When is using artificial intelligence to write your student essay cheating?


Artificial intelligence writing software is now good enough to write decent student essays. If a student turns in such an essay, is that cheating? And what are we going to do about it?

Aki Peritz wrote about the problem in Slate and Jeff Schatten pondered it in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Both pieces include some samples that indicate that AI writing software systems like Sudowrite and GPT-3 can create essays that raise points and connect them in a human-like way, for pennies.

Here’s what Sudowrite created, prompted with the first few sentences of my book Writing Without Bullshit (the words in italic are mine, the rest is from the AI writing software):

The tide of bullshit is rising.

Your email inbox is full of irrelevant, poorly written crap. Your boss talks in jargon and clichés. The Web sites you read are impenetrable and incomprehensible.

Bullshit is a burden on all of us, keeping us from getting useful work done.

It’s time to get rid of this burden.

Bullshit belongs in the trash.

This book is about how to recognize bullshit and avoid it. But it’s not just about bullshit. It’s about effective thinking in general. Logic, evidence, clarity, and plain-spoken common sense—this is what we need to thrive in our world. We need to spot the slippery stuff and keep it out of our mental lives. So let’s begin!

Chapter 2 How to Know When You’re Being Bullshitted

IN THIS CHAPTER: How to detect bullshit Is bullshit the same thing as lying? What’s the difference between bullshit and spin? Is bullshit really a problem? When it comes to bullshit, context is everything. Who’s speaking? What’s the situation? What’s at stake?

What are the alternatives?

People tell half-truths, fudge facts, exaggerate benefits and downplay costs, omit inconvenient truths, and otherwise spin information to suit their particular audience and objectives. This is often done with conscious intent. A liar is someone who knowingly wants you to accept false information. Bullshitters may be just as devious, but they’re often self-deceived as well. They’re usually sincere in wanting you to believe what they say.

Many people dismiss bullshit as harmless and irrelevant. Indeed, bullshit seems to be everywhere. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean it matters. Plenty of obnoxious things are omnipresent but not especially important.

In fact, bullshit is a real and pervasive problem. Its pervasiveness does not make it benign. Like the pervasiveness of fashion models, it’s a symptom of something else. Bullshit is something that gets in the way of clear

My skin is crawling right now. This is just rambling, but it’s not horrible and incomprehensible rambling. It sounds like a middling student essay. And as AI software gets better, these AI-written essays are going to get better, too. So it’s time to decide what is ethical and what to do about it.

When is using AI software cheating?

We all use software to help us write. Microsoft Word will point out when you’re using passive voice and when subjects and verbs don’t agree. Gmail will make suggestions of how you complete sentences. We don’t think of these tools as unfair.

But it’s clearly unethical to present work you didn’t create as your own. So just cutting and pasting AI output into an essay and turning it in is dishonest, in exactly the same way as it is dishonest to hire another writer to write your essay and turning that in as you own work. Where should we draw the line?

To answer that question, ask yourself, what is the purpose of an essay assignment? It is some combination of the following:

  1. To require the student to do relevant research, using available tools (such as Google).
  2. To require the student to analyze the research, find themes, and assemble them logically.
  3. To prod the student to come up with their own ideas.
  4. To require the student to assemble words and paragraphs into a coherent set of sentences forming a logical argument.
  5. To enable the teacher to assess the student’s performance.

So the purpose is mostly to drive the student to learn about the topic at hand, how to do research, and how to write, and at least somewhat to enable the teacher to see what they have learned.

The purpose of essay assignments is also to train students to write in the ways they may need to write in the workplace — where skills in research, analytical thinking, and writing are also valuable. As commentators like John Warner have shown, college isn’t doing this particularly well, but it should still be a goal.

Given those goals, I suggest a simple principle regarding cheating:

Tools that help you write well are acceptable.

Presenting the output of tools that write for you as your own work is unethical.

So none of the following are cheating:

  • Using research tools like Google Scholar to find relevant research.
  • Using the links in a Wikipedia page to find sources.
  • Clipping text from published works and citing them appropriately with credit and references.
  • Using tools like Grammarly to check your work for errors.
  • Getting another student to read your work and make suggestions for improvement.
  • Brainstorming ideas with others.
  • Looking at previously published essays to get ideas.
  • Looking at AI-written essays to get ideas.

But all of the following are cheating:

  • Paying someone to write an essay for you.
  • Turning in an essay that someone else wrote previously, even if you edit it.
  • Clipping prose passages from anywhere other than your own work and pasting them in, even if you reword them.
  • Using AI tools to write an essay, even if you edit it before turning it in.

The first set of tools will help you write, and learn to write. They make you smarter. And not coincidentally, they’re the same sorts of tools you would use in a workplace.

The second set of tools do the work for you. They make you lazy. You won’t learn much from them, and you won’t be better prepared to write once you leave the university.

How to catch cheaters

Plagiarism checkers like turnitin compare essays to published work. But other kinds of cheating are more difficult to catch. There’s no simple way to identify an essay that’s been written by someone else, including someone the student paid.

And since each AI-generated essay is unique — it will vary based on the initial prompt, and refreshing the request can generate a different version — there’s no simple automated way to identify that a computer, not a human, wrote the essay.

I think teachers will start to develop an instinct for identifying this type of unethical writing, but it will be difficult to prove.

But here are two recommendations on how to catch AI-based cheaters.

First, ask the student to turn in a “fat outline” initial planning draft before getting to work. Such a draft requires a focus on ideas, sources, and research. The teacher should provide feedback on the fat outline (which is far easier to review than a full essay), and require the student to address the feedback in the full essay.

And second, once the essay is complete and handed in, the teacher should suggest edits and require a second draft. If the student didn’t originally write the essay, then they’ll find it challenging to make the necessary revisions.

Both of these suggestions add more work for the teacher. They may require smaller classroom sizes, fewer assignments, or more teaching assistants. But they’ll require the student to engage directly with the problems of content, research, and writing. And that’s good practice that will lead to students becoming better writers, regardless of whether AI is involved or not.

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  1. Josh,
    A few years back I had the following experience that while not directly on point is in the similar arena.

    I was teaching a graduate level finance course in an MBA program. A modest size research paper was part of the final assignment. The nature of assignment dictated that each paper would need to unique. Two papers submitted by two students, whose semester performance was mediocre at best, were outstanding. After reading both, I realized that portions of the text were eerily similar. Using Grammarly, I was able find/confirm the exact source that both had plagiarized. I later learned that the two were next door neighbors.

  2. Just yesterday, marketing strategist Matt Banker wrote about a serious problem for search engine users. When “content” is generated with SEO as the primary goal, publishers place a lower priority on originality, accuracy, and relevance—just like students who expect full credit for limited effort. Using AI-generated content, the worst of these publishers replicate low-value articles until search results themselves are worth very little. As AI bots improve their simulations of human writing, worthless content will proliferate, perhaps exponentially. All this raises a question I’ve never seen answered: How does AI-generated writing benefit humanity?

  3. Would having students defend their essay in person make it easier to catch plagiarism? The defense would include questions from the professor and perhaps even a panel of peers?

  4. I always found it odd that in the academic world, creativity is lauded, in most case, but in the real world, R&D—rip off and duplicate—is a more valued skill.