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Five Things to Know About Teaching Writing Skills in a World with Generative AI

Associate Professor Natasha Heny, who co-chaired a UVA task force on generative AI’s impacts on teaching and learning, shares her top five tips for writing teachers from K-12 through higher education.

Laura Hoxworth

Last November, generative AI exploded into the public consciousness with the launch of ChatGPT. Seemingly overnight, everyone was talking about how this technological leap would impact industries from healthcare to finance. Immediately, educators raised concerns about AI in the classroom. 

“When generative AI first came out, the people who were the most scared about it were the people who teach writing,” said Natasha Heny, an associate professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development.  

As a teacher education professor, Heny not only teaches writing skills, she also teaches how to teach writing. This summer, Heny co-chaired a UVA task force that investigated how generative AI, or language learning models (LLMs), may impact teaching and learning. The task force conducted town halls and a survey, compiled research from other universities, and ultimately produced a report summarizing their findings. 

In the report, they were unequivocal: “Starting this fall, student learning will take place in a world where AI is undetectable, ubiquitous, and transformative.” 

Here, Heny shares her top five thoughts and advice about generative AI for anyone teaching writing skills – from preK-12 through higher education.  

1. Now is the time for educators to get comfortable with AI 

The number one, most important thing for educators to know? The best time to dive in and get comfortable with generative AI is right now. 

Headshot of Natasha Heny
Associate Professor Natasha Heny co-chaired a UVA task force on generative AI's potential impacts to teaching and learning.

According to Heny, one major theme that emerged from the task force’s research was a general sense of confusion and anxiety among educators about how to approach AI in classrooms, largely due to educators’ own lack of knowledge about generative AI. “It’s so new that many people don’t know what it is or how it works,” Heny said. But “it’s there, and it’s not going away.”  

A large and growing percentage of students report using generative AI, often without much guidance. Heny stressed that teachers and faculty don’t have time to wait if they want to help their students learn to use it effectively. “The global nature of it and the speed of change outpace other technological advances,” she said.   

Working with generative AI is not just a skill, but a new type of literacy, Heny said, and educators need to inform themselves first so they can guide their students well. 

2. Assessment methods may need to change  

Of all the concerns surrounding generative AI, fear of students using it to cheat is among the greatest. Heny was straightforward that for many classes – particularly those that relied on writing assignments for assessment – methods will need to change.  

Don’t hang your hopes on AI-detecting software, either. Heny said that despite what some marketing messages may claim, there is no evidence that an effective tool is likely to exist anytime soon.  

However, there are ways that educators can adjust their syllabi to better assess students’ skills in a world with generative AI. One suggestion is to focus on the process of writing rather than the final product – have students write several drafts and reflect on why they made changes, for example. 

“When the calculator was invented, we still taught addition and subtraction,” she said. “You teach the processes and the concepts behind the addition and subtraction.” 

You can also have students do more on-demand, in-class writing, or design assignments where students work on skills that will become even more critical in the future, like fact-checking and editing.

Ultimately, many of these tactics are what good writing instructors already do. In her own courses, Heny said her students spend a lot of time doing on-demand writing and talking about the writing process in depth. Still, she has already made changes this semester to focus more on these skills. 

3. It’s not all negative  

Despite the many legitimate concerns about the impacts of generative AI, Heny said it is ultimately a new pedagogical tool – and that comes with upsides, too.  

If integrated thoughtfully and carefully, AI could even enhance creativity and critical thinking skills. For example, a tool like ChatGPT can offer students real-time feedback on their work, almost like a writing partner. “When you have a collaboration, you automatically have an expansion of ideas,” Heny said. “I think teaching students how to have conversations with AI can be helpful in getting them to push themselves to think in different directions.” 

Heny suggests that educators explore using generative AI to help students generate ideas and develop drafts. Educators can also use generative AI to produce models of specific genres, formats, or rhetorical devices for students to analyze.  

“When I think about good instruction of writing, I think about providing models for students so they can analyze exemplars of good writing in multiple formats,” she said. For example, persuasive writing can take many forms, including appeal to the emotions or using facts. Educators can pull countless examples of persuasive writing tactics in seconds by leveraging AI.  

4. There is more than one “right” way to incorporate AI in the classroom 

According to Heny, the right way to incorporate AI depends on the individual class and its specific learning objectives. While some teachers may want to look for cut-and-paste statements or policies that they can adopt and move on, Heny said it’s clear that no single policy or method will make sense for every class.  

Instead, teachers will need to look at their specific learning objectives to determine how AI can best support their students’ success. That’s exactly why it’s important that all educators educate themselves about generative AI. 

Ultimately, “the science of how students learn remains the same,” Heny said. It’s up to educators to use open-mindedness and creativity to determine how AI can best integrate into their individual classrooms. 

5. Institutional support is critical 

Teachers, whether they are in elementary school or higher education, shouldn’t be left to figure it out on their own. “All of the potentially positive impacts must have supports in place for them to occur,” Heny said. “That is really important.” 

Beyond concerns related to teaching and learning, Heny said schools and institutions will need to grapple with bigger ethical and legal questions involving issues like privacy and equal access. Teachers and faculty will need funding, technological resources, ethical guidelines, and policies to create an inclusive and supportive environment and navigate these changes together.  

In the short term, with so much still unknown about the impacts of generative AI, Heny said institutions can work to curate and direct resources for their staff and faculty – and most importantly, keep the conversation going.  

“I think the most important thing is that we keep talking about it and keep educating ourselves,” she said. 

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Laura Hoxworth