Adapting the Essay to Maintain Authenticity in the Era of AI

Directing students to summarize textbook information, plots, historical facts, and procedural sequences in the form of essays provides instructors with the ability to see how well students know something. The essay shines a light on a student’s inner thinking, their grasp of the material, and ability to form cohesive arguments. But now, in this era of AI-generated content being only a mouse click away, you cannot determine if an essay comes from the mind of your student, or a bot, with just a glance. AI content generators are only in their infancy, and they are getting better at what they do each day. They cannot reliably be blocked or detected. Let that sink in for a moment.

What are we going to do?

We have choices. First, if you are not concerned about constraining your students to craft essays with a limited amount of time in a controlled environment such as a testing center, then that option is available to you. But you should realize that this choice comes with a cost. Sometimes the cost is actual money as certain online students will have to pay a test-by-test fee for proctoring services. The cost could potentially affect your enrollment. If given the choice between two similar courses, one with proctored tests, and another without, some students are going to opt for the class without the testing center complication. The choice of a testing center does not address other essay-like activities such as discussion board responses and other writing assignments. 

An entirely different method of assessing writing and getting that inner view of your students’ thoughts involves changing the exact nature of the essay assessment. In addition to asking for a particular essay with your requirements, consider also requiring additional work samples and reflections from your students. As mathematics professors are apt to say, “Show your work”. The essay assignment then morphs into a series of submissions as the essay progresses from outline, to draft, to revisions, and finally to the piece that the student submits. This series of work snapshots would be accompanied by reflections on the evolution of the writing sample from beginning to end. You could ask a student to respond to prompts that you provide in addition to other insights the student had in the development of the writing. Examples of reflective prompts are provided below.

This second approach to essay writing comes with a few drawbacks but has huge benefits. Drawbacks? Well, you’ll have to change your assignments somewhat. You’ll have to provide directions for the number of developmental stages that you expect to see. You’ll have to communicate your expectations for the kinds and numbers of reflections you are grading on. You may also have to adjust your deadlines and stretch the amount of time devoted to a single writing assignment.

Reflective Prompts

  • Is the writing complete? If not, what elements are missing?
  • What arguments are you making? Is each point well supported?
  • Who is your audience? Does this essay speak to the level of your audience?
  • How are you supporting your statements and ideas? (Are your sources cited correctly)
  • What can be changed to improve this essay? Does it meet your goals?
A diagram of the writing process Starting from an outline, then draft, and a revision and feedback cycle before moving to a final
In general the writing process has several stages. Each point provides an opportunity for the student to explain their thinking and for you to provide feedback.

Benefits? The main benefit is that you are going to get a more authentic assessment of your student’s writing skills. We consider it a given that a writing sample that has undergone several revisions is going to be of better quality than one which is produced in haste near a deadline. With the requirement of a revision cycle, along with mandatory reflections, you are going to have much more opportunity to practice formative assessment. That is you’ll be able to provide your students with positive criticism. You’ll be able to point out flaws in thought or fact. You’ll be able to provide Socrative questions and turn your class into a Lyceum all while nudging your students towards mastery of the material. 

Upcoming Event

Interested in working with AI in your course? Join CTL for a 2-part workshop on Working with Artificial Intelligence in Higher Education on August 17 & 18 from 10 AM to 12 PM, location to be decided. There will also be an online option for those who would like to virtually attend. Reserve your seat for this event.

Dan Lasota

Dan LaSota

Instructional Designer
Certified QM Peer Reviewer
Certified QM Training Facilitator


  1. Thank you so much, Dan, for this piece. I was concerned about AI in student’s writing and had not read anything about it.

    I also like the Reflective Prompts.

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