Developing academic literacies in the era of artificial intelligence – part 2


A photo of Susan Robbins: Senior Lecturer in English Language (Sussex Centre for Language Studies)
Post written by Susan Robbins: Senior Lecturer in English Language (Sussex Centre for Language Studies)

This post follows on from an earlier post: developing academic literacies – part 1

If ‘write an essay’ is an instruction to students that follows a period of input on a particular topic, then students using artificial intelligence to complete or assist them in the task could easily disrupt that assessment mode. But if the process of researching and writing an essay is taught, the level of disruption is potentially lower and we could look for ways to incorporate the use of AI into the process in ways that are useful and ethical.

Academic writing and generative artificial intelligence (AI), such as Chat GPT

At the recent University Education Festival I took part in a discussion/solution room with the title ‘ChatGPT means the essay is dead’. AI has the potential to affect any mode of assessment, so why single out the essay? I suppose it depends very much on what we mean by ‘essay’ as to how disruptive ChatGPT may or may not be. If ‘write an essay’ is an instruction to students that follows a period of input on a particular topic, then students using AI to complete or assist them in the task could easily disrupt that assessment mode. But if the process of researching and writing an essay is taught, the level of disruption is potentially lower and we could look for ways to incorporate the use of AI into the process in ways that are useful and ethical.

Teaching academic writing using an academic socialisation approach

For several years I co-convened the core Academic Development module (AD) module on the Central Foundation Years programme (CFY) at the University of Sussex. This module was taken by up to 800+ students each year. The module was originally located in a ‘bolt-on’ position to the wider CFY programme, and opposition to this deficit model was evidenced by poor student evaluations. Focus groups and module evaluations showed that much of the students’ dissatisfaction centered around their perception of AD as ‘remedial’.

Due to the constraints relating to the way the CFY programme is structured, we were not able to adopt a full academic literacies approach (Lea & Street). Drawing on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning literature, we decided that an approach akin to the academic socialisation branch of the academic literacies concept would allow us to avoid a generic skills approach and would be realistic in the context in which we found ourselves. To enable this ‘built-in’ approach we engaged with CFY faculty to identify and develop areas of overlap and integrate (to the extent that we were able) the subject modules and AD, with the aim of helping students understand the ways ‘things are done’ in their discipline.

The main aim of the module is to teach discursive writing/argumentation – the ability to recognise an author’s argument as you read, and construct arguments of your own in both written and spoken work in ways that reflect disciplinary norms – a core process central to university study. In our experience, argumentation is a threshold concept (i.e. a concept deemed to be central to the mastery of a subject, or a ‘conceptual gateway’ that opens up ‘previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something’ Meyer & Land, 2003) for students new to university study. On the module, the research and writing process is broken into clearly identifiable stages and practice opportunities are provided at each stage which encourage students to view the writing process as iterative, take risks in their work and try things out and make decisions about what does and doesn’t work at every stage, and if necessary to go back and re-do aspects that were less successful. This approach is new to students leaving the school system and the transition required is substantial as they are required to think, read and write in entirely new ways.  

The use of a process approach

Having identified a theoretical base, we chose to design the syllabus using a process approach. This methodology is not a new or innovative one, as it was introduced in the 1980s in the discipline of English for Academic Purposes, but when students are expected to arrive with, or very quickly acquire, the necessary cultural capital and skills to succeed at university a process approach can make visible the things that are encouraged and rewarded in HE (see Haggis, 2006). It may not immediately be evident to students, for example, that staff assume they will:

  • read widely
  • find out how to make effective use of the library
  • be able to choose appropriate texts from the range on offer
  • know to/how to skim read over chunks of irrelevant texts to find what is relevant
  • be able to read and understand academic prose/journal articles
  • interpret the assessment task
  • have the confidence to work in ideas gleaned from their reading into their own writing

A process approach allows for explicit instruction in these academic skills.

In his introduction to the volume Academic Writing; Process and Product (1988) White noted that the process approach was prompted by the concern that ‘we should turn away from our preoccupation with the end product of a course of instruction and look instead at the psychological, social and intellectual processes that must be gone through on the way to that product’. It was overtaken by current genre approaches, but in this video (2022) Wingate argues for its return (alongside genre approaches). She talks about her examination of students’ research and writing practices and, like us, notes the success of those who adopted a process approach to writing to support their subject-specific assessment tasks. She also notes that while engagement with the process is key to developing successful academic writers, in encouraging a collaborative approach to teaching it can also move teaching interventions away from bolt-on, study-skill provision. David Munn, co-convenor of the AD module, elaborates.

The AD module includes a bespoke online resource, the Academic Writing Guide (AWG) which structures the process. It is an interactive web-based resource designed for self-access and is embedded into the VLE, where a weekly narrative about the process is elaborated. It offers students guidance, exemplars and practice tasks in the skills of finding, evaluating and connecting source material to the arguments they intend to make in their essay. It is separated into 3 stages and students submit work-in-progress at the end of each stage in order to gain feedback. This independent work is supported in weekly AD seminars. All of the module assessment is linked to the work that students do with the AWG.

Following each of the submissions tutors hold feedback dialogues, the purpose of which is to give actionable feedback/feedforward that allows students to adjust what they have done, do some more thinking/research, and be fully prepared for the subsequent stage. In this way we embed feedback-seeking opportunities and enactment within the curriculum to improve learning, develop learner autonomy and ensure quality standards are met. ‘Feedback needs to come before students submit their final task for assessment, so they have an opportunity to improve… Discussing qualities of work and how to produce it with students helps students develop a better understanding of what quality work looks like’ (Tai et al, 2018).

A focus on the human, emotional side of academic work is critical to students’ successful transition into HE. A process approach allows for conversations to develop in the classroom that give students an opportunity to voice ‘the struggle involved in writing at the intellectual and emotional levels as well as the struggle for recognition, “voice” and legitimacy’ (Burke, 2008). Students need time and repeated practice opportunities to make the transition to writing in ways required by their discipline. ‘Most students need three to four opportunities to learn something…but these learning opportunities are more effective if they are distributed over time, rather than delivered in one massed session’ (Donoghue & Hattie 2021). The process approach allows for the gradual development of students’ writing ability. It familiarises them with elements of the writing process such as the importance of planning, drafting, re-drafting and editing their essays, and allows them time to ‘get it’ before a final draft is summatively assessed.

Student feedback on the module has become more positive and there has been an increase in student satisfaction scores from module evaluation questionnaires year on year. There is evidence that integrating academic writing provision as part of subject curriculum in AD has helped to reduce the concept of ‘remedial’. Use of the AWG on the module has allowed us to go some way towards synchronizing academic literacy development with subject content exploration. Students engage with the research, reading, writing and thinking skills required by this genre of writing while applying disciplinary knowledge with a good degree of success. 

Six leaves of different colours, moving left to right from green, through to yellow, through to red.

The process approach and ChatGPT

The impact of generative AI in education is still unfolding. Over the course of the last half a year, by the time we’d worked out a potential response to ChatGPT for our own teaching context, the world of generative AI had already progressed. Much of the initial discussions have focused on assessment and academic integrity, with the concern that students will use generative AI to write essays or other assessment types. These concerns have parallels with those previously associated with the use of essay mills/personation. 

The current positioning of the AD module and the use of a process approach has allowed us to meet the QAA Guiding Principles for Assessment, including ‘assessment that encourages academic integrity’. We have been able to focus on sound academic practice in several ways. None of the regular low-stakes assessments, including the first draft of the essay, are submitted via Turnitin so that students do not have to fear being penalised (or humiliated) for plagiarism while they learn how to incorporate the work of others into their own. Feedback conversations about how well they are mastering skills and how to develop subsequent submissions support the continuing development of students’ writing and understanding of academic integrity. Students add a short reflective account at the end of each submission that outlines how they have taken feedback from previous submissions into account and prompts them to ask for specific feedback on the current submission – both reasonably resistant to personation attempts. Because the assessed elements form part of a portfolio and the final essay receives only 50% of the overall marks, students calculate that it is in their interests to submit all elements and are therefore in a position to receive regular feedback and support.

In his primer (2023) Michael Webb from Jisc UK’s National Centre for AI sees our main options with AI as avoiding it, trying to outrun it, or adapting to it. The next iteration of AI will likely involve A1 writing ‘co-pilots’ that will be directly embedded in Microsoft 365 – which we make available to all of our students – and be designed to assist writers in generating content. It seems to me that we therefore have a duty to adapt and to support our students in developing an understanding of how to use these tools that will be available to them throughout their studies and later in the workplace. This will involve rethinking how we assess. As Lodge writes, adapting is a more effective, longer-term solution but also much harder than the other two options.

Liu and Bridgeman (2023) note that a focus on a process approach has been foregrounded recently as a response to generative AI. It’s possible we may be able to identify ways to incorporate AI into the writing process in order to help students develop an understanding of how to use such writing support tools in ways that are ethical, and which don’t undermine the learning and skills that a graduate should master. Encouraging the development of students’ evaluative judgement (episode 11) or ‘the capability to make decisions about the quality of work of self and others’ (Tai, et al., 2018), may be even more important than it has been to date, as well as offering practice opportunities to evaluate AI generated text and model ways to engage critically with it.


Many of us have so far only a limited knowledge of generative AI. If we choose the ‘adapting to it’ option we’ll need to think about integrating the teaching of AI literacy into the curriculum, including teaching the practicalities of large language models and their ethical use, especially in assessments. If the essay is a useful assessment mode to teach threshold concepts such as argumentation, and if a process approach is employed to teach such concepts and to make visible the things that are prized in HE, it’s possible that the same pedagogic approach can accommodate a focus on the co-creation of text with AI.

We need to focus on the process of putting together an essay or other assessment, rather than on the end product. Students need to be taught how to manage the process and be given repeated practice opportunities in order to ‘get it’ before being summatively assessed. This shift in focus may create opportunities to move attention away from the use/misuse of AI and look again at the pedagogical underpinnings of how and why we assess students in our own context to see what role AI can play.

Reference list

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One comment on “Developing academic literacies in the era of artificial intelligence – part 2
  1. Martin Brown says:

    This is a great blog post which draws on some really useful ideas for teaching academic essay writing as an embedded and social approach in a school or discipline.

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