Embrace AI tools to improve student writing

Rather than trying to keep it out of the classroom, here are ways faculty can facilitate more effective use of ChatGPT for writing assignments

Pamela Bourjaily's avatar
University of Iowa
5 Dec 2023
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Business students writing prompts for AI

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It can be easy to assume that our students are more tech-savvy than we are, but simply using a tech tool doesn’t mean that you’re using it well. When I introduced using ChatGPT for assignments for my business students in February 2023, it quickly became apparent that they didn’t know how to get the best outputs. They tended to think they could treat ChatGPT like a Google search and get their output in just one or two clicks – but, garbage in, garbage out. Teaching better AI prompting helps students find the treasure instead of the trash in their AI writing.

Emphasise the importance of input

Given the option to revise an AI-generated document with AI or to rewrite it from scratch, students last spring were choosing to rewrite it. I realised that for the fall I needed to teach students how to use the tool better, and that to get better outputs, they needed to improve their input. AI has the potential to make business writing more efficient, but to get to that point, we need to take the time to figure out how to get the AI to produce the most relevant output to meet our needs. If we’re lazy with it, it will be lazy, too.

Create an AI prompting plan

Business writing is particularly suited to AI tools such as ChatGPT because it follows a structure and has clear goals. Providing students with a guide for generating AI helps them to hone their input. I found the information that Rob Lennon posted on LinkedIn on prompt generating for AI assignments helpful. I have my students follow a standard prompting plan, with seven categories to fill out for generative AI. Their plans must include:

  • Role: tell the AI who to be. What is its role?
  • Task: summarise what the AI should do. What do you want from it?
  • Requirements: establish what the AI output should contain. Be specific; tell it what to include
  • Context: establish the intended audience. Are there other situational particulars?
  • Constraints: are there any restrictions or limitations for the AI to know about? Be explicit about what not to include
  • Goal: what should the output enable the intended audience to do or to know? How do you want the audience to feel?
  • Format: include word limits, headers, number of paragraphs and so on.

Ask students to follow up to improve generated content

To improve the quality of their prompts, I also require students to review the output they get and then ask the AI some follow-up questions. Those questions could prompt more information. Sometimes students have to specifically remind the AI to do something that was requested in the first round of prompting but was not delivered.

Let AI assist with hard-to-teach topics

Audience analysis remains the key writing learning objective in business communication, and it’s something students struggle with most. AI can help. Students can ask it questions about what a particular audience may need or expect to help the AI shape the input. I want students to use their AI prompting to assist them in better meeting the needs of whoever is the intended audience for the assignment. They must think about what the intended audience expects or wants from the document so they can filter out AI output that is irrelevant to the intended audience, either because it contains information that an audience would already know or information they would not necessarily care about.

Stress the importance of collaboration with AI

Students can and should ask the AI for advice or guidance. I am focusing on having them regard writing with AI as a collaborative process, so seeing the AI as a writing coach or tutor as well as a writing partner is an attitude I am trying to encourage. To reinforce that focus on collaboration, I give students time in the classroom to work on their prompting plans in small groups, and I encourage them to compare what kinds of output they get when giving the same prompts to different generative AI programs.

Take the pressure off yourself

AI work can replace other parts of the curriculum. For me, incorporating AI takes up about 10 per cent of my instructional time. I had to be upfront with myself and acknowledge that if I was going to integrate AI into what I was doing and teach this technology in a way that gives students the skills they need, I had to let some things go.

Teaching students how to prompt empowers them to harness the capabilities of this revolutionary technology and sets them up for success in meeting employer expectations for effective communication. It also gives you an ally in the classroom, encouraging students to be more process-oriented in their approach to writing and reflective in how they think about their use of technology in communicating with others.

Pamela Bourjaily is the associate professor of instruction at Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa.

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