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Encouraging critical thinking in an era of AI paraphrasing

Discover the importance of teaching critical thinking in an era dominated by AI, with strategies for educators to promote critical thinking and ethical AI use among students.

Laura Young
Laura Young
Content Marketing Specialist

In the age of digital transformation, where generative AI and AI paraphrasing are prevalent, the ability to think critically has never been more important.

Education is navigating a world increasingly influenced by artificial intelligence, and the way we process and interpret information is rapidly evolving. Critical thinking—the practice of analyzing and evaluating information to form a reasoned judgment—is a fundamental skill that empowers individuals to make informed decisions and solve complex problems.

Writing for Forbes, Ron Carucci notes that, “There’s a big difference between machine learning and ‘machine thinking’ … the minute we start looking at AI as machine thinking, we’re in trouble, because it means we’ve tried to outsource our own critical thinking and problem solving skills to a machine that is only replicating and regurgitating information it has gathered.” But AI paraphrasing tools are making it easier than ever to bypass this deeply important skill.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of teaching critical thinking in an era dominated by AI, with strategies for educators to promote critical thinking and ethical AI use among students.

What is paraphrasing vs AI paraphrasing?

A key aspect of critical thinking in academic and professional writing is paraphrasing. Writers generally paraphrase to reference credible authors, which in turn, establishes their own credibility.

Traditional paraphrasing requires a deep understanding of the content at hand, plus an ability to express it in a new form without altering the original meaning. It’s an alternative to using a quote, when a writer wants to use their own words, their own voice, but someone else’s idea. When a writer paraphrases, they show that they understand the meaning of the text, and it’s a common technique used to present information more concisely or clearly while properly attributing the original source.

AI paraphrasing, on the other hand, refers to the process of using AI technology to rewrite text while retaining the original meaning, sometimes without proper attribution. These AI-powered tools analyze the input text and generate alternative versions that convey the same information using different words or sentence structures. When powered by Natural Language Processing (NLP), AI paraphrasing tools can be remarkably sophisticated (more so than traditional text spinners) which is cause for concern for academic integrity.

Why is fostering critical thinking essential amidst AI paraphrasing tools?

The internet provides a vast amount of information, often with varying degrees of reliability. It is our critical thinking skills that enable us to discern credible sources from unreliable ones, ensuring we only rely on accurate information. AI paraphrasing tools do not carry out this task for us, thus understanding their limitations is key to academic and research success.

While AI paraphrasing tools can produce text that is grammatically correct, in parallel, they can produce contextually inaccurate or misleading information. Critical thinking helps users recognize these limitations and verify the information provided by AI.

Moreover, an over-reliance on AI paraphrasing tools can impact original thought and creativity. Teaching critical thinking encourages intellectual independence among students, empowering them to form their own ideas and arguments rather than passively accepting AI-generated content as being factually correct.

The use of AI in content creation also raises ethical questions about plagiarism and intellectual property. Critical thinking fosters ethical awareness, helping individuals use AI responsibly and respect the original authorship of content.

What are the risks of over-reliance on AI paraphrasing tools?

As AI paraphrasing tools become increasingly sophisticated and accessible, it's tempting to use them as a crutch for generating content quickly, particularly during periods of academic pressure. While these tools offer convenience, over-reliance on them presents several significant risks to students, their institutions, and the wider society.

AI paraphrasing tools often work by reordering or substituting words and phrases to create new sentences. This can result in bland and uninspired content that lacks the unique voice and creativity of the original author. Over time, this dependency can stifle a writer's ability to produce original work and diminish their creative capabilities, resulting in the atrophy of essential skills such as critical analysis, vocabulary development, and grammatical precision.

For students and learners, the process of writing and paraphrasing by hand is an essential part of learning. It encourages deep engagement with the material and promotes a better understanding of the subject matter. By using AI to paraphrase, they miss out on the mental exercise of evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing information. This can lead to a superficial understanding of the material, as users may accept AI-generated content without questioning its accuracy or depth.

AI paraphrasing tools are only as good as the data and algorithms behind them. If the original content contains errors or biases, these can be perpetuated and even amplified by paraphrasing tools. Students may unwittingly propagate misinformation or incorrect interpretations, leading to a cycle of inaccuracies that could result in awarding a degree or certificate to a student lacking crucial subject knowledge. This is particularly concerning when awarding high-stakes qualifications, such as law or medicine, raising ethical concerns. Students, for example, may use these tools to bypass the hard work of writing and learning, which can undermine the educational process and academic integrity standards of their institution.

To deter students from relying heavily on generative AI, educators can take steps to prepare their students for a world where generative AI and critical thinking coexist in harmony.

How can educators encourage critical thinking in an era of AI paraphrasing?

Critical thinking is a higher-order skill and arguably one of the most valuable in academia. It significantly impacts problem-solving and decision-making and is transferable across many disciplines and domains. Developing critical thinking takes practice, beginning at the earliest possible level and evolving to proficiency over time. Transferring critical thinking from one domain to another involves explicit and deliberate instruction.

While there is ongoing debate about whether critical thinking can be taught directly or merely encouraged, we believe it’s prudent to provide a set of tips designed to help students develop critical thinking skills.

Promote active learning and collaboration

Active learning—sometimes referred to as authentic learning—involves engaging students directly in the learning process, putting them at the center of the learning experience. To engage students in active learning, educators can encourage students to participate in discussions, debates, and problem-solving activities. These activities require students to analyze information, form arguments, and critically evaluate different perspectives. Techniques such as case studies, group projects, and hands-on experiments can also facilitate active learning.

A study by Deslauriers et al. (2019) sought to measure actual learning vs. feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. The results indicated that although students felt that they learned more in the traditional lecture setting—rendered by an inherent student bias against active learning—they actually learned more when taking part in active learning strategies.

Encourage questioning

Foster a classroom environment where questioning is not only allowed but encouraged. Teach students to ask probing questions about the material they read, write, and the outputs of any generative AI tools they may have adopted to produce their work. Questions that challenge assumptions, explore alternative viewpoints, and dig deeper into the subject matter can significantly enhance students’ critical thinking skills. Questions can also help you, as an educator, to uncover misconceptions among students, which provides a means of formative assessment data that can be leveraged to improve future teaching and learning.

Immerse students in project-based learning

Presenting students with real-world problems can enhance their critical thinking skills by providing a practical and engaging context for applying knowledge. Students are asked to identify, analyze, and prioritize multiple variables, helping them to develop well-reasoned, evidence-based solutions. Real-world problems are also inherently engaging and relevant, increasing student motivation and enthusiasm for learning.

By integrating project-based learning in the form of real-world problems into the curriculum, educators create a dynamic learning environment that teaches critical thinking and prepares students for the complexities of real-world situations. Zhang and Ma (2023) found that “project-based learning significantly improved students’ learning outcomes and positively contributed to academic achievement, affective attitudes, and thinking skills, especially academic achievement.”

Integrate AI as supplementary aids

AI writing doesn’t have to mean academic misconduct. With practical strategies for embracing the challenge and also the potential that comes along with AI technology and writing, teachers can use AI as supplementary aids to enhance critical thinking and writing skills rather than replacements for traditional learning. For instance, students can use generative AI and AI paraphrasing tools to understand complex texts better, but they should also be encouraged to analyze and critique the AI's output. Writing for the Times Higher Education, science faculty member at Colorado State University, Urbi Ghosh, notes that, “AI technology helps to connect ideas, merging them to create stronger concepts and produce a wide range of ideas quickly.”

Can AI paraphrasing tools be used while upholding academic integrity?

While the use of AI paraphrasing tools poses challenges to academic integrity, there are situations where they can be employed ethically. For instance, these tools can be valuable aids for students and researchers in rephrasing complex ideas or improving the readability of their writing. When used appropriately, AI paraphrasing can complement original thought and enhance the overall quality of academic work.

However, it's crucial for users to understand the limitations and risks associated with AI paraphrasing. Simply relying on automated tools without a deep understanding of the content can lead to unintentional plagiarism or distortion of the original ideas. Therefore, it's essential for individuals to use AI paraphrasing tools responsibly, ensuring that they maintain transparency about the sources they are paraphrasing and accurately attribute ideas to their original authors.

Educators play a vital role in guiding students on the ethical use of AI paraphrasing and promoting a culture of academic integrity. By providing clear guidelines, offering resources for proper paraphrasing techniques, and encouraging critical thinking skills, educators can empower students to use AI paraphrasing tools effectively while upholding academic standards.

Overview: Encouraging critical thinking in an era of AI paraphrasing

In an era where generative AI can effortlessly generate text and AI paraphrasing tools can manipulate it, reinforcing the importance of critical thinking has become more crucial than ever in the education space.

Critical thinking is a cornerstone of effective decision-making, problem-solving, and ethical conduct and equips individuals with the ability to discern credible sources from unreliable ones, have a deeper understanding of complex information, and maintain intellectual independence. These skills are indispensable for ensuring the accuracy, originality, and integrity of our work. And educators play a pivotal role in this dynamic.

By promoting AI as a responsible learning resource rather than a crutch, teachers can cultivate an environment that prioritizes and develops critical thinking in the digital world. This not only prepares students for academic success but also for the complexities of real-world challenges, including their next steps into the workforce.