Should Students Stop Using Grammarly?

Last week, a TikTok user named Marley Stevens (@m.stevens03), had a strong word of caution for her fellow students: If your work is being submitted through Turnitin, you need to delete Grammarly.

According to Stevens, she wrote a paper for a class and received a zero on it. The reason, she claims, is that they used Grammarly to help check for grammar and spelling on the paper, which the school considered to be using AI. 

She said Grammarly did not write any portion of the paper and that she tried to protest the decision to her teacher, the department head and the dean, all of whom said she was “unintentionally cheating” with Grammarly.

As such, she advises anyone who is submitting papers that will be put through Turnitin to delete Grammarly to ensure that they don’t fail a class.

It’s a simple, if blunt, recommendation. But is it justified? The answer is surprisingly complicated. 

Understanding the Grammarly Controversy

Disclosure: I have used Grammarly Premium in the past though, today, I use a competitor, LanguageTool Premium, for grammar and spell checking. 

To be clear, we only have one side of the story at this time. We have not heard anything from the school. So we do not know how they concluded the paper was the product of cheating. Instead, we just have the student’s understanding of their view, which might not be complete or accurate. 

That said, the situation is not wholly implausible. While, most likely, situations such as this are rare, the current climate is primed for these kinds of disputes over authorship in academic work. This is for two reasons.

First, schools have been slow in drafting and implementing policies around AI. There’s precious little guidance on what uses of generative AI are permitted versus not permitted. There’s also little understanding of how those rules will be enforced, a problem exasperated by relatively ineffective detection of AI-generated content

Second, Grammarly is an extraordinarily popular grammar and spell checking service that has also leaned heavily into AI-based services. Currently, Grammarly offers AI-generated writing, rewriting/paraphrasing and idea generation. 

Though similar services, such as LanguageTool, have some AI features, Grammarly has been exceptionally aggressive about adding them to their service, including for free users.

This has made many educators wary of Grammarly, as many see it as a tool that makes it easy for students to cheat, under the guise of being a grammar and spelling checker. Grammarly, for their part, hasn’t helped greatly with this. Though they have a feature to quickly cite the use of generative AI, they don’t explain to the user that the features may run afoul of academic integrity standards or fail to complete the assignment, even if the use of AI is acknowledged.

In fact, as Stevens’ case showed, there’s a concern that students might cheat unintentionally, assuming that everything Grammarly does is acceptable to use in a school paper, even if it isn’t.

But is deleting Grammarly the correct response? Probably not.

Many Tools, Many Uses

The problem with Grammarly is that it’s not a single tool with a single function. Though its core may still be grammar and spell checking, it has tools that check for clarity, tone and missed citations among other elements.

These features were gleaned by studying other writing, in a manner very similar to how generative AIs are trained. They can also drastically rewrite short passages of a paper, making the work different from what the human author originally wrote.

However, with the introduction of AI features, Grammarly now generates text, rewrites/paraphrases text and helps generate ideas beyond what even their earlier tools could do.

The result is that Grammarly’s features, and AI in general, is that there is a spectrum of writing from “Fully human with minimal grammar/spelling assistance” to “Fully written by an AI.” Somewhere along that spectrum is a line where the paper is no longer enough human authorship to count for the purpose of the assignment.

However, where that line lies is a topic very much up for debate. Educators and schools do not agree where that line is and are trying to find a balance between ensuring the integrity of their assessments and enjoying the benefits that AI can bring to the classroom.

It’s easy for a student, when using Grammarly, to enter that gray area and even cross the line without realizing that they’re doing anything against the rules. Though cases of accidentally violating academic integrity rules are rare, this is a way, at least in theory, that it could happen. 

Between Grammarly’s popularity, its trust in this space and the confusion over AI rules, there’s definitely a lot of room for confusion.

To Remove or to Not Remove

So the question remains: Should students uninstall Grammarly?

Ideally. No. 

If you are a student, it’s easy to understand the temptation to watch that TikTok, read this article and want to hit the uninstall button to protect yourself. However, there are several problems with doing that.

First, it doesn’t eliminate the problem, at least not completely. As we’ve seen before, AI detection is still a new space and students need to be prepared to show that their work isn’t AI generated, even if they don’t use Grammarly or a competitor.

This means making sure you write in an application that preserves version history, such as Google Docs or Microsoft Word, keeping good notes through the writing process and being able to show that you are knowledgeable about the subject. 

Second, there are real benefits to having automated spelling and grammar checking. While there are competitors out there, such as ProWritingAid, Writer and Ginger, they all have introduced AI elements into their products. As such, the same issues arise again. 

Finally, the real long-term solution is for schools to determine what the boundaries are and to express them clearly to students. While students can’t force schools to hurry up and craft these policies, they can do the next best thing: Talk with their instructors.

If you are unsure if and how you are allowed to use a writing tool, like Grammarly, the best thing to do is speak with your teachers and understand their expectations. If they view any use of Grammarly (or a similar product) as cheating, then don’t use it. On the other hand, if they say it’s fine but only for certain tools, then only use those tools.

Your teachers are the ultimate arbiter of what is and is not allowed in their class. You should never be afraid to speak with them about these issues BEFORE working on an assignment. It’s the only way to get complete certainty in what tools are and are not allowed on that particular task.

Bottom Line

In the end, though I don’t think removing Grammarly, or any grammar/spell checking tool, is a good response to the problem, I certainly understand the temptation.

There’s a great deal of confusion about AI in the classroom and, while there’s a lot of promise there, there’s also a great deal of fear and anxiety, on all sides. Teachers are understandably worried that students are using AI to cheat and students, even those who don’t use AI, are worried about being accused of it.

To be clear, there’s no easy answer here and, if simply uninstalling Grammarly fixed any of the major issues, I would immediately be in favor of it. But the truth is, it doesn’t.

The only thing that’s going to actually address these problems is real conversation. This includes conversations among educators, between teachers and students, and with the broader community.

It is important to both ensure students are learning what they are supposed to be, not simply using AI to ape that knowledge, but it’s also important to teach and familiarize students with AI as, whether we want it to or not, it is going to be a tool that they will have to use at some point in their lives.

Uninstalling Grammarly is tempting because it is a simple solution in a space that is both very scary and has no easy answers. But looking for easy answers is precisely how many students fell in trouble with AI in the first place. 

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