November 1, 2023

Student Writing Assignments: Three Ways We Can Apply ChatGPT

Student using AI

Written by Sarah Eckert, Ph.D. Candidate. History of Early Christianity. Religion. School of Arts and Humanities. Claremont Graduate University.

Evolution often requires upheaval. The conclusion of 2022 saw the academic world shaken by the emergence of its latest challenger the AI Chatbot known as Chat GPT. ChatGPT is the brain-child of OpenAI, a company whose “goal is to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” According to OpenAI, ChatGPT offers users a conversational style approach that allows the platform “to answer follow-up questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.” Based on these descriptions provided by its developers, the fear of ChatGPT hardly seems justified, yet the arrival of this new technology instigated a natural aversion by educators. This led many in the academic community to immediately view ChatGPT as a foe set upon wreaking havoc on traditional educational methods. What we accept as traditional today, however, was once new itself. With the idea in mind that everything new grows familiar and commonplace, let us push back against the hair-raising fear that ChatGPT would somehow take on its own life form and destroy learning as we know it. Instead, the following three ways let us explore how teachers in higher education might incorporate ChatGPT in student writing assignments to promote a more inclusive classroom:

Incorporate ChatGPT to help students in selecting writing topics. Writing can present a challenge to students. Perhaps students struggle with choosing a topic for a writing assignment, or students may not write English as their first language. AI now enables us to give learners at all levels an opportunity to find areas that pique their interests. For instance, as someone who studies Greco-Roman antiquity, I asked ChatGPT to assist me in finding a writing topic on ancient Rome. The suggestions covered a wide range of possible subject areas including s Roman art, mythology, and economics to only name a few possible categories. I, however, know this topic well. Where does that leave the student who has never taken a course in Greco-Roman antiquity or even been raised in a Western culture where Roman mythology circulated throughout school curriculums?
I placed myself in this position and found myself swimming in a sea of foreign names and unknown centuries known collectively as Early Modern Britain. As my first foray into this era, I found myself completely overwhelmed. To make matters more complicated, I was faced with a writing prompt that only required my term paper’s subject not exceed a certain year. The amount of freedom might be welcomed by the more seasoned student in Britain’s history, but for me, I struggled until I somehow managed to submit a half-witted paper based on a particular piece of text I read. As an unconscious attempt to redo this embarrassing memory, I now turned to ChatGPT for suggestions on writings topics regarding Early Modern Britain. Again, it offered diverse subject areas ranging from witchcraft trials to Britain’s industrialization and monarchies.

When we utilize AI tools like ChatGPT as starting points for students, we are not allowing them to skirt an assignment nor are we condoning practices that would excuse any student from going to the library, consulting their instructor or librarian, and researching their chosen topic to narrow it into a more specific question. Rather, we are acknowledging that students are not all experts. Indeed, a student brainstorming a topic with ChatGPT is no different than brainstorming ideas with peers or instructors. We want to prevent students from falling behind or finding themselves stalled at the first step when their peers might be moving forward without them.

Use ChatGPT to help students with writing task assessment. Assessment in educational settings offers a baseline for instructors to evaluate their effectiveness as a teacher as well as their students’ progress and absorption of the material. Summative assessments such as mid-term or final exams are for-stakes modes of gathering this information while formative types of assessment offer a safe-fail for students to monitor their own progress or to let the instructor know in what areas their students might need extra attention. I want to focus on how ChatGPT can help in both these categories by looking at some popular types of classroom assignments.

Often, as instructors, we assign such tasks as summative assessments in the form of a term paper, which does not receive our feedback until the end of the semester when stakes and consequences for students remain high. That also means grammatical, spelling, or formatting errors in student writing are not addressed before submission. This is especially harmful when a large portion of a student’s final grade depends on their writing performance and can hold unfair consequences especially for students with English as a second language (ESL). Research, as demonstrated in this article from Texas A and M International University, repeatedly demonstrate the benefits of a bilingual education and the ability to speak more than one language.

Thus, to avoid inadvertently penalizing students for possessing the difficult and coveted skill of communicating in more than one language, ChatGPT offers proofreading abilities that can help the student grow in their mastery of subsequent languages —to a certain extent. For example, I composed and restructured a sample paragraph to contain some grammatical mistakes that included incomplete sentences and the misuse of certain words. The example I submitted for proofing reads as follows, and I bolded areas where I used incorrect grammar:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” With this quote, H.P. Lovecraft summarized the bane of humans. Humanity often reacts with repulsion and suspicion to that what rises anew. Indeed, psychologists studying fear note. As humans, we find comfort in the stability and clarity of the known, yet only through innovation and challenge has humanity progressed in its evolution.

Compare ChatGPT’s proofread version here:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” With this quote, H.P. Lovecraft summarized the bane of human existence. Humanity often reacts with repulsion and suspicion to that which rises anew. Indeed, psychologists studying fear note that as humans, we find comfort in the stability and clarity of the known. However, it is only through innovation and challenge that humanity has progressed in its evolution.

We see very little originality in ChatGPT’s response albeit the alterations I made contained somewhat minimal errors. We do see the AI system attempting to join incomplete sentences with existing text using minimal additions. Otherwise, we see the system accurately correcting minor grammatical errors that could show up in student work resulting in a loss of points. The original essence of the writing, however, remains the same and still in my voice.

Further, when writing assignments act as formative assessments where they possess little to no stake’s consequences, enabling students to see such errors enables them to see where their writing might need improvement. This can give students autonomy in evaluating their own strengths and developing skills and to ask stronger, more targeted questions when seeking help from institutions like a university’s writing center. Thus, ChatGPT should not take the place of human intervention in writing as “it is not advanced enough to look over written work the way a human proofreader can.” AI should only be a starting point to help facilitate a much larger journey.

Utilize ChatGPT’s help in providing students with feedback. Any assignment whether it involves writing or other modes of evaluation should include clear, concise goals and outcomes as well as transparent criteria that inform students how the instructor will evaluate their work. Rubrics often bridge this gap between instructor expectations and the clarity students need to complete a task with success. ChatGPT can create rubrics, as demonstrated in this blog post using a 3rd grade writing assignment. Of course, as professors, we are concerned with a much higher level of writing and evaluation, but the premise remains. ChatGPT can benefit professors by providing them with a drafted rubric, which they can tailor and refine to fit their students’ skill levels and assignment goals. The time saved drafting a rubric may thus be spent providing students with more detailed and individualized feedback on their written submissions.

Rubrics do help students evaluate their own work against teacher expectations and to troubleshoot missing or weak areas in their writing. We may traditionally expect students to do this by reading over the criteria and then self-evaluating their drafted assignment against these requirements. We may also ask that students exchange drafts and let their peers use our rubrics to offer their classmates feedback. AI tools like ChatGPT offer another dimension of this instantaneous feedback for students. This video demonstrates how ChatGPT can learn broad criteria and evaluate a writing sample. We see an instructor ask ChatGPT to learn certain criteria that they desire students to apply in their writing. The AI bot then responds and evaluates the submitted text based on the assigned criteria.

With this option, students can ask ChatGPT to evaluate their work against a certain criterion based on an instructor’s grading rubric. Instructors, for instance, commonly include categories such as proper grammar, example application to support perspectives, and the integration of a strong thesis statement as necessary to achieve full points. If a student can receive instant feedback on whether they wrote a clear thesis statement or if their examples lack clarity, this not only facilitates the learning process by giving the student actionable feedback, but it informs them where they need to pursue outside help in developing their writing.

AI tools like ChatGPT are not anything to fear as we discussed in relation to student writing. When used with intent and purpose, these assets offer valuable time-saving applications that can promote greater instructor response time as well as more opportunities for students to learn how they so desire. ChatGPT will not overtake the need for students to examine and reflect upon their writing nor will it discard human input. Only through human input can we reach the deepest parts of expression and emotion so pivotal to successful writing. Rather, the ChatGPT revolution will only further the evolution of personal growth and agency in education.

Open AI
ChatGPT Advice Academics Can Use Now
Read Why Bilingual Education Is Important
Can ChatGPT Be Used as a Proofreader?
Unleashing the Power of Chat GPT in Education
Brandeis University Center for Teaching and Learning
Here’s how I used ChatGPT to assess student writing
Chat GPT for Teachers: Assessing Student Learning (Video)