When students write, they are cognitively challenged to organize and make sense of their learning. This sense-making is a critical step in forming new ideas as well as communicating those ideas to someone else. Through the writing process, students must reflect and think at the highest cognitive levels, and this deep engagement in thinking about their learning often improves retention and understanding.
Seemingly overnight, generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, have disrupted the writing process. Instead of struggling through idea generation, organization of thoughts, the drafting process, and editing efforts, students—and adults—can simply enter a prompt into an AI chatbot and almost instantly get a well-crafted piece of writing in return. It can be tempting to bypass the writing process altogether and have AI do the work for us.
It’s also tempting to run away from the challenges this new technology poses by banning it in our classrooms or ignoring it. However, approaching it in this way is to ignore the reality that AI is not going away. Already, professionals are using it to complete—and improve—their work. If we want to prepare our students for an AI-infused world, we must embrace the challenge and find ways to teach our students to use AI in a positive and productive way. Under our watchful eyes, we can guide them through this writing evolution, and we’ll be empowering them to become better writers and communicators once they leave our classrooms.
The following strategies are ways that students can use AI tools as a writing partner, an assistant that can help guide them and support them through the writing process.
Generative AI tools, like ChatGPT, Google Bard, Anthropic’s Claude, and Microsoft Copilot, are really good at generating lists of ideas, and students can use AI to help them brainstorm ideas and get started with their writing assignments. Not only can it help them overcome writer’s block, it can also broaden their thinking and help them formulate initial ideas that are more fully fleshed out. Because they’re producing a brainstorming list, students will still need to do their own critical thinking, going through the AI-generated list and determining which, if any, of these ideas might help them with their writing task. In many respects, this process encourages the development of the critical thinking skills that we want for our students.
Students might choose to have AI help them brainstorm:
- A list of potential topics
- A list of ways to break down a larger topic into something more manageable
- A list of interview questions
- A list of subtopics to research
- A list of potential titles
Using a chatbot in this way is collaborative, like brainstorming with a writing partner, and it’s a common way that professionals are using generative AI in the workplace.
It can be really hard for students to sift through their ideas and determine how to organize them in a meaningful and manageable way. This is not to say that struggling through this is a bad thing. However, generative AI chatbots can again serve as a co-writer to give students options and help them get started with processing their initial ideas.
Here are three ways that students could do this:
- Students could paste their thesis statement and notes into a generative AI chatbot and ask the AI for suggestions on how this content might be organized. Students can then consider the suggestions and determine if any of the options, or a combination of those options, might meet their needs.
- They might ask the chatbot for five ways to organize a paper on a given topic. Again, students will get options to choose from. It’s essentially another form of brainstorming and can help them think beyond their first idea. In the long run, this can help them grow in their ability to evaluate how they are thinking about organizing content.
- Students could also paste in a list of key points that they’ve come up with and ask the AI to generate a potential outline organizing those points. Of course, students will need to evaluate the suggestions, modify them, and reshape them to meet their identified communication needs.
As with any assignment, it’s up to you to determine the degree to which you want your students to use AI with their writing. There will be times when using AI makes sense and other times when it is not the right choice.
Creating a new writing draft is probably the most controversial use of AI in writing. Most teachers are opposed to having students simply type in a prompt asking the AI to write their entire paper for them since it can bypass too many key critical thinking skills that are developed through the process of writing. However, as teachers, we also need to acknowledge that many bloggers and professional writers are starting to have AI co-draft content with them . . . and this use is likely to accelerate as AI tools continue to improve. The key, then, is finding the right approach to using AI as a cowriter in the drafting process.
One way to introduce this collaborative drafting process to your students is to have them begin with a smaller sample of writing, rather than the entire piece. This might be a single paragraph or one section of a longer paper. With this approach, it is beneficial to have students provide their own content and ideas for the writing. This might include generating research notes or brainstorming key points and examples. Students can paste those ideas into a chatbot and ask it to turn those notes into a draft. In this scenario, the students are providing the ideas, and the AI is helping with the organization and communication of those ideas. This approach may be best for more advanced writers who have already developed a basic mastery of the drafting process. Once they have a good foundation, it can be an effective way for them to see solid models and alternate ways of communicating ideas, illustrating how they can use AI to get help with forming their ideas into fully fleshed out writing.
While these examples utilize multipurpose AI chatbots, like ChatGPT, there are more and more premium products being released all the time that will guide students through this drafting process, rather than simply drafting for them. Products like Packback prompt students through the steps of the writing process and provide them with real-time feedback and coaching as they develop their ideas. Students then rewrite these ideas to improve their scores, which are AI-generated. It is student-driven, it’s motivating, and it frees the teacher up to conference with students.
Khanmigo is another AI writing tutor that writes with the student instead of for them. Developed by Khan Academy, Khanmigo prompts students to take turns writing sentences to a story. Essentially, the student cowrites the story with the AI. These products are the early entrants into this field of AI-assisted writing and are likely just the tip of the iceberg of what is to come.
AI in writing is not as new as we might think it is. In fact, most of us have been using AI to help with the editing process for quite a few years now. This primarily includes tools like spellcheckers and grammar checkers. These were very controversial when they first came out, but now, they have become largely accepted as a normal way of engaging in the business of writing. Most professionals use them regularly to improve their writing and catch inadvertent mistakes.
Using these AI tools is like having an editor standing over our shoulders and providing instant feedback and suggestions as we write. This can be extremely powerful. As educators, we know that the more immediate and targeted our feedback is, the more it can shape and improve our learning. And let’s face it, teachers can’t possibly sit beside every student throughout the writing process to provide this type of detailed feedback. There’s just not enough time . . . but these AI tools can help us make it a reality.
Tools like Grammarly instantly highlight passages that could benefit from a rewrite. They might flag a grammatical error, an awkward usage, or a punctuation problem. They typically offer suggestions, rather than an automatic correction, which requires students to actively engage in the practice of reviewing a suggestion and then consciously choosing to change something or leave it as it was originally written. This engagement and feedback loop can help students improve their skills in real time. Even seasoned writers can benefit from the watchful eye of an AI editor.
AI can be a helpful cowriter when it comes to fine-tuning your writing. For instance, you might paste in a draft of an essay and then ask the chatbot to offer suggestions for improving things like fluency, transitions, or support and evidence.
Rather than having students simply ask the AI to rewrite something for them, it’s most effective to have them ask for revision suggestions, especially at first. Suggestions keep the student engaged in the process and require critical thinking and active decision-making. This is how students will continue to learn and grow as writers. It’s also best practice to have students seek feedback on one aspect of their writing at a time. A generic “How can I improve this writing sample?” is too broad and will give you mixed results. Targeted queries result in better replies, and they are also more digestible for students.
For example, students might paste in a long, complicated sentence and ask the AI for suggestions to simplify it. Students may also paste in a sample of their writing and then ask the AI questions, like “What arguments am I overlooking?” “Are any of my arguments biased?” or “What arguments need stronger support or better evidence?” These types of questions utilize the AI as a writing partner and can help students develop a critical eye for revision by prompting them to improve their existing draft. This interaction is similar to having a student writing conference with an instructor.
There are undoubtedly other ways to use AI to enhance the writing process, but these are some of the ways you might choose to get started. In general, artificial intelligence is best viewed as a writing collaborator or cowriter, rather than a tool to do the writing for you. Just as students should carefully consider suggestions that they receive from a classmate or peer editor, they should review AI’s suggestions with that same type of discerning eye.
It’s also important for educators to experiment with AI in their own writing process before introducing it to students. You can learn a lot about its strengths and weaknesses by actually engaging in it and experiencing it firsthand. As we learn to use AI as a writing coach and partner, it has the potential to help us all become better, more empowered writers.
Extend Your Learning
- Incorporating Generative AI Into the Writing Process for Students (Montana State University)
- Teaching Students to Write With AI: The SPACE Framework (Medium)
- How Is AI Changing How We Write and Create? (NC State University)
- AI in the Writing Center: Small Steps and Scenarios (University of Wisconsin-Madison)