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Talking to Students about Purpose in the Age of AI

If you have a strong purpose in life, you don’t have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there.”― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

AI generated image of a robot "talking" to a group of students

In today’s digital age, students have access to a wealth of technological resources, including advanced language models which can generate generic written text efficiently. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been with us for a while but the emergence of the accessible and capable large language models like ChatGPT prompted an urgent need for us to radically change the way we talk to students about the purpose of learning to write for themselves. Some faculty are focused on policing students who take advantage of these tools but the reality is that not only are these models going to become increasingly more capable and harder to detect, the jobs of the future may require students to be able to work alongside AI systems.

John Orlando wrote in Faculty Focus (Orlando, 2021) that we need to encourage students not to focus on their grades, but on the development of their abilities. While AI tools can be beneficial in certain situations, it is crucial to communicate to students the significance of learning to write for themselves. Encouraging them to develop their writing skills can have several profound benefits that go beyond what AI can offer. Here are some reasons why talking to students about this is essential:

  • Critical thinking and creativity: Writing is a cognitive process that stimulates critical thinking and fosters creativity. When students write for themselves, they engage with their thoughts, ideas, and emotions, honing their ability to think critically and creatively. This process helps them articulate their unique perspectives and develop their voice, which is essential for personal and academic growth.
  • Deep understanding and retention: Writing about a topic requires students to delve deeper into the subject matter. When they take the time to craft their ideas on paper, they develop a more profound understanding of the material, leading to better retention of knowledge. This active learning process enhances their academic performance and prepares them for more significant challenges beyond college.
  • Communication and empathy: Effective writing goes beyond grammar and structure; it involves connecting with the audience on an emotional level. Encouraging students to write for themselves helps them develop empathetic communication skills as they consider the perspectives and needs of their readers. Such communication abilities are valuable in their personal relationships and future professional endeavors.
  • Adaptability and versatility: As impressive as AI language models may be, they have limitations and may not always produce appropriate content. Teaching students to write independently allows them to adapt to various writing situations and formats. They become versatile writers capable of adjusting their style and tone to suit different audiences and purposes.
  • Ethical and responsible use of technology: It is vital to foster an understanding of responsible technology usage in students. While AI language models can assist in writing tasks, they should not replace the students’ own efforts and originality. By encouraging them to write for themselves, you promote academic integrity and ethical use of technology.
  • Personal growth and self-expression: Writing is a form of self-expression that allows students to share their thoughts, experiences, and emotions with the world. Through writing, they can explore their identity, understand themselves better, and reflect on their personal growth throughout their college journey and beyond.
  • Real-world application: The ability to write effectively is a crucial skill in any professional field. Regardless of their chosen career path, students will likely encounter situations where they need to communicate through writing, whether it’s composing emails, reports, or proposals. Strengthening their writing skills prepares them for success in their future careers.

Incorporating discussions with students about the purpose of learning to write for themselves can inspire students to take ownership of both their writing process and their learning. By helping them see the value of developing their writing skills beyond the capabilities of AI and simply getting the grade they need, you empower them to become more confident, versatile, and expressive communicators in both their academic and personal lives. In fact, the very purpose of awarding summative grades is to measure and reward the achievement based on the work of learning rather than the end product itself but students rarely see it this way because of the impact of ‘bad’ grades on their progression through college. In the era of artificial intelligence that can easily structure and write a standard college essay it becomes imperative that we talk to our students about what they stand to gain from developing their own skills in writing rather than use a tool to do it for them simply to get the grade they need to move forwards.

Talking to students about the purpose of their college degrees has always been important for motivation towards learning. Purpose is also a key aspect of transparency in learning and teaching (TILT, 2023) but it is now critical if we want our students to engage in the work of learning particularly with respect to developing their own writing. Below are a number of different ways to approach discussing the purpose of learning to write with your students in any discipline. They all have value and could be employed individually or together depending on relevance to the course in question.

  1. Success in their current course. Describing in full how an assignment will help students meet a specific learning objective and therefore be successful in the course is a great first step. Many faculty go over this in person but not necessarily explicitly in the assignment itself which is where students who miss the explanation or zone out during it will go for information. This helps students not see an assignment as busy work because they understand the purpose of it for their success in the course.
  2. Success in a sequence course. The expectations of students increase as they go through their courses in sequence and continue to grow and develop. Outlining how the assignment will help students in a sequence course can also help students see the purpose of developing the ability themselves.
  3. Success in their degree. Students infrequently have the global view of how the learning in each course adds up to successful degree completion. Describing the purpose of an assignment for student success long term in their program can be really powerful for motivating students towards doing the work of learning.
  4. Success in their careers. Whatever the career, employers are looking for students who can speak, write, and work in teams. Articulating carefully the purpose of the assignment for helping students achieve successful careers long term can also be motivating for students to develop their own skills rather than relying on AI tools.
  5. Success in their lives. Speaking as someone who never mastered mathematics, some subjects just cannot be avoided in life! Writing is as key to life as it is to both college and career. Talking to students about the purpose of being able to write to say, land the job or partner of their dreams, can also motivate those who would otherwise take the short-cut when offered.

AI language models can be a valuable tool to complement students’ writing efforts, but they should never replace the rich experiences and benefits that come from crafting their own words and it is our job to show them why this is the case.


TILT (2023). TILT Higher Ed

Orlando, John. (2021) Use Revise and Resubmit instead of Extra Credit. Faculty Focus.

Adapted from

Marina G. Smitherman

Dalton State College