How I convinced my students that I could tell if they used AI

Part of preventing students from using generative AI to do their work for them is showing them ways it can be helpful without violating academic integrity. I wrote about that process here. 

But another big part of keeping students from using the AI unethically, is convincing them that I will be able to tell they "cheated." This is how I showed my 9th graders that I could tell when they used AI to respond to a question. 

One of my colleagues came to me because she thought one of her students had used ChatGPT for one of the short paragraphs about a book we were reading as part of a novel study. We talked about the student, why they might have done that, why she thought it was AI, etc. And then I ran it through an AI detector. As predicted by this expert educator colleague of mine, it was flagged as entirely AI written. She pursued her own actions at that point, but I saw an opportunity. 

The Opportunity: 

I took the AI generated response and put it on a page with two other responses I knew my students had actually written. I printed out 18 copies of the page with the three paragraphs and gave it to my students in pairs. It seemed important to do this on paper.

This is the part where I was exceptionally clever. At first I did not tell my students why I really gave them this paper. I just said, "Here are some student answers I want you to review."

Then, I told them I wanted them to score those answers. I use a four point grading scale and students are always asking what makes an answer a 4. So, they thought they were working to understand what made one of those paragraphs better than the others. My students worked on this diligently for several minutes while I circulated and took an interest in how they scored various paragraphs. 

Finding the AI Paragraph:

Eventually, they wanted to know what scores I gave these paragraphs. I admitted that this activity was not really about scoring the paragraphs, and I asked them to look again and see if they could tell which was written by AI. I asked them not to say anything, but just to mark that one on their paper. Then I circulated again and noticed which paragraph each partner group had picked. All of them had correctly, quickly, and decisively identified the second paragraph as AI generated. 

They were quite proud of themselves when I said that all of them had picked the AI paragraph correctly. 

The Message: 

When they stopped congratulating each other and I had their attention again, I made my point very simply. I said, "If you can tell which one is AI that can I."

The room went quiet. I don't think very many of my 9th graders were planning to use ChatGPT, but for those who were considering it, I knew this would be a memorable moment. 

You Can Try This At Home (or at school):

You don't have to wait for a student to turn in work done by AI. You can use ChatGPT to generate an AI response to a short assignment and recreate what I did above, mixing two or three pieces of real student work with the AI writing. The trick is to make sure the AI version is grammatically perfect, but not that great of an answer to the assignment. You want students to be able to easily identify the AI part once you tell them that's the goal. Don't make that hard by using lots of real work examples. Three samples will make it easy for them to unanimously find the AI version. 


I think I am pretty good at knowing if a student plagiarized, or used AI to do their writing for them. But for this activity my goal was to show them that I could spot it easily. Their perception mattered more than my actual skill in this case. 


  1. Jen, this is so great, and an important conversation that I've been having with teachers across the country over the past weeks while facilitating AP Literature Summer Institutes. The solution isn't a total switch to in-class essays, a prima facie blunt response to an emerging tool, but to embrace it as a powerful tool that, in the right context and given the right guidance, has already started to revolutionize how we teaching writing in schools.

  2. Thank you Jen. Great website! This idea is great and I like your 9th grade introduction article. I got turned onto your work through Science Connections Podcast with Donnie Piercey. I am wanting to do my master's research topic on how to improve curriculum and instruction with AI. Any additional sources?

    1. Hi Jeff, to take this conversation further you'll need to find me on a place we can exchange private messages. My Twitter handle is @JenRoberts1, Threads is @thejenroberts and I'm in a few other places too including Linkedin. Track me down and I'm happy to talk further.

  3. Jenn, I do something very similar. I also use student examples that demonstrate the power of an authentic student voice, and contrast it with the superficial gloss of an actual AI-Generated paragraph that a student has tried to pass off as his own. These are two of my most recent examples, submissions from two students in the same twelfth-grade Advanced Comp class:

    Student #1: "Ambition, the relentless pursuit of power or success, is a pervasive theme in literature that often drives characters' actions and decisions. In William Shakespeare's tragedy "Macbeth" and Chuck Palahniuk's novel "Fight Club", ambition plays a central role in shaping the characters' destinies and driving the narrative toward dramatic conclusions."

    Student #2: "Humans love company. Everyone is trying to find friends and relationships. Even people who like to be lonely like to be lonely with other people who like to be lonely. These feelings are uncomfortable and when portrayed in media, it's easy for the characters to come off as cringy or unrealistic. But in both the film Alien and the book Fight Club, this is different. Both portray loneliness and isolation well but they display these feelings in two different ways. In alien, the lonliness isolation and fear happen to the characters in the infinite space Where in Fight Club, the alienation and fear happen to the characters in the infinite space of the human mind."

    I ask the students which one is more interesting; I ask them which sample is more cool, more creative. (I ask them which one has been written by a robot.) Sure, I admit, the second example needs a little spell-check, a little grammar refresh, a little polish, but which one do they wish was theirs? I point out that Chat GPT-4 is never going to take a chance on a fantastic sentence like "[e]ven people who like to be lonely like to be lonely with other people who like to be lonely." It really drives the distinction home to them. They realize over and over again how lackluster AI-generated prose is as well as how identifiable. It also gives me a chance to showcase what is so exciting about student's who find their own voice.

    Sorry for the long post, but I love your work. I've heard you speak at CUE, and this subject, in particular, resonates with me. I think these large language models can be so useful in the classroom, for students as well as teachers and students quickly see how fantastic these tools are when used as part of the writing process, and alternately, how bland they are when used to do the writing itself.


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