AI Formative Feedback: Quick Thoughts and Concrete Advice

So, there’s been a lot of buzz about AI as a source of formative feedback in student writing. This has only gotten more intense since the GPT-4o demo, which was clearly being pitched as a student learning aid.

Marc Watkins has a pretty great piece out this morning where he responds to some of this. Go read it if you haven’t. He does a great job of unpacking and calling attention to the larger labor situation that might make AI generated formative feedback both attractive and extremely problematic.

I want to take a slightly different angle than Marc on this. I totally agree that we must NOT reach for automated teaching. It’s unfair to our students and potentially disastrous for education. I also agree that the way students may find AI generated feedback useful as a way of “fixing” their writing fundamentally points to how students have been taught to (mis)understand their writing as “broken.” As Marc puts it, “the problem is writing doesn’t need to be solved or fixed. […] When you teach writing to learn, you don’t frame unrealized ideas, poorly worded sentences, or clunky mechanics as problems that are ticked off a to-do list to fix.”

However, while I absolutely agree that we should discourage the use of AI feedback in ways that reinforce rigid definitions of “fixed” and “broken” writing, I would suggest we also imagine a slightly different use case. Namely, that of a writer who understands their rhetorical situation and who has accurately diagnosed a “problem” they need to “fix” in that particular situation. Such a writer might be able to employ AI feedback to help them solve that problem, and that might be OK.

For example, I’ve been told by my students that my assignment instructions can sometimes be hard to follow. I’ve been resisting for awhile, but this summer might be the year I finally ask ChatGPT for help with that. I know my purpose, and I know my audience. Some pointers from the robot (who does tend to write clearly, even when it’s wrong) might not hurt.

Here’s another, more concrete example from my focus groups. I already discussed this in my big results post, but I’ll quote it again for clarity:

I do personally use AI a lot for sentence structure. I’ve always been told that my writing is super wordy. So I will put it into ChatGPT and say like restructure this sentence or write this sentence in a way that sounds academic and like is clear and concise and like gets the point across without, you know, being a run on or whatever. But, and while I do think, I do like that it’s a tool that’s able to help me do that. Do I wish I could do it myself with my own brain and figure it out myself? Yes. But I have the tool there. So it’s, and it’s kind of like, I’ve heard it, like I’ve heard in that sense, like I’ve heard that my sentences are wordy for so long. I’ve tried to correct it, consistently heard it. It’s like, at this point I’m like, I’ve worked on it. I’ve tried like all throughout high school before I used AI. So now it’s just like, at this point it’s a tool for me bettering my writing in the sense that it’s, it might be something that I’m not able to do. I’m just not able to learn to structure sentences in that kind of way without just like letting my creative side take hands.

There’s something really poignant about how the student sees their “creative side” as something they must somehow corral and control here, and I think that speaks a lot to Marc’s point about the way we tell students their writing is broken.

That said, this student is also clearly a thoughtful writer who has paid attention to the feedback they have been getting. They have identified a writing problem. They want to fix it, and this tool can help. I don’t think they are entirely mistaken to want that!

So, how could a writing instructor provide this student with the ability to shift from thinking of writing as “broken” or “fixed” and towards thinking of it in the context of a rhetorical situation? More specifically, how could they help them think critically and reflectively about their “wordiness” and make informed choices about when and how to “control” it? They might:

  1. Help the student think about the situation their writing is responding to (the fancy word is exigence), and ideas they need to communicate in that situation. What “words” are necessary to respond to that situation? Which might be superfluous?
  2. Help the student consider the needs of their audience, and the impact they want to have on this audience. Which words maximize that impact? Which distract from it?
  3. Help the student think about how to choose a genre that is appropriate to this situation, and the sorts of word choices typically made in this genre
  4. Help the student think critically about which words they might want to keep, and which they might want to lose given 1-3 above

I would stress, what we really want is for the student to internalize that process, so they can do it thoughtfully with or without machine help.

Those of you who teach writing in higher ed are probably screaming WE ALREADY DO THAT about now. Yes! I know, but we need to double our focus and align how we talk about writing with students (and our admin and fellow faculty), how we assign writing tasks to students, and how we assess writing assignments to match!

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