare our students for success in the classroom—or the jobs of tomorrow. We should allow that model to die a peaceful death. Used in the right way, ChatGPT can be a friend to the classroom and an amazing tool for our students, not something to be feared” (Hirsh-Pasek & Blinkoff, Brookings Institute, 2023).

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