OpenAI’s recent release of ChatGPT is, in a word, disruptive. In a matter of seconds, this open-sourced chatbot generates sophisticated writing in the genre of your choice. You want an argumentative essay defending a carbon tax in Canada with a thesis statement, main arguments, and counterarguments? You got it. You want a literature review on sustainable food practices with eight peer-reviewed journal articles? No problem. Just type the request in and ChatGPT will oblige. It generates such impressive content that a recent article in The Atlantic warns that ChatGPT “may signal the end of writing assignments altogether.”
It’s no secret that ChatGPT poses a significant challenge to higher education. Most obviously, there are the academic integrity concerns. Since ChatGPT generates original content, plagiarism software like Turnitin doesn’t currently flag it. But this technology poses a deeper challenge, one that cuts into the university’s core purpose of cultivating a thoughtful and critically engaged citizenry. If we can now all access sophisticated and original writing with a simple prompt, why require students to write at all?
The ability to write well, to formulate one’s ideas with clarity and concision, has long been a core learning objective of a university education. Writing is not only how we express our thoughts to others, but it’s how we develop our own thinking. George Orwell, as he often did, summed up the problem perfectly: “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” Ultimately, ChatGPT has the potential to disrupt our ability to think.
Given this challenge, what can university instructors do from a writing pedagogy perspective? First, we ought to avoid generic essay topics like carbon taxes and sustainable food practices by instead formulating specific questions on individual scholars and works. Using this reasoning, I put the following prompt into ChatGPT: “Detail Tom Regan’s and Peter Singer’s respective arguments for animal rights. How are they similar? How are they different? How would Regan respond to Singer and how would Singer respond to Regan?” I was surprised that it generated a cogent response, including how each philosopher would respond to the other. Since Regan and Singer are well-known philosophers, a better approach is to craft questions that focus on lesser-known scholars and works. When I experimented along these lines, ChatGPT had nothing to generate. Moreover, since it can only access content prior to 2021, developing questions on current topics, if feasible, is a strategy. Nevertheless, as this technology develops, my worry is that these are only band-aid solutions.
Over the coming months, we need to develop a sustainable approach to address the challenge of artificial intelligence, which includes ethical ways to incorporate it into teaching and learning. It also includes rethinking standard writing practices, particularly at the undergraduate level. For the most part, we assign students a paper, they write and submit that paper, and we provide summative feedback that justifies our mark on that paper. With this submit-it-and-forget-it approach, it’s rare for a student to receive formative feedback on their work. While there are exceptions – like students who receive feedback from their university’s writing centre – this focus on the final writing product does not set students up for success in their professional careers. Whether it’s a business report, a government policy brief, or an academic peer-reviewed journal article, most professional writing goes through an extensive feedback and revision process.
Writing scholars have long been advocates of providing students more opportunities to receive formative feedback on their work, whether from classmates, instructors, or writing centre tutors. Focusing on the process of writing, rather than the product, not only helps combat ChatGPT, but it helps students develop their writing, thinking, and metacognitive skills. Imagine a flipped classroom where students come to class with a draft paper and engage in a peer review exercise. Students read a peer’s work and provide feedback using a peer review handout that guides their response. Each student, upon receiving their feedback, then assesses the comments and decides what feedback to implement before engaging in revision. The students could use this feedback to expand a shorter paper into a longer work. Currently, ChatGPT has more difficulty replicating the feedback and revision process, including expanding shorter works into longer works. But more importantly, an emphasis on the process of writing is effective pedagogy. Giving, receiving, and implementing feedback develops foundational student skills. The literature on student peer review, for example, has shown that giving feedback improves metacognitive skills more than receiving feedback.
In addition to having students revise their written work based on formative feedback, there are other ways to overcome ChatGPT while building student skills. To accompany the final paper, instructors could assign a reflective paper for students to document their research, writing, and learning process. Although ChatGPT can generate reflective papers, it has more trouble with prompts that justify writing decisions like: “Why did you decide to integrate feedback regarding ‘x’ but not ‘y’.” Reflective questions like this add another metacognitive component to student learning.
Although ChatGPT is undoubtedly a disruptive technology, disruptions provide opportunities for improvement. By reorienting our writing pedagogy to the process of writing rather than the final product, we can improve student learning. It’s in the process, after all, where all the thinking happens.
James Southworth is a writing consultant, teaching and learning, at Wilfrid Laurier University.