Revising From an AI Created Essay Draft: An end run around potential unethical behavior

I just finished packing up my classroom for the 23-24 school year; my 28th year as an English teacher. What a ride it has been. I'm not retiring, I just mean this last school year has been quite a ride. In 22-23 ChatGPT became a thing and students started to try using it. I started to try to guide them in ways to use it better. You can find previous posts about lessons for introducing AI and strategies for promoting academic honesty elsewhere on this blog. 

Ideogram: A high school English classroom of seniors
23-24 though, was the year we all took more than just a few cautious steps. A new group of students meant I had to start over with my campaign to convince them I can tell when they use AI instead of doing their own writing. Teenagers are natural risk takers, and that is generally a good thing, but it also means a few of them will take a risk and try using AI to cheat. Eventually, they believe me that they will probably be caught. I overheard one of my seniors tell a student new to our class, "Don't bother using AI for your work. She can always tell."

When we got to the end of the year though, senior apathy was high, attendance school wide was low, and motivation to put their best effort into their final high school English essay was just not there. I began to worry that some of my seniors, desperately behind because of absences, and lacking in motivation, would take the risk and over-rely on generative AI for their final essay about the value of life. 

I was considering this scenario in the context of a larger conversation teachers around me were having about ways AI could support the writing process. And I don't mean a metaphorical conversation. I was at a conference and teachers were actually talking about how to support writing in an age of AI. Someone suggested having students use AI for a first draft and then revising from there. In all likelihood, this is the direction writing is going in our society. AI will write many first drafts that will then be edited and refined by human authors. But, as an academic exercise, it would be challenging to 'see' the revisions made by the student and verify that the student actually interacted with their personalized AI draft. 

Then I had one of those lightbulb moments. I truly only have a really good idea a few times a year, but I am getting better at recognizing them. When I had this idea I knew instantly I could make it work, and that it would be good for my students. I waited until the experiment was over to post about it, but my confidence that this would work has been accurate. 

I did not let my students generate their own first drafts with AI. Instead I used ChatGPT myself to generate the first draft of the essay based on the prompt. I may or may not have asked it specifically to throw in some wacky details. 

The assignment my students got was to start with the draft I provided, and I told them it was AI generated. They had to change 50-90% of it. Leave me five comments in the Google Doc about things they changed and why. Add evidence based on course readings from the unit and make it at least 100 words longer. The draft they started with was under 400 words, so I wanted to see a little more of their original writing. 

At first, my students thought this would be easy, after all the essay was already written for them. They just needed to change a few things. In practice, the process was much harder than they thought it would be. They had to decide what to keep, what to cut, what to add, where to fit it in, and how to make it all work together. Many comments were made about how terrible the original draft was. I nodded sympathetically, but secretly I was rejoicing that they were finally grasping how foolhardy it is to rely on AI writing for academic tasks. Their productive struggle was glorious to behold, especially in May.

In the end, results of this experiment were somewhat mixed. (To be fair the results of many of the writing projects my seniors did this year were also mixed.) In general, students spent less time working on their essay, but produced better essays. This makes sense because they did start with a draft. Everyone was able to add evidence from course readings. Submission rates were higher, possibly because no one wanted to risk their grade dropping so close to graduation. The real win for me was their comments explaining what they changed and why. This gave me some useful insights in to their thinking process. 

I will likely do this assignment this way again next year. I don't think start-with-an-AI-draft is the kind of assignment I want to give often, and not at all in the fall semester. But, as a way to support a final writing assignment, throw a curve ball to students who might have thought they had perfected a Roberts-proof cheating strategy, and get insight into student thinking, this assignment, done this way, at this time, worked very well. 

Writing with AI is going to be a transferable skill our students will need. Knowing that the first draft of something written by ChatGPT will almost always need human revision is an important thing for my students to fully understand. And, no one tried to pass off AI writing for their own. I didn't have to call a single adult to tell them their student earned a 0 because of academically dishonest behavior a week before graduation. 


  1. Thanks for taking the time and effort to share this. I was really enjoying reading it, and getting increasingly excited to hear how it turned out when you said you probably would not always test this way.
    And then, I peaked!
    Not only does your example provide an interesting and ‘alternative yet risk free approach’, it demonstrates the importance of varying our assessments to enable us to provide an education that fits with the needs of the work environment they are heading in to.
    I’m loving it!


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