January 2024

Artificial intelligence is increasingly used in self-driving cars, smart assistants, manufacturing robots and writing. But since ChatGPT, the first AI-powered writing assistant, was introduced in late 2022, there has been uncertainty about the benefits and risks these tools pose to student writing. And that’s being addressed in different ways across higher education.

The benefits of using ChatGPT as a brainstorming tool or for finding examples to use in teaching stand out at the School of Education at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul. Educators there are also striving to teach their students how to use it effectively and to be aware of the many potential errors in AI-generated content, shared Ying Shen, professor and director of technology and assessment at the School of Education.

It’s important to inform faculty about ChatGPT and the ways their students are using it, while also educating teaching candidates on how to use it as a tool, Shen said. But having students simply copy and paste AI content risks depriving them of gaining knowledge and creative thinking skills they would otherwise develop.

“To have our students create lesson plans and common assessments, we use a specific template and topics so it’s not easy for them to plug ChatGPT into these,” says Shen. “The School of Education’s statement on AI recognizes the ability of AI and stresses how to use it effectively while exercising good judgment and correctly citing AI and providing the links they use.”

Eric Vrooman
Eric Vrooman, senior continuing professor and Writing Center director at Gustavus Adolphus College

At Gustavus Adolphus College, the Writing Center hasn’t seen reduced demand for its services, however concerns about the impact of AI on students’ writing abilities remain. According to Eric Vrooman, senior continuing professor and director of the center, critical thinking is among the most important student learning outcomes from college, and there’s an important distinction between critical thinking and conducting an online search.

“Writing and writers often benefit from conversation, feedback and collaboration. When used for those purposes, AI can be an asset. But writing is, essentially, thinking on the page,” Vrooman said. “When AI is doing the thinking and creative work, students don’t grow or learn as much. ‘Co-writing’ tools may stunt students’ growth too, depending on the quantity and the nature of the contributions from AI.”

To teach students how to effectively use AI in his creative writing course, Vrooman workshops poems, flash fiction and short stories written by ChatGPT. Through these exercises students have learned ChatGPT isn’t good at writing free-verse poems and creates predictable and derivative endings in fiction that are frequently melodramatic.

Interestingly, in preparing to be interviewed for this article, Vrooman asked ChatGPT its concerns about its own impacts on students. Plagiarism concerns? Using ChatGPT to generate content without proper attribution could lead to unintentional plagiarism. Overreliance on technology? Depending too much on AI for writing can hinder the development of essential writing and critical thinking skills. Understanding the material? Relying solely on ChatGPT might result in a superficial understanding of the subject matter. “While ChatGPT can be a useful tool for writing assistance, students should use it judiciously and with a clear understanding of its limitations,” Vrooman said. “It’s essential to strike a balance between leveraging AI technology and actively engaging in the learning and writing process to maximize educational benefits.”

Jill VanOsdol
Jill VanOsdol, assistant director for career advising initiatives at Gustavus Adolphus College

When it comes to students searching for jobs, Jill VanOsdol, assistant director for career advising initiatives at Gustavus, sees AI as a useful tool. For example, she mentioned using AI for help finding interview questions, analyzing job descriptions and pulling out keywords to include in resumes. VanOsdol cautions though that students should enhance and humanize these documents with their interests and experiences.

“I encourage AI use if students are comfortable with it, and I remind them of its limitations, and to not be overly dependent so AI doesn’t stunt their understanding of writing good resumes and cover letters,” VanOsdol said. “There’s always a risk of being too dependent on AI or copying and pasting content without including their own experience. Also, employers and applicant tracking systems can see if it lacks the human touch and the student won’t get an interview.”

While she believes most students have some AI experience, VanOsdol said it takes a different level of being good at giving an AI tool the information necessary to get good output. When AI comes up in her meetings with students, she promotes it as a tool they can use at different stages in the search or exploration process. It shouldn’t be the number one thing, but rather another tool in their toolbox, she noted.

Jacqueline deVries
Jacqueline deVries, professor of history and department chair at Augsburg University

Similarly, at Augsburg University the response to AI has varied across campus, noted Jacqueline deVries, professor of history and department chair at Augsburg. “AI is here, it’s compelling and we need to help students be critical thinkers about how and when to use it appropriately.”

Her colleague, Wilson Miu, a visiting assistant professor of history, received a Course Hero Teaching Grant from CourseHero to work with students to better use AI and incorporate it into their assignments. He asked students to craft their own research, then use AI for research, compare the results and offer an analysis. But when some students presented AI results as their own work, deVries noted that stronger guardrails and more clarity on proper use are needed.

“Using AI is similar to using a calculator. A person needs to understand math in order to produce the answers they seek,” says deVries. “Similarly, with AI you need to know what good writing and good research are, including references, and how to use evidence.”

To assess students’ baseline writing skills, deVries is going old school, assigning in-class writing and pen and paper exams to learn students’ writing style and voice. She believes we’re at a moment where we need to lean into what it means to be human.

“I can’t stop students and I can’t always detect AI,” deVries said. “But I want them to develop an ethical conscience and think these issues through.”

By Tom Brandes