Vol. 5, No. 5 (Fall 2023)
Clare Bermingham, Director, Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo
This is part two of two in this series. The part one can be found here. CWCR/RCCR Editor
How should writing centres advise students and instructors on the use of GenAI in their writing and communication processes? This question has been front of mind for many of us who manage and work in university and college writing centres and learning centres. And there isn’t a single answer.
When making decisions about how to support students with GenAI, we, as writing centre leaders and practitioners, must account for our local contexts, the knowledges and stages of the students we tutor, and the learning goals or outcomes for particular learning situations or tasks. Our guidance for undergraduate students will be different than for graduate students. And multilingual students may have different needs than those whose home language is English. In this blog post, the second in the series about guiding students through this new landscape, I share questions and ideas to help writing centre colleagues take an inventory of their centres and institutional needs and prepare their tutors for encounters with GenAI in students’ work.
My best advice for my colleagues is the same advice we give writers: progress, not perfection. Do what you can. Lean on colleagues within your institution and outside it. Better to experiment with one platform than to try to learn all of them.
In the summer of 2023, I organized a roundtable discussion with colleagues Brian Hotson (Dalhousie U.), Michael Cournoyea (U. of Toronto), and Zoe Mukura (Saskatchewan Polytechnic) to talk about GenAI and writing centres. We heard from attendees that keeping up with GenAI developments is incredibly difficult. Writing centre managers and practitioners are already balancing teaching, training, and researching, and they are finding it difficult to also stay abreast of rapid increases in GenAI programs, applications, advice, and experts.
My best advice for my colleagues is the same advice we give writers: progress, not perfection. Do what you can. Lean on colleagues within your institution and outside it. Better to experiment with one platform than to try to learn all of them. Use the knowledge and expertise of tutors to understand how students are using GenAI, how GenAI can support learning and writing, and where its pitfalls are.
Questions for reflection and decision-making about GenAI:
The following is a series of questions to help writing centre practitioners consider how their writing centres and tutoring sessions can support student writers and learners. Discuss some of these with your student tutors, too.
Reflections on your Institutional Community
- What direction is your institution providing? Are there policies you need to take into consideration, a central role or committee that is coordinating activities, or other bodies you should connect with for guidance and resources?
- What advice are other academic support units, like the library or learning centre, giving about GenAI? Does your institution have bridge programs for learning or academic skills? Consider collaborating with others so as to provide consistent guidance about using GenAI, or asking other leaders or practitioners to review materials or resources you draft.
- What GenAI platforms and programs are available? Can you work with other people on campus to maintain a list and to experiment with different ones? Consider a community of practice with colleagues from your learning centre, library and information technology departments, as well as computer science faculty.
- What are you hearing from students? From instructors? Where are the gaps at your institution? Can your writing centre fill some of these gaps to assist and support students in this hazy landscape?
- Does your institution have a contract with a provider of software like Grammarly? Consider how that AI differs from platforms like ChatGPT or Quillbot and whether your guidance accounts for this.
Reflections on your Writing Centre
- What kind(s) of writing does your writing centre support? Academic only? Career or professional writing? Creative writing? In what ways will this change how students might use GenAI?
- Do you advise undergraduate and graduate students? Consider how your guidance will change for different groups and contexts. For example, an undergraduate student who is learning how to read and summarize effectively shouldn’t use GenAI for generating annotated bibliography summaries, but a graduate student might use a program like Elicit for a literature review. Or a graduate student could use GenAI for some tasks, like drafting conference proposal or a course work assignment, but they may not be allowed to use it for a comprehensive exam paper.
- Does your centre support learning and study skills? Can you consider guidance on how GenAI can support activities like reviewing class materials, studying, and creating practice test questions? Does your centre have a policy or position on linguistic diversity and justice? How does this impact and inform the ways that you will counsel students about using GenAI?
- Do you advise instructors on writing pedagogy and assignment design and assessment? Can you develop parameters for GenAI use for students at different levels? Do you have example assignments for using GenAI to support student learning? Can you parallel advice for instructors and students for a consistent approach?
- How does your centre approach academic integrity? How does GenAI use impact this? How can you educate students about potential academic integrity pitfalls with GenAI?
Supporting students with integrating GenAI (or not)
As our relationships with GenAI evolve, we’ll see more and more integrations with everyday platforms. Sometimes its presence will be invisible. But it’s not the calculator of writing, nor is it a replacement for writing and writing centres. We will continue to need humans with brains and feelings to engage in complex critical thinking that is nuanced and creative, to extend ideas and fill knowledge gaps, to think differently, and to teach with flexible pedagogies that scaffold learning and support the affective elements of student learning.
GenAI and the Writing Process
GenAI is a tool, and one that we should wield with care and consideration for our own and our students’ learning. To help with this, I’m pleased to share that the University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre’s “GenAI and the Writing Process” web resources are now available.
- GenAI and the Writing Process:
These resources were written with students in mind, but instructors at UWaterloo have found them to be very helpful for their own teaching and assignment design purposes. I hope you use and build on these in your discussions with students, instructors, and tutors, and as you develop materials for your centre. These are available for use and re-use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. (Please credit: University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre.)
Preparing tutors for working with students using GenAI
How do we best prepare our tutors for students coming to appointments with GenAI-generated content or assignments that allow the use of GenAI. Here are two possible starting points for talking with tutors about responding to GenAI content and questions they might consider for their sessions.
- You suspect the student you’re working with may have used GenAI in their work.
First, check whether the use of GenAI is permitted by the course instructor.
- If GenAI is permitted, try some of the following:
- Check for the permitted uses. Help students reflect on their process. Ask them why they chose to use GenAI for this. How did it help them? Did it hinder their process in any way?
- Did they edit or develop the generated text? In what ways? What elements needed changes and why?
- Help the student to assess the GenAI generated text or their amended GenAI text:
- What is working? What isn’t? Why?
- What are they surprised by?
- What’s missing? What needs to be added?
- Does it flow well? What is creating that flow? (Flow and connection between sentences and ideas is something that GenAI does well, and identifying these moves can help students.)
- Use the GenAI-generated text as a starting point for building a better text. Use it to brainstorm with a mind map or as a jumping-off point for freewriting. (See Christin Taylor’s blog article on freewriting in tutoring appointments for a guide on doing this well.)
- Talk to the student about the prompt(s) they used. Try it with them. How does changing the prompt create different results? What elements could they include to get better results? How can they use multiple responses from the GenAI to develop their own ideas and writing (Deans, Praver, & Solod, 2023).
- If GenAI is not permitted, try some of these approaches:
- Talk to the student and ask them about their . Listen to what they share. Reassure them that writing centre appointments are places where students can get things wrong. Help them understand the consequences of using GenAI if it’s not allowed.
- Trust them. At the end of the day, students make the decision about their work and their integrity. In my writing centre, we do not police academic integrity because appointments are places to make mistakes and learn. We talk, and we educate. We explain why integrity matters and the consequences of bending and breaching the rules. We focus on building the students’ confidence and skills to work on tasks on their own. The approach might be different in your writing centre, so ensure that you know what’s expected as a tutor.
- Work with the student to get them thinking critically about the work they brought in. Get them writing during the appointment. Help them feel confident about the writing and thinking they’re doing.
- If you feel pressured to give feedback on the work you suspect was generated by GenAI as a means of disguising its origins, then keep moving that analysis back to the student.
- Ask them to map out the ideas in the paragraph and connect them, build on them, expand them, support them with additional evidence; look for possible counterclaims.
- Ask them to analyze the language / discourse where it seems out of place for the genre. Why is it working or not working? How else could these ideas be conveyed?
- A student is given an assignment where GenAI use is an option. They come in with assignment instructions and want to know about using GenAI.
- Ask them what platforms they’ve heard about or used.
- Try GenAI out with them by using a different topic or sample assignment. This is an option I call : students try a similar task without it impacting their assessed or higher-stakes task to understand the technology’s capabilities or to see certain structures and moves in an exemplar.
- Work with them to explore and refine their :
- Be as specific as possible:
- Context: audience, writer, purpose, goal.
- Length, number of paragraphs, format, headings, etc.
- Bring your own ideas in from the start. What points should it include?
- Do you want citations? (Remember, these will be false/inaccurate, so they’re including them only for style reasons).
- Use double-quotation marks for key terms or phrases: e.g., “prompt design.”
- Avoid biased content: ask for arguments and counterarguments, pros and cons, arguments for and criticisms of, etc.
- Keep refining the prompt.
- Be as specific as possible:
- Ask for multiple examples in response to the prompt to compare and contrast content (Deans, Praver, & Solod, 2023).
- Help them decide how and in what ways they want to use GenAI. What are their learning goals. Where have they had difficulty in the past? Encourage them to start with small integrations, expand slowly, and stop at their comfort points.
What other scenarios can you devise with your tutors? Consider potential uses like translation, graphics/images for slides, studying and preparing for tests, creating a schedule to work on an assignment, etc.
One thing we can do, as writing centre leaders and practitioners, is to keep highlighting the importance of messy, hard, and productive writing processes for students, researchers, and scholars. We should be critical of the homogenizing effect of GenAI on diverse voices and Englishes…
Moving forward together
It’s well established that writing has value for learning and reflection, for creative and critical thinking, and for meaning-making between people that involves and impacts both the writer and the receiver. Conversations about GenAI are often focused, not on the processes of writing that bring value, but on what the technology produces. GenAI looks and sounds good, at least on the surface. It edits and polishes text quite effectively. It even organizes information into clear, logical categories, and effectively replicates the structures of known genres.
One thing we can do, as writing centre leaders and practitioners, is to keep highlighting the importance of messy, hard, and productive writing processes for students, researchers, and scholars. We should be critical of the homogenizing effect of GenAI on diverse voices and Englishes, and not privilege the “correctness” that is so easily achieved with GenAI over language variation and linguistic justice. GenAI is a tool—a good one—but it needs to be used productively and ethically in order to serve the learning needs of the students we work with.
As we continue to do our work in conversation, I urge us to stay open to different perspectives and to develop different expertise, so that we can lean on each other and learn from each other. I look forward to hearing what your approach looks like and what you’re developing for your writing centres, tutors, and students.
Deans, T., Praver, N., & Solod, A. (2023, August 1). AI in the Writing Center: Small Steps and Scenarios. Another Word. https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/ai-wc/
Taylor, C. (2023, August 14). The voyage out and the voyage home: Learning to trust the freewriting process in writing appointments. Canadian Writing Centre Review/ revue Canadienne des centres de rédaction, 4(4). https://cwcaaccr.com/2023/08/14/the-voyage-out-the-voyage-home/