ChatGPT Series — #3: ChatGPT in Academic Writing: Ghost-Writer or a Tutor?

ErasmusX
4 min readJul 5, 2023
Written by Milan V and Jonathan Flores | Image created using Adobe Photoshop Generative Fill

With ChatGPT now available to everyone, students no longer have to think.

So claims Owen Kichizo Terry in their recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Terry is a first-year undergraduate student. In a sea of pieces written by educators, their essay stands out as it comes not from reports and assumptions about student experience, but from a first-hand account of using ChatGPT as a student.

Terry comes down on the side of ChatGPT being readily used by students to plagiarize; even worse, to use it in ways that directly undermine the learning process. According to Terry, most academic-integrity expectations become “laughably naïve” in the face of ChatGPT, resulting in student writers going through the writing process with “zero brain activity”.

It’s easy to visualize jaws dropping and heads shaking as educators around the world read these lines.

The main point Terry makes is that “it’s very easy to use AI to do the lion’s share of the thinking while still submitting work that looks like your own”. From that premise they come to the conclusion that students use ChatGPT to outsource the bulk of the thinking process — something they come to the university to develop in the first place.

The interesting part is the example Terry shares from their own experience. They acknowledge that the simple way to use ChatGPT for writing an essay is to hand it a prompt and have it generate an essay. But a savvier way to go about it, they say, “is to have the AI walk you through the writing process step by step”.

Let’s go through Terry’s step-by-step process:

Step 1: Enter the prompt in ChatGPT and ask for a few options for a central claim — then pick one claim to work on

Step 2: Ask ChatGPT to provide an outline of the argument paragraph-by-paragraph to support the claim

Step 3a: Ask ChatGPT to offer tips on how to argue each step of the argument, and then write each paragraph yourself according to those instructions

or

Step 3b: Ask ChatGPT to draft each step/paragraph, and then rewrite them yourself

Ah.

Student here may not have done all the work, but that doesn’t mean they did not put in sufficient work to learn and grow as a writer. Learning — including learning to write — often involves working within a given structure, following templates, or even replicating procedures. In sports, athletes go through extensive sets of highly-structured conditioning exercises before stepping onto a field. In chess, players analyze and then practice the strategy of other players. And in expository writing itself, working within a predetermined structure (practiced by the use of writing templates), following a preset direction (learned through prompts), and editing (improved by the recurring cycle of revision and reflection) are all necessary skills to internalize through practice before one can move on to more creative and original work.

ChatGPT did indeed do some of the work for Terry: coming up with the main thesis, creating an argument structure, providing tips on the content. But there was still considerable work — and learning — that Terry conducted themselves: choices were made, evaluation conducted, and then actual writing and/or editing practiced. Terry’s three-step process hardly reads like a convincing case for zero thinking. On the contrary, they appear to quite competently meet some of the expectations of first-year academic writing.

So, it seems that ChatGPT did not enable Terry to circumvent critical-thinking skills. Rather, it helped them practice and apply them. It provided structural elements and procedural advice and then asked Terry to use them to complete the task. It thus played the role of a writing tutor. Only it did not come across as a tutor since it relinquished the authority position that tutors typically hold — throughout the process Terry was firmly in control. By doing so…

…dare we say ChatGPT tricked Terry into learning?

Of course, not all cases of students using ChatGPT for academic essays match Terry’s experience. But Terry’s is an interesting case study to help us think about ways to use ChatGPT in teaching and learning as a tool to promote rather than undermine critical-thinking and academic-writing skills. It can act as an advanced chatbot that provides individualized support through the writing process, which is something students often lack but can significantly benefit from.

Of course, results may vary. Also, the number of students who use ChatGPT in advanced ways such as those that Terry outlines appears to still be quite low, so this experience is hardly typical without providing training for students on how to adopt it. That opens a slew of follow-up questions, which we will leave for another time.

For now, let us end by stating where we agree with Terry — another point that will be worth taking up in more detail later on. We do need to engage with ChatGPT and shape ways to integrate it into teaching. Terry’s is a good case study that can be used to experiment with and to develop more structured approaches. But the fact that ChatGPT can be integrated into courses doesn’t immediately translate into having to transform all courses into ChatGPT-powered teaching. There is value — even necessity — in working on a parallel path: that of shaping learning routes that explicitly exclude use of ChatGPT, such as in-class writing activities, oral presentations/exams, or team-work in real time.

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