From Cheating to Critical Thinking: How AI in the Classroom Can Empower Students

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More and more of my 8th-grade English Language Arts students have been using AI chatbots like ChatGPT and Grammarly to complete their writing assignments. This is concerning for several reasons, not the least of which is academic dishonesty. While it’s not difficult to pick out an essay written by ChatGPT, it can be difficult to “prove” that a student did, in fact, use AI. In the long run, dependence on AI turns students into lazy scholars with weak critical thinking skills. I can’t be alone in my frustration with AI sneaking into the classroom this year. 

Rather than outlawing AI altogether, I have taken a different approach. My students will live and work in a world defined by artificial intelligence. Therefore, I have chosen to address the issue head-on. My solution has been integrating AI awareness with the Learning-Focused Instructional Framework that utilizes several effective learning strategies. 

Integrating AI Into Classroom Activities: What does it look like in practice? 

Listing my activities may not provide the context to understand how AI works alongside effective learning strategies to maximize students’ learning. Therefore, I will provide an example lesson, identify the embedded effective learning strategies, and conclude by discussing the impact on the students. 

Purpose of the Lesson: Write an Informative Essay 

One of our first writing assignments this year was a literary analysis of S.E. Hinton’s classic coming-of-age novel, The Outsiders. The prompt was to write an informative essay analyzing how Hinton used the characters, setting, or plot to develop the novel’s theme. This felt like a perfect opportunity to touch on AI use with my students. 

Activating Strategy: Analyzing AI-Written Essays Using Lesson Assessment Rubrics

I had my students evaluate two essays written by ChatGPT. Each essay was generated using the same prompt from above, but with the book’s title swapped out for works students read in 7th grade: Holes and The Hobbit. Students worked in groups to evaluate and provide feedback on the essays using the lesson assessment rubric. After scoring the AI essays, students answered a series of open-ended questions to reflect on the experience before finally engaging in a class-wide discussion. 

Not only were several effective learning strategies embedded in this activating strategy, but it enabled students to reach their own conclusions about using AI in the classroom. 

This Activating Strategy is an example of Previewing. Students were given a chance to look over the rubric and apply it to a writing sample before beginning the assignment. This increased their familiarity with the rubric and ensured they knew exactly what I was looking for once they started to write. Also, using novels students read the previous year activated their background knowledge. Since the students were already “experts” on The Hobbit and Holes, they felt qualified to evaluate the AI essays. Due to previewing the rubric and activating their background knowledge, students moved into the rest of the lesson highly prepared. 

AI Analysis with Small Group Learning (Social Learning Focus)

Secondly, having students work on the assignment in small groups is an example of a social learning focus. Each group filled out a single rubric. Students were required to discuss their decisions and reach a consensus as a group before moving forward, reinforcing critical social skills like collaboration. 

Incorporating Critical Thinking by Evaluating AI Texts

By having students evaluate the AI essays, they were engaged in Higher-Order Thinking. Evaluating is an example of analyzing and reasoning, found on the more rigorous side of thinking spectrums or taxonomies. Before beginning a writing assignment, students could be asked to simply identify the criteria on the rubric, but this would not have the same impact as asking students to evaluate a writing sample with the rubric. Any opportunity to increase the level of student thinking is a win! 

Writing to Raise Achievement: Reflecting on the Experience 

Finally, after evaluating the AI essays in groups, students were asked to reflect on the experience individually by answering several written response questions. Questions included: 

  • What did the AI do well? 
  • What did the AI do poorly? 
  • Should an 8th-grade ELA student use ChatGPT to write or assist in writing their essay? Why or why not? 

Student Responses:

Question #1: What did the AI do well?

“The AI had very good formatting and the evidence was very well presented in the second body paragraph in the second text. It was easy to read and made a lot of sense. I really think the paragraphs had great formatting and good transitions.”

“The AI did very well with making the Intro as well as the evidence and organization. It also used the Thesis and restated it in the final conclusion, which is something even I forget to do.”

Question #2: What did the AI do poorly?

“They didn’t do very good on giving the paragraphs any emotion. the paragraphs just felt boring to read and you didn’t feel any from them and the AI did not do good on transition words when they changed paragraphs. They just went straight into the next topic and didn’t ease into it.”

“In the first body paragraph of the first text the AI could have give a better explanation. It should have expanded on the explanation of the evidence. This could have been done by telling the reader why it’s important the Bilbo changed.”

“The AI didn’t really use any transitions between paragraphs or use very good textual evidence. The conclusion that is given doesn’t link up with any of the themes.”

Question #3: Should an 8th-grade ELA student use ChatGPT to write or assist in writing their essay? Why or why not?

“I would not recommend that an 8th grade student use an AI to wright essays. One reason I wouldn’t is because they skip out on some of the things your teacher might want you to do like background info or transition words. Another example is it doesn’t feel like a human wrote it because it doesn’t have the vocabulary or the structure a student might have. That is why I would not recommend that an 8th grade student use an AI to wright essays.”

“I do not think that students should use Chat GPT to write an essay. The reason for this is that AI is not good at checking off all of the rubric. I know this because me and my partner just graded an essay that the AI wrote and it was not good. The passage was terrible because it didn’t have any transitions, it didn’t indent, and the textual evidence was terrible. If students want to make a good grade they should not use Chat GPT.”

“I would not recommend that an 8th grade student use AI to write an essay for class. While AI like Chat GPT do a lot of things well in their writing, there a few aspects that tend to be weaker. They fail to use transitions and very obviously repeat things. The AI also tend to have a very distinct style and it tends to be very clear when an essay was not written by a real person. AI are good for getting ideas, and could be a good tool to help while writing an essay, but it is not a tool to be used for a full paper”

“I do not think that 8th grade student should completely use Chat GPT to write their essays. I think that it would be a good tool to get an idea of what you want to write but it is clearly written by an AI and there are so many hard to read paragraphs in these essays. If the essay is hard to read and very clearly written by an AI it could get the student an even worse grade than if they wrote it themselves. Therefor, no 8th grade student should completely rely on Chat GPT to write their essay.”

Research indicates that having students write across all subjects creates deeper connections with the material. Ending the activating strategy with a written reflection reinforced the learning. 

My Reflection

This activity worked great as an activating strategy. It combined several effective learning strategies and gave the students a clear idea of what was expected of them in the rest of the lesson. 

After completing the activating strategy, we discussed using AI as a class. Interestingly, none of my groups in any of my six classes gave the AI essays an A. The average grade fell somewhere in the high C to low B range. 

In their reflection, most students noted that the AI essays sounded good at first glance but ultimately failed to respond appropriately to the prompt or meet the rubric criteria. Students also noted the immense similarity between the essay on Holes and the essay on The Hobbit. The two essays had several sections that contained eerily similar sentences. Students agreed that editing the essays to adhere to the rubric and include their unique voices would be difficult. By and large, they expressed it would be simpler to write the essays themselves. 

While some of my students have continued to use ChatGPT dishonestly, I believe this activity opened their eyes to the limitations and hazards of AI. Ultimately, every school district must decide how to approach how to best incorporate the use of AI. Regardless of what that policy looks like, I believe it’s essential that students are being pushed to understand the limits of this new technology and how to use it responsibly.

Questions to Ask

  1. How can this activating strategy be adapted to other subjects besides English Language Arts? 
  2. Could similar exercises be created to analyze AI-generated content relevant to science experiments, historical events, or mathematical problems?
  3. Beyond identifying limitations, did the lesson explore the potential benefits of using AI for writing? 
  4. How did you address the students who might continue using AI for dishonest purposes despite the activity? 
  5. Did you consider having students generate their own writing samples alongside the AI-generated ones for direct comparison? 

Actions to Take

  1. Develop a library of AI-generated content across various subjects. This resource could be used for future activating strategies in different classes.
  2. Create a lesson specifically focused on the responsible use of AI for writing. This could involve exploring trustworthy AI tools, learning about citation practices for AI-generated content, and practicing ethical integration of AI into writing projects.
  3. Collaborate with the school administration to create a clear policy on AI use in the classroom. 
  4. Share your experience using AI with other educators. 
  5. Continue to monitor student use of AI and adapt your teaching strategies as needed.

Brooks Mendenhall

Brooks Mendenhall teaches 8th grade ELA and coaches boys soccer at Dade Middle School in Trenton, Georgia. He attended Abilene Christian University where he graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in History. After graduating college, he relocated to Chattanooga, TN, and received his teaching license from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His five years in education have been heavily informed by Learning Focused Schools. Early in his career, he worked closely with his content partner to align the 8th-grade social studies curriculum at Dade Middle School with the LFS framework. This early introduction to LFS and curriculum development left a lasting impact on his pedagogical approach.

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