Bringing Consciousness to AI Use: Part II

Active learning through writing in an era when students are using generative AI to produce writing

“Active learning through writing” is a WAC principle that emphasizes the role of writing as not merely a mode of communication or assessment but also as a valuable tool for enhancing the learning process. Before delving into the details of this pedagogical principle, we first clarify the concept of active learning itself.

Active learning is an instructional approach that actively engages students in the learning process, typically through activities such as problem-solving, group discussions, or hands-on experiments. The main idea is to shift from a passive lecture mode where students are mere recipients of information to one where they play a participatory role in constructing knowledge.

WAC advocates use writing as a tool to actively engage students in their learning process. Writing requires students to put words and symbols down on a piece of paper, either digitally or physically. This process, even in the most informal form such as freewriting, asks for students to actively internalize information, reorganize and synthesize various pieces of information, and articulate their understanding. This act enhances comprehension. Additionally, putting words on paper (physically or digitally) also offers a chance to revisit, revise and reflect on them afterwards. Pausing, thinking, and reflecting on their understanding and making cross connections facilitate active learning and critical thinking.

There are various ways of promoting active learning through writing, such as informal writing activities (e.g., journaling, free-writing), formal writing assignments (e.g., essays, papers, abstracts), and collaborative writing (e.g., peer reviews, group writing projects).Formal writing assignments benefit from these smaller, informal writings, which act as scaffolding for these major assignments in their breakdown of work into smaller, more manageable pieces. 

With generative AI, instructors may be worried that students are using these tools to generate writing for the writing assignments. Students who heavily rely on generative AI to produce their assignment answers miss out on the cognitive benefits that come with the process of writing. If students use generative AI to do the bulk of their writing, they bypass the critical thinking, active learning and reflection that writing can foster. With the current technology, most students can easily access generative AI tools such as ChatGPT, and it is sometimes hard to accurately detect whether students are using these tools or not. Therefore, instructors may be reluctant to assign writing assignments to students.

Given the current circumstances, I argue that the WAC principle of using writing as a tool to actively engage students in their learning process is still valid and helpful to promote active learning and critical thinking, but to implement the principle well in our classrooms, we need to cultivate and learn AI literacy for ourselves and for our students and rethink our approaches to writing assignments. We need to understand the advantages and limitations of using these tools, have open conversations with students, and make students understand the goals and methods of the writing assignments so that they understand why they are doing the assignment (and less likely to have shortcuts by using the generative AI tools).

Assignment design ideas that encourage genuine engagement, making it difficult or unnecessary to lean on generative AI:

1. Have students keep a journal of their thoughts, questions, and reflections on a topic. Encourage them to write about their emotions, confusions, and epiphanies. Create writing assignments that relate to their personal experiences and feelings.

2. Conduct in-class peer reviews with specific guiding questions. The feedback process requires students’ active engagement.

3. In-class essays: In a monitored environment, students are less likely to write with the help of the AI tools.

4. Interactive group discussions and writings such as collaboratively working on a Google Doc, or assigning a text and asking students to co-create resources by platforms such as students can annotate a text collaboratively as a low-stake assignment. By doing so, they learn from each other and contribute to annotations together. The dynamic nature of such platforms would make it harder for AI to be seamlessly integrated.

5. Scaffolding formal assignments into smaller pieces (outlines, multiple drafts and revisions) and asking students to reflect on the process and comment on what decisions they make through multiple drafts.

6. Multimodal works: Students may present their work in a non-text way, such as delivering their essays through videos/oral presentations. The process of delivering the text in other modals makes it hard to use AI to complete the task, and it requires students’ active engagement.

Assignment design ideas that creatively integrate generative AI to facilitate active learning through writing (adapted from AI Assignment Flip – 10 Examples):

1. Students use a generative AI tool to draft a paper based on specific guidelines. Then analyze and detail the strengths and weaknesses, focusing on aspects like flow, structure, references, and overall argument. Conclude by reflecting on the evaluation/review process.

2. Present students with a problem and instruct them to use a generative AI for coming up with 2-3 potential solutions. They should then prioritize these solutions, explaining their reasons for each ranking. Furthermore, students should present their own solution, elucidating their choice after considering all the AI-generated options.

3. Students first write a paper and then use AI to review it, exploring feedback in areas such as flow, structure, grammar, clarity, argument, and the overall tone. Based on the AI feedback, students refine their work. Students need to submit their initial draft, AI’s recommendations, the revised paper, and a brief reflection on what advice they take or not and why.

4. In the AI Debate assignment, students choose a topic open to interpretation and use AI to formulate pros and cons. They then examine the soundness and depth of the AI-generated debates, determining which side appears more convincing. Then students challenge the AI’s arguments, pinpointing any logical fallacies, inconsistencies or uncited statements.

“Active learning through writing” emphasizes the instrumental role of writing in facilitating deeper understanding and engagement with the teaching materials. In the era of generative AI, writing can still be a transformative tool in the educational process, promoting critical thinking, reflection, and active participation in one’s learning, but it requires some shift in perspectives and redesigns. 

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