5 Ways to AI-Proof Your Writing Assignments

A student is writing something by hand in the foreground while other students study and work in the background.
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We spend a lot of time writing about the positive aspects of AI here at EdTech Evolved. But it’s probably disingenuous not to also address the elephant in the room that is AI-enabled cheating and plagiarism. Even as teachers become more comfortable with the idea of AI, many still feel like they are locked in a constant battle to compensate for and detect it when designing and grading assignments. Fortunately, the past two years have given us ample time to learn how to effectively “AI-proof” those assignments.

Large language models like ChatGPT are here to stay. With each iteration, their outputs are becoming harder to distinguish from human communications. Many schools have tried some form of “AI detector” software, but these programs are riddled with inaccuracies, lack transparency, and have proven to be inherently biased against non-native English speakers. In the arms race between AI-generated content and AI detection capabilities, the latter is miles behind, with no chance of ever closing the gap.

But what’s the alternative? If we can’t rely on technology to help us catch students in the act, how do we stop them from abusing these tools and making a mockery of our instruction? It’s easy to say “we need to change the way we approach writing,” but what does that look like in practical application? Here are five ways to AI-proof your writing assignments. We’ve even included some prompts and ideas for those who want to fight fire with fire by enlisting ChatGPT’s help for lesson design.

1) Break Writing Projects into Multiple Steps

The easiest way for students to game the system is to just ask for a completed essay on a given topic. By breaking projects down into multiple deliverables, both digital and non-digital, you can make it impossible for them to jump straight to an AI-generated solution.

For example, I used the following prompt to generate a five-step lesson plan. Students might be able to get help from ChatGPT for some of these steps, but not without putting in enough independent work to support their learning goals along the way.

Imagine you’re a fifth-grade reading teacher. Create an outline for a multi-step informational writing project, including: brainstorming activities for topic generation, drafting an outline, creating a rough draft, a peer review and editing step, and adding polish to the final draft. Include non-digital activities such as mind mapping wherever possible. Emphasize the importance of research and require students to identify credible sources.

You are welcome, of course, to tailor the above prompt to fit your needs. Focus on achieving the appropriate level of rigor and fitting the project within your time constraints.

2) Make it Personal

ChatGPT can be good at making up stories, but one thing it can’t do is replicate personal experiences. Ask your students to write about something they did or something that affected them. Then, validate their writing with follow-up questions. It won’t be too hard to separate those who are writing from the heart vs. those who enlisted outside assistance.

Potential prompts might include:

  • What was your favorite experience over the summer?
  • What is your favorite family tradition?
  • What is one accomplishment from the past year that you’re most proud of?
  • Write about what friendship means to you. Provide an example of a time when you were a good friend or someone was a good friend to you.
  • What is your favorite place you’ve ever visited and why?
  • What is one goal you want to achieve this year and how are you going to make it happen?

If you suspect a student of cheating on any of these assignments, you can further AI-proof this lesson by simply asking them questions that aren’t explicitly addressed in the text. When did this happen? What would you do differently next time? Who else was involved?

3) Get that Handwriting Practice In

One common thread emerging from science of reading legislation and state guidelines throughout the country is the need for more consistent explicit handwriting instruction as part of the daily routine (example from Wisconsin’s Act 20 vendor rubric shown below). While this is often emphasized in the early grades, it can also be a viable strategy with for those looking to AI-proof assignments for older students who might be more likely to turn to AI for assistance.

Screenshot of Wisconsin's ACT 20 science of reading rubric.

By requiring a handwritten first draft with in-class checkpoints, you can eliminate the possibility of AI assistance. Sure, savvy students might turn to AI for editing and polish, but that’s a skill we should probably be fostering and encouraging anyway. That’s not much different from autocorrect, which has been around for ages.

4) Localize It

Writing assignments based on school events or community happenings introduce obstacles that even the savviest students will have a hard time working around. Consider requiring students to write about their connections to the events. Did they participate in them? Do they know anyone who did?

One fun example we’ve heard from teachers is to build entire multidisciplinary units around writing prompts. You might, for example, explore a science or social studies topic as a whole-class, then assign group or individual projects to delve into different aspects of that topic. Ask students to write a three-part essay covering the preparation for the project or presentation, recapping how it went, and reflecting on what they learned. Not only is that the kind of thing ChatGPT can’t replicate, it’s also a fair approximation of many real-world writing applications.

Two elementary-aged students podcasting together.

5) Make it Multimedia

Not only is this a surefire way to AI-proof your lesson, it’s also something most students will find engaging. One approach this author has successfully tried with a group of fifth grade students was combining writing assignments with podcasts. Have students map out their key talking points, cite evidence, and script a powerful opening and conclusion. Then, give them free reign to have a brief conversation based on the research they’ve done. This works best in small groups of one, two, or three. There are many free podcasting options available. You can also “fake it” and avoid any privacy or security concerns by using a simple voice recorder.

Podcasts aren’t the only option. So many students now are already wrapped up in the streaming/YouTuber culture; why not give them an opportunity to be the star attraction? Script writing is still writing, and like the example in number 4, you can even incorporate some interdisciplinary topics to make the project even more impactful. Sure, it’s a little more work on the front end, but it’s a memorable experience. It can also help students feel more connected with their writing assignments.

Adjusting to a New Normal

As many predicted in the weeks and months following ChatGPT’s release, the fight against AI in the classroom is a losing battle. The long-term solution is not to catch and punish as many offenders as possible. We’ll need to change the way we approach instruction. Students have been cheating forever, with as many as 95% of high schoolers admitting to cheating in some capacity and 58% admitting to plagiarism in a 2002-2015 survey.

The key to curbing that behavior lies in understanding the motivations behind it. Weave ethical discussions into daily classroom routines. Keep students engaged by connecting with them on a deeper, more personal level. AI-proof your assignments and remove the incentives for cheating. The result will be a much clearer picture of your students’ proficiency and progress.

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