ChatGPT’s strength in language and conventions show that it is a clear writer, capable of crafting fluent, grammatically sound prose. The chatbot either met or exceeded standards in both these categories for all 27 essays submitted.
The AI has the most room for improvement in its development of ideas. The graders’ written feedback reveals that it sometimes fails to support its claims with reasons or evidence and, in a few instances, makes assertions that are flat out false. It struggles the most to develop its ideas in response to literature. All five of the instances in which it earned a D+ —its lowest grade—were those in which the chatbot was asked to demonstrate its understanding of long-form prose, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Joy Luck Club. This calls into question if and how closely the chatbot has “read” these materials.
These findings suggest that ChatGPT is already powerful enough that educators must change the status quo of writing instruction. Schools should evolve their practices, pedagogy, and policies to address the underlying forces that compel students to use technology like ChatGPT in counterproductive ways without resorting to blocks and bans that limit the use of this potentially powerful learning tool.
Use ChatGPT to Help Students Go Beyond its Capabilities
Some of the early actions taken in response to ChatGPT have focused on catching students misusing it or preventing them from accessing it altogether, such as the districts banning or blocking the AI. Elsewhere, teachers are now requiring students to do their writing with pen and paper in an effort to thwart copy-and-pasting from the chatbot. Developers are also creating new plagiarism detection software designed to identify AI-generated writing.
Each of these options comes with its own set of tradeoffs, but one drawback common to all of them is the cat-and-mouse dynamic they establish between schools and students. Each sends the message that students cannot be trusted with technology.
There’s another approach, however. By inviting ChatGPT into the classroom instead of locking it out, schools can push students toward independent thinking in a way that doesn’t signal mistrust. There are indications that, despite some of the high-profile bans, many teachers are thinking along these lines. According to a survey of more than 2,000 teachers commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation, 40 percent of teachers report already using ChatGPT at least once a week. Thirty-eight percent of teachers report allowing students to use ChatGPT, whereas only 10 percent say they have caught the students using it without their permission. And 72 percent say that “ChatGPT is just another example of why we can’t keep doing things the old way for schools in the modern world.”
One way to leverage ChatGPT is by intentionally using it in class. For example, teachers can have ChatGPT generate writing samples in response to different essay questions, which they can then use with their class to dissect the quality of the writing. Weighing the strengths and weaknesses of writing examples is a commonly used teaching tool. It can force students to think deeply about what constitutes good prose. Doing this with ChatGPT’s output has multiple potential benefits. Because ChatGPT can generate writing on-demand, teachers can produce samples tailored to the needs of their lesson without sinking valuable time into crafting the examples themselves. In addition, by using ChatGPT in this way, teachers can show students where the chatbot falls short and how they are expected to go above and beyond its capabilities. Doing so disincentivizes inappropriate use of ChatGPT—not by threatening punishment or imposing bans but by communicating high expectations.
Teachers can also use the essays that ChatGPT produces to help check that their own prompts are asking enough of students. If not, they may want to consider revising their assignments. This approach encourages students to think outside the bot and, in doing so, helps them build writing skills that cannot already be automated away.
Teachers can also allow students to bring the AI in as a writing aid for certain assignments. Students could use it to conduct research, refine their prose, and test their ideas to see if they make sense to ChatGPT. Some have characterized ChatGPT in this role as a calculator for writing. Like the calculator, the technology’s efficiencies and enhancements could be leveraged to push student work to levels of complexity and quality that would be otherwise outside the realm of possibility.
Flip the Classroom to Support Students Throughout Their Writing Process
In a traditional classroom, students sit in whole-class instruction during school hours and do most of their writing assignments at home. Under this model, students who do not master the skills taught in class have little recourse when it comes time to apply them on a graded take-home assignment. That, along with time management, can lead some students to resort to academic dishonesty. By flipping the classroom—which often entails students learning the content at home online and then spending class time practicing the skills taught in the digital lessons—teachers can support students in turning that confusion into understanding.
In a flipped English Language Arts classroom, a teacher might send students home to watch a video on how to organize their ideas in writing. The following day’s class could start with an activity analyzing the flow of a sample essay. Then, in the next part of class, students take time to work on their own outlines for an upcoming paper as the teacher moves around the room to help address misconceptions and to provide support to those who need it. Under such a model, students receive more intentional writing instruction. If they feel lost, they can turn to a teacher for guidance instead of looking to a chatbot for the answer.
Realign Incentives Toward Learning
More broadly, in today’s zero-sum education system, some students will likely feel tempted to turn to ChatGPT as a way of getting a leg up on their competition—their classmates. This stems from the traditional time-based grading system, which relies on one-shot assessments to award students term grades that are used to rank and group them. These marks are unchanging and follow students around for years, no matter how much learning they demonstrate after the fact. By placing such steep and long-lasting consequences on grades and such little emphasis on actual understanding, schools are communicating clearly that they value scores earned over skills learned. Given the priorities of this system, we shouldn’t be shocked that some students are willing to sacrifice a learning opportunity for a chance at a better score.
Today’s seat-time based school system, in which students advance from concept to concept after an allotted amount of time, regardless of whether they demonstrate understanding of the topic, is responsible for this traditional, one-shot assessment model. Contrast this with a mastery-based model, in which students advance only when they show they have a concept down pat. This means students are allowed multiple attempts to demonstrate their mastery through assessment. In doing so, mastery-based learning reduces the do-or-die stakes that can drive students to dishonesty. This may help more students gain the confidence to put their own thoughts on the page, even if that means risking failure on that attempt.
Technological advancement will continue to grow AI’s effectiveness not only as a writer but also as a writing coach for students. Even between the time we wrote this article and its release, OpenAI released GPT-4, which does better on standardized tests than the previous version. Khan Academy announced it will use GPT-4 to power “Khanmigo, an AI-powered assistant that functions as both a virtual tutor for students and a classroom assistant for teachers.” It is unclear how or in what instances the work of a student guided by an AI tool can be inputted in the gradebook to spit out a letter that conforms to old-fashioned principles of grading. But in a classroom where students are evaluated on their ultimate mastery of a concept, they are free to practice in the ways that best build that mastery. More conventional schools should also rapidly adjust their pedagogical practices, including grading systems, to make full use of this new technology.
With ChatGPT already capable of producing prose that earns passing marks across grade levels, schools must adjust to make sure that students will learn how to write effectively and think critically. Some of the earliest actions taken by districts have missed the mark by trying to stuff the ChatGPT genie back in the bottle. Technologists predict that numerous professions – including those requiring advanced skills – will leverage ChatGPT in their day-to-day work in the near future. Lawyers will look to the chatbot instead of their more junior colleagues to create summaries of case notes and relevant laws. Journalists will use it to generate checklists of points to cover for articles on given topics. In these professional use cases, it will be critical for workers to accurately evaluate ChatGPT’s output and put it to effective and ethical use. The best place and time for a worker of tomorrow to learn how to do that is in a classroom today.
As a result, blocking ChatGPT is not only futile, but also counterproductive for students who will be forced to use this tool and others like it in a working world where they are ubiquitous. By rethinking classroom practices and restructuring learning models, schools can give students the tools, guidance, and incentives to grow their writing skills in the age of artificial intelligence.