Markham Heid writes about health and science for Medium.
Much of the worry has focused on ChatGPT’s potential for powering fake news. But commentators have also worried about the toll AI-aided plagiarism could take on education. Teachers might soon find it impossible to detect AI-generated text. “The College Essay Is Dead,” the Atlantic declared.
That’s unlikely. There are some obvious workarounds. For example, even laptop-equipped students wouldn’t benefit from ChatGPT if they were required to write essays in class without the aid of their phone or an internet connection.
But there’s another fix — one that might have been worth implementing even before the arrival of ChatGPT: Make students write out essays by hand. Apart from outflanking the latest AI, a return to handwritten essays could benefit students in meaningful ways.
For one thing, neuroscience research has revealed that, to the human brain, the act of handwriting is very different from punching letters on a keyboard. Handwriting requires precise motor skills — controlling the individual strokes and the pressure of the pen — that vary for each letter, and these stimulate greater activity in a broader group of brain regions when compared with typing. (Anyone who has ever helped a child learn to write will recognize how much concentration and practice it requires.)
These letter-specific motor skills, coupled with subtle differences in other sensory input, engage the brain in ways that researchers have linked to learning and memory improvements. And those added layers of stimulation might be beneficial even when a student is merely copying an AI-written essay by hand.
“Handwriting forces those areas responsible for memory and learning to communicate with each other, which helps form networks that can make it easier to recall or learn new information,” Audrey van der Meer, professor of neuropsychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told me.
Much of the research comparing the differing neurological effects of handwriting and typing has focused on children or younger students. But there’s evidence that, even for older students and adults, writing by hand is a more cognitively involved process. For example, some work has found that writing by hand leads to better processing of ideas, and that students produce more original work when they complete assignments in longhand. Meanwhile, research on foreign-language learners has found that handwriting is associated with improvements in some measures of accuracy and comprehension.
Especially when it comes to essay writing, producing something by hand is a fundamentally different task that writing it on a computer. When you’re writing by hand, you need to know where you’re going with a sentence — what you want it to say, and the structure it will take — before you begin. If you don’t, you’ll have to cross things out or start over. Typing on a computer requires far less forethought; you can dump out the contents of your brain and then hammer it into shape.
The dump-and-edit method isn’t necessarily an inferior way to produce quality writing. But in many ways, it is less challenging for the brain — and challenging the brain is central to education itself.
“Handwriting requires you to put a filter on what you’re producing in a way that typing doesn’t,” according to Karin H. James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University.
A return to handwritten essays wouldn’t be easy for students. Schools have largely surrendered to a screen-dominated world, and the Common Core curriculum standards don’t mandate cursive training for grades K-12. Most secondary school students, never mind college kids, aren’t accustomed to writing longhand.
It wouldn’t be easy on teachers either, who might have to reduce the length of assignments or allocate extra class time for completion. They’d also have the chore of reading sloppy text that wasn’t neatly turned out by a word processor. But some might find all that preferable to harboring the constant suspicion that they’re being outwitted by a bot.
Toward the end of the 19th century, health issues forced the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to abandon his pen in favor of a typewriter, a new invention at the time. Some of his friends noticed a change in his writing style — a change that one scholar later described as a departure from “sustained argument and prolonged reflection” to a terser “telegram style.”
Nietzsche himself felt the change. “Our writing tools work on our thoughts,” he observed. Ensuring that today’s students have more than one writing tool at their disposal might pay off in ways experts are only beginning to grasp. ChatGPT and other AI-powered technologies will win only if we agree to play on their home turf.