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Using AI to Craft an Assignment Sequence

By: Catrina Mitchum, Adjunct Associate Professor & Instructional Designer
Posted On
May 9, 2023
Featured In
May 9, 2023
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Frankly, I’m overwhelmed by the AI options, and as someone who is typically an early adopter, that says a lot. I’m also getting ready to teach a pre-designed course, which means I won't be allowed to change any of the curriculum. However, whenever there are new tools to learn, I like to play around with them so I know the confines we’re working in as well as how the tool can be flexed to fit my purposes. 

This piece is a “do it with me” piece where I’ll walk you through how I used an AI writing tool to help me generate an assignment sheet, rubric, and scaffolding activities. I happen to be lucky enough to have access to the new AI writing tools in the PowerNotes platform, so that’s what I used, but, you can also, with some extra prompting, do this in ChatGPT. 

TL/DR: AI tools can give us a structure and breakdown of goals for particular projects. 

I started with objectives because I just left my prior institution in January, and as we all know, we often have to shift what we do depending on where we’re teaching. 

Objectives:

I started by entering the outcomes I was working toward into a note ( in ChatGPT, you’d want to include them in your prompt) and then I prompted the PowerNotes AI Brainstorm tool to give me a list of possible assignments.

Initial Prompt: As a college freshman writing teacher, what kind of projects can I assign that will reach the objectives in this annotation?

Objectives in the freeform note: 

Student learning objectives:

  • analyze the rhetorical options created by a text’s purposes, audiences, and contexts
  • use a variety of research methods for purposes of inquiry
  • evaluate the quality, usefulness, and credibility of sources
  • synthesize research findings in development of a persuasive project
  • adapt creation and revision processes for a variety of delivery options
  • reflect on their progress as writers
  • identify and use variations in genre conventions
  • demonstrate familiarity with the concepts of intellectual property

The list of ideas it initially gave me spoke individually to each objective (ie Rhetorical Analysis, Individual Research Project, Reflective Writing Assignment), which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, so I then said “Give me 5 more that will help students reach ALL of those objectives” and it was a bit more helpful in synthesizing the types of projects that would cover several objectives. 

First useful output: 

Sure, here are 5 more projects that align with the objectives outlined in the annotation: 1. Annotated bibliography: Assign an annotated bibliography project that requires students to evaluate sources for quality, usefulness, and credibility. This project will help students practice research skills and provide an opportunity to synthesize information from multiple sources.2. Multimedia project: Ask students to create a multimedia project that incorporates different modes of communication (e.g. text, images, audio, video) to present a persuasive argument or analysis. This project will help students practice adapting creation and revision processes for different delivery options.3. Group writing project: Assign a group writing project that requires students to collaborate on a written document (e.g. research report, white paper). This project will help students develop collaboration and communication skills while also practicing writing skills.4. Personal essay: Ask students to write a personal essay that reflects on their experiences with intellectual property (e.g. their understanding of copyright laws, any experiences with plagiarism). This project will help students demonstrate familiarity with the concepts of intellectual property while also practicing reflective writing skills.5. Professional writing assignment: Assign a professional writing assignment (e.g. cover letter, resume) that requires students to adapt their writing style and tone for a specific audience and purpose. This project will help students identify and use variations in genre conventions while also practicing effective communication skills in a professional context.

I then asked for some more creative options and it suggested the following: 

  • Writing workshop
  • Website design project
  • Mock trial simulation
  • Social media campaign
  • Documentary film
  • Personal blog
  • Research symposium presentation
  • Literary adaptation
  • Writing for social change campaign

I asked it for 5 more until it got repetitive, and didn’t really see any new ideas, but it was nice to have a potential list. In the past, I’ve assigned an annotated bibliography leading to a persuasive digital poster, so I went with an Annotated bibliography so I could compare to something I know has worked well.

I asked it to: 

Write a set of instructions for an annotated bibliography in a first year college writing class.

This was the initial output it gave me: 

Sure! Here are some instructions for an annotated bibliography in a first year college writing class:Objective: To evaluate sources for quality, usefulness, and credibility while practicing research skills and providing an opportunity to synthesize information from multiple sources.Instructions:1. Choose a topic related to the course material and conduct research using scholarly sources (e.g. academic journals, books, reputable websites). You should aim to find at least 5 sources.2. For each source, provide a citation in APA or MLA format (depending on instructor preference) that includes the author, title, publication date, publisher, and any other relevant information.3. Write a brief summary of the source (150-200 words) that includes the following information: - The main argument or thesis of the source - The evidence used to support the argument or thesis - The relevance of the source to your topic - Any limitations or weaknesses of the source4. Evaluate each source for quality, usefulness, and credibility based on the following criteria: - Is the author an expert in their field? - Is the information up-to-date? - Is there bias present in the source? - Is the source relevant to your topic?5. Organize your annotated bibliography alphabetically by author's last name.6. Submit your annotated bibliography according to your instructor's guidelines (e.g. typed, double-spaced, with proper citations).Tips: - Start early so you have plenty of time to find credible sources and write thorough annotations. - Keep track of all your sources using a citation manager tool like Zotero or EndNote. - Use reliable databases like JSTOR or Google Scholar to find scholarly sources. - Make sure you understand how to properly cite sources in APA or MLA format before beginning.

As you can see, the results were “meh” but what it did give me was structure. I added this to a prompt notecard, didn’t change anything, but asked the AI Assistant to add more detailed instructions to the selected prompt. It was a bit better:

Sure, here are some additional details you might consider adding to the annotated bibliography instructions:1. Before beginning your research, brainstorm a list of keywords related to your topic. These can be used to search for relevant sources in databases and on the web.2. When evaluating sources, consider the type of source (e.g. primary research article, book chapter, news article) and its intended audience. This can give you insight into the purpose and reliability of the source.3. Use a variety of sources to provide a well-rounded perspective on your topic. This may include sources that support your argument as well as those with opposing viewpoints.4. When summarizing each source, be sure to include enough detail so that someone reading your annotated bibliography can understand the main points of the source without having to read it themselves.5. When evaluating each source, consider how it fits into the larger conversation around your topic. Does it provide new information or offer a unique perspective? Or does it simply reiterate what has already been said?6. Be sure to properly cite each source using APA or MLA format throughout your annotated bibliography.7. Consider using subheadings to group sources together based on themes or topics within your overall research question.8. If you're struggling to find sources, don't hesitate to ask a librarian or your instructor for help.9. Finally, use this assignment as an opportunity to practice critical thinking skills and hone your ability to evaluate sources for quality, usefulness, and credibility - skills that will serve you well in future research projects!

These were useful, but still sort of barebones instructions. At this point, because some things started to get repetitive, I stopped prompting and just gathered the output and revised it myself (feel free to borrow). 

Assessment: 

I updated these instructions to be a bit more detailed and better organized, but the overall steps and structure made for a good template. Then I fed the instructions back into the AI Assistant and asked it to create a rubric. Of course, it created a pretty standard traditional rubric with a 5 point scale pulling information from the assignment to fill in the table. Pretty standard. However, I don’t use standard rubrics. I use a mash up of specifications grading and completion based rubrics. 

This means getting creative in my prompting. I tried the following before I got anything useful: 

  1. Using these instructions craft a specifications-based grading rubric.
  2. Make the rubric a complete/incomplete scale
  3. Create a list of observable elements and tasks from this note.

The first one gave me things like requiring that all the authors be experts; not quite what the assignment asks. The second one did the same. The third one gave me this: 

Observable elements:- Choosing a topic and writing a research question- Brainstorming keywords related to the topic- Conducting research using scholarly sources- Using a variety of sources to provide a well-rounded perspective on the topic- Providing citations for each source using the appropriate style guide- Writing annotations for each source that include a summary and evaluation- Summarizing the main argument/thesis/finding, evidence used to support it, purpose, and audience of each source- Evaluating each source for quality, usefulness, and credibility based on criteria such as author expertise, up-to-dateness, bias, relevance, and uniqueness- Organizing the annotated bibliography alphabetically by author's last name- Submitting the annotated bibliography in a specific font size and typeTasks:- Choose a topic and write a research question- Brainstorm keywords related to the topic- Conduct research using scholarly sources (e.g. academic journals, books, reputable websites)- Find at least 5 sources on the topic- Provide citations for each source using the appropriate style guide- Write annotations for each source that include a summary and evaluation- Evaluate each source for quality, usefulness, and credibility based on criteria such as author expertise, up-to-dateness, bias, relevance, and uniqueness- Organize the annotated bibliography alphabetically by author's last name- Submit the annotated bibliography in a specific font size and type

This isn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it wasn’t a bad start. I asked it:

Can you break this down into more detail for each observable element?

I have to say it didn’t help me, but what it did do was create a fantastic list of helpful reminders for students. Exploring the use of AI to help students break down larger goals into smaller, concrete tasks isn’t something I’ve seen yet, but has a lot of potential. 

Since I didn't get what I wanted, I added the original output to the project and edited it to look like this: 

Annotated Bibliography Rubric:

  • Includes 5 sources (5 points)
  • 3 are scholarly sources (3 points)
  • Provides citations for each source using the appropriate style guide (5 points)
  • Written annotations for each source that includes a summary (5 points)
  • Each summary includes (20 points)
    - The main argument/thesis/finding,
    - evidence used to support it,
    - the purpose, and;
    - the audience 
  • Each annotation includes an evaluation of the source for (20 points)
    - Quality,
    - usefulness,
    - relevance, and uniqueness to the topic
    - credibility based on criteria such as author expertise, timelines, and bias
  • Is organized alphabetically by author's last name (1 point)
  • Submitted in a san serif 11pt font (2 points)
  • Is formatted correctly in the selected style guide (5 points)

I realize that I rubric differently than others, so continuing to prompt the AI to get me what I need is probably possible, but, for me, it became about time. Was it worth trying to get it better when it’s faster to take the starting point and improve it myself? Clearly, my answer was no. 

Beyond the Assignment Prompt:

Then, I selected my new assignment instructions and asked the AI assistant to give me some scaffolding suggestions. Because I was in PowerNotes, all I had to do was edit the AI suggestion above then go back to the AI tool, click the notecard, edit it, and write the prompt: 

From this note, pretend you are a writing studies teacher with instructional design experience and create a detailed scaffolding outline

If you’re using ChatGPT, you’ll need to let it know it needs to use the assignment and paste the instructions into the prompt box or continue with the same conversation. Be wary, though, sometimes it “forgets” what it spits out. 

The scaffolding ideas it produced were not groundbreaking or new and creative ways to teach, but if it were my first time teaching this particular type of project, it’s not a bad way to start breaking down the project for students. I would personally add more time evaluating sources than this list, and I’d need to put my own spin on things as the activities are a bit boring, but in terms of taking the larger goal and breaking it down into actionable steps, this is pretty spot on.

So for my next trick, I decided to push the AI Assistant to give more detailed and creative information for each of these scaffolding steps. I moved this response to a card in my project and prompted it with (again, you can do a similar thing in ChatGPT, but you might need to actually copy/paste back in): 

Next, I did ask it:

Can you give me a more creative detailed lesson for Step 1 above?

It wrote a lesson plan for me that included materials and 9 steps that involved putting students into groups and having them create individual mind-maps (a mind map is where you write the topic in the middle and branch ideas around the topic in circles connected to it, then draw connections between those ideas). This was followed up with a 'bring it back to the room' discussion about keywords. 

Not a new idea, but I was impressed that it suggested that I encourage students to think of synonyms or related concepts for their keywords and phrases and that it suggested as a bonus activity that I have them try them out in JSTOR. 

When I asked it to convert to an asynchronous online activity, it resorted to a discussion board (honestly, online mind maps are fantastic and it didn’t even suggest it as a bonus). Sigh. 

Lessons: 

Clearly, the AI isn’t perfect, but being able to use it as a starting point saved a lot of time. Not only could it generate something I could work with, but after I worked without, I could continue to feed the content back in for the next step in creating a new project for a class. It helped me start assignment instructions, a rubric, a scaffolding sequence, and lesson planning ideas. In PowerNotes, I was able to add all of those things to a project and export them to a doc, so I have it in one handy space, but you could copy and paste from another AI tool.

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