How International Students Should Think about Writing, AI

24 February 2024

Students must learn academic writing and research methods when moving from high school to college. That is why universities require a first-year writing class. As experienced students move on to higher degrees, they continue learning how to do research and to write for academic publications.

But learning the new writing methods can be difficult for international students, said Nat Smitobol. He is a counselor for IvyWise, a company that helps students prepare their applications for top-level American universities.

Different "academic culture"

One student believes those working on getting better at writing in English should limit their use of AI tools.
One student believes those working on getting better at writing in English should limit their use of AI tools.

In the United States, Smitobol said, most students have a basic understanding that they must give credit to, or cite, the sources of the words and ideas in their academic writing. For those who come from other countries, this can be new.

Smitobol said one of the most important lessons students new to the U.S. learn is: "this academic culture of really making sure you give other people credit in a formal way."

Using another person's words without giving them credit is considered plagiarism. VOA Learning English recently prepared a guide for international students who need to learn more about plagiarism and why it is a serious concern. A plagiarism accusation recently led to Harvard University's president having to step down from her position.

Smitobol said the reason citations are difficult for international students is that teachers and professors overseas are more often concerned that students provide the correct answer to a question than showing the information source.

Amjad Binshahbain agrees. He is a student at the English Language Center, or ELC, at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Binshahbain is from Yemen and also attended school in the United Arab Emirates. In Virginia, he takes classes with students from places like Greece, Spain and Japan. They often discuss the academic differences between the U.S. and their countries.

AI tools

He said one of the first things ELC students learn is how to follow American university guidelines for recording source material. They also talk about writing papers without the help of artificial intelligence, or AI, tools.

Binshahbain said it is easy for students who are learning how to write papers in English to depend on generative AI tools. These tools can change their grammar or make their writing easier to understand. However, after nearly a year at the ELC, he has, in his words, "progressed a lot."

"I have been improving since then, since the summer in 2023. Now I can write a whole assignment without any outside source. I can read an article and understand it and write it in my own words. That's one of the techniques that I got since I come to the U.S."

He said it is better to struggle with writing and adding citations to academic work early in college than to find out that you do not know how to do it later on.

Smitobol noted that many universities will show students how to use tools such as the RefWorks citation manager. The computer tool permits students to carry out research online and collects all of the source material necessary.

High stakes

Meredith Bricker teaches in the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan. Many of her students are working on advanced degrees. That means they are learning and doing research on difficult academic subjects. She said the citation tools are both good and bad. On the one hand, they permit students to easily create a source list. On the other hand, they can prevent students from finding or understanding the best sources for a project.

"They're like, ‘OK, fine. I'll just put whatever comes up (in my search) on my citation list,'" Bricker said.

Students who come to Bricker's class are doing their own research, she added. They hope that they can make a discovery or create a new idea and be published in a journal. So, the stakes are high for master's or Ph.D. students compared to those just beginning college. She said it is likely the people cited in a paper by one of her students will read it.

"In some ways it's (citations) more relevant. You know, like, almost easier for them to see the purpose and the point. But I think it's also the flip side of that is if they do it incorrectly, it could have such devastating effects on their futures, you know, pretty immediately."

International students who are caught using other people's ideas without citing them can be expelled or removed from school. That would cause them to be in violation of their F1 student visa. At higher levels, a young researcher who is caught plagiarizing may have trouble finding another job.

AI is ‘not going away'

Bricker believes students should also give credit to AI tools whenever they use them. "Gen-AI is not going away," she said. "Part of our job as writing to make sure students know the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate use."

She said some academic journals will permit the use of artificial intelligence and others will not. "It depends on the field," she said, noting that a linguistics journal might have different rules than an engineering journal.

Bricker said she tells her students that it is difficult for teachers to know if their students are using AI tools. But as a writing teacher, it is her goal to help them learn to write on their own, without help from a machine.

"I'm a teacher of writing. So, letting my students know ‘I want to see your writing, you.' I want to see what you're doing as a writer, and I want to help you grow as a writer...So I can do that with you using this and without you using this. But it's your choice."

Binshahbain said international students who are learning English in the U.S. are tempted by AI tools. But he advises students that they should use AI only for some things, like searching for sources.

"When I first came here, I was using it for everything," he said. "But I stopped because I understand the best thing to do (is) to put the effort on learning. It's going to pay off in the future."

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Gena Bennett.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English.


Words in This Story

academic –adj. related to work done at schools or colleges but not in businesses or government

cite –v. to report where a piece of writing or other intellectual property came from, showing where a reader could find the original work

source –n. a piece of writing or art that is referred to

plagiarism –n. the act of claiming someone else's written work as your own

assignment –n. a task given by a teacher to a student in school

article –n. a piece of writing usually on one subject that is not too long

journal –n. a magazine about a large subject that is regularly published and contains several articles and opinions written by academic authors

stakes –n. (pl.) something that could be won or lost

flip side –n. the other side of an argument

appropriate –adj. something that is right for the situation