Students using AI in the language classroom – should you be worried?

Students using AI

If you’ve been following any teachers on social media, you may have seen concerns about students using AI to cheat on assignments and tests. Some of the AI programs that are available are pretty amazing and will definitely be tempting for our students – but is this something we should be worried about as world language teachers? I’ve tested out some of the AI programs and will share my findings with you here, as well as what we might find AI useful for as teachers.

Why are students using AI?

The students using AI are using it for the same reasons everyone else uses AI – it can make tasks easier. If a student needs to write an essay, we’ve all seen what happens in every class – at least one student will copy and paste the Wikipedia entry into their document and then turn it in as their own work. Sometimes they won’t even bother to change the fonts, so you end up with the URLs being in blue or underlined. Some students do this because they are lazy, others because they think that their own work is not going to get a good grade, or because they just don’t care and assume you won’t figure it out.

AI can be used to write many things – code, emails, social media captions, short stories and yes, essays. Students tell the AI to “write an essay about George Washington” and in just a minute or two, they will have a complete essay ready to turn in. These AI-generated essays will not always be caught by plagiarism checkers. There are new AI-checkers being developed that will scan for whether or not AI was used, and teachers should probably find one that they feel comfortable using and run student work through that. But you might not even need the AI-checker to determine whether or not one was used.

AI can just as easily write in French or Spanish or any other language as it does in English. So don’t think that your class is exempt from this problem – students will definitely figure out that they can use it to write a French essay! Just as teachers can usually tell that a student has used Google translate, you will likely be able to identify students using AI to write their French homework. There are a few tells, as you will see in the next section.

How can I identify students using AI?

I tried a few different AI options to see what sort of results they gave me. There were a few things that would be dead giveaways of students using AI to write their responses. The first – to no surprise of teachers who have been dealing with online translators for years now -is that the level will be off. Your first-year students who struggle with -er verbs in the present tense will somehow, amazingly, figured out how to use the passé composé and imparfait correctly – or even better, the subjunctive! Their vocabularies will have expanded in ways you never imagined. In short, it’s just too obvious that they didn’t write the text.

I would suggest that every teacher tries out AI to get an idea of what AI-generated text looks like. Ask it to write a passage on a topic, then read the output. After doing several different topics you will notice that the AI-generated text has a certain sound. It uses specific words and phrases more frequently than you would expect. I had AI write a few passages about various things and found that it overused certain words – (également, specifically) and that in some cases entire sentences. In any case, it won’t read like something your students wrote.

The other way that you can identify students using AI in some cases will be that the information simply isn’t accurate. Of course, if they are writing a fictional story or answering questions about themselves, you won’t necessarily be able to check. But if they are writing about a biography of a famous person, or a non-fiction topic, there may be things that are simply wrong. While these could be a sign that the student just has poor research skills, it could also be a tell that they are using AI.

What can I do about students using AI?

You will want to have a policy in place for students using AI, similar to whatever policy you have for online translators. In my classes, I don’t mind if students look up a word on a translator, or if they use the translator to check their own work after they’ve written it. Anything more than that, they get no credit. Sometimes if I’m not 100% certain that a student has cheated, I’ll ask them to translate a few words or sentences from their work. While AI can be useful in a non-cheating way, you will want to be upfront about your policy about students using AI in your classes.

What about teachers using AI?

While we may not want our students using AI to do their work, it’s not all bad. AI can be used to find inspiration for topics to write about and you may use this with your classes. Sometimes a student is stuck with writer’s block, and AI can help. AI can also help students improve their writing – you can have them write a first draft, then use AI to improve it. In these cases, AI is being used as a tool rather than replacing the learning that needs to take place.

As teachers, AI is not a bad thing for generating comprehensible input for your students. It can make short (or long) reading passages, short stories, and more. If you don’t have time to make up a story each day, or you are looking for a way to differentiate, this can be a godsend!

Making a story: You can tell AI to make a story for you using specific vocabulary words. For example, if we’ve been studying the words fort, oiseau and il n’aime pas, you could tell the AI program “Write a short story of 140 words in French using the words fort, oiseau and il n’aime pas” and the program will spit out a story for you. You may not be able to use the story as-is, but you can use it as a starting point for your story.

Assessment passages: If you have reading passages that you use on assessments, you may need a variety of versions to use for retakes and make-up. You can share the original passage with AI and ask it to re-write the passage. Do this 2-3 times and you will have multiple versions that can be used as needed.

Study guides: You may find that AI generates clear explanations for difficult topics. After you’ve taught a concept, you can ask AI to make a study guide for the topic. It will make a guide – often with numbered steps – that you can then share with students. This is perfect for students who want to review or who were absent. You might even have students generate their own study guides this way. This is also a good way to reach students who may not have understood your explanation – sometimes just seeing something stated in a different way can help.

Differentiation: I mentioned above that students turn in work that is too complex to have written it themselves. But you can actually change the level of complexity if you know how to give the right command! Instead of saying “write a passage in French” you need to be more specific. Some AI programs work better than others for this, but I’ve found that if you use commands like “write a 200 word passage in CEFR level A1 French about monkeys” it will give you a fairly simple passage.

This means that you can make multiple versions of the same topic for different levels or even students in the same level – change the word length, change the CEFR level. This is great for your slow-processors, your honors students, your fast finishers – you can give them all something they can do at their level. I have found that CEFR levels work better than ACTFL levels, so take a look at them and determine what works for your students.

Long-term effects of students using AI

If you hate the idea of AI and want to ban it completely from your classroom, I understand. It’s scary to see something that is such a big game-changer. Unfortunately, this is something that we aren’t going to be able to stop. AI is being used by professionals to make their jobs easier, and many students will likely be using it as well in their future careers. Students using AI is going to be something that we will have to deal with in the future, especially as it becomes easier to use.

Keep in mind that even the best AI is still not the same as a human writer. Just as Google translate didn’t replace us as teachers in the classroom, AI will not replace students taking language classes. It is important for us to understand the tools available and make it clear to our students when it is appropriate to use them and what uses are appropriate. Knowing the limitations of the technology will help us to make that argument to students.

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