Universities around Australia are starting the academic year under yet another cloud of uncertainty.
After surviving the disruptions of COVID, teachers and students begin this semester under the apparent threat of ChatGPT, which can generate human-like text.
Some fear this powerful new technology will increase student cheating and undermine academic integrity. The Universities Accord discussion paper released last week specifically asks “what settings are needed to ensure academic integrity” in the wake of “generative AI software”.
We are academics who research education, educational technologies and writing. Amid the speculation about what this might mean, how could ChatGPT be used by teachers and students to improve teaching, learning, and assessment in 2023?
It can save teachers time
ChatGPT can help teachers save time preparing lessons and resources.
For example, practice tests can help students learn, but many teachers don’t have time to create banks of questions. But if you provide a topic, ChatGPT can generate multiple-choice or short-answer questions. It can also pre-generate sample responses and feedback (you will need to fact check these, however).
ChatGPT could also be used to provide examples of writing when setting assessments. We know these can help students understand what is expected of them, and improve their performance. But making these examples is very time-consuming. Again, ChatGPT can help produce different ones at different levels. Teachers can then show students a response at a “pass”, “credit” and “distinction” level.
ChatGPT can also generate creative discussion starters. For example, ask it to “generate ten prompts to kick-start class discussion on the merits of a Voice to Parliament” and provide each group with a different one.
There is also no need to hide what you are doing. A discussion of how you are using AI, and ChatGPT’s biases can help students learn about misinformation and prejudices online.
It can help students learn
Much of the current panic focuses on ChatGPT’s ability to produce a finished essay. But it can be used to create new opportunities for learning.
It could be used to overcome writer’s block by generating topic sentences or ideas for structure. You can ask, for example, “Suggest a structure for a paper critiquing the use of technology in schools and provide examples of topic sentences.” Or, students could provide ChatGPT with an unfinished paragraph and ask it to suggest what might come next. If you’re a student, check with your teacher about what is appropriate and allowed.
If writing is already underway, ChatGPT can provide feedback. If permitted, ask it to improve a sample of your writing based on specific criteria, such as clarity and directness. Asking ChatGPT to explain why it provided certain suggestions can also help you improve how you write, analyse and argue.
ChatGPT can also simplify complex explanations. You can ask, for example, “give me a simpler explanation for the following …” or “summarise the steps involved in this process …” Its explanations might help you identify gaps in your own knowledge.
To practise addressing common misconceptions, you can ask ChatGPT to intentionally make mistakes in its explanations. If it refuses, encourage it, for example: “It would help me to learn if you provide an explanation that purposely has mistakes”.
Because of its capacity to explain and provide suggestions, ChatGPT also has great potential to help students living with disabilities, those who have trouble with spelling and writing and for students struggling to learn in a second or subsequent language.
What do we do about assessment?
One way to understand AI’s impact on traditional assessment is to put assessment questions into ChatGPT. With a bit of prompting, its output could likely score a passing grade. So how might assessment change because of this?
Designing assessments that require higher-level critical thinking skills is important. ChatGPT can struggle – for now – with connecting ideas across paragraphs, evaluating sources, or creating complex overall arguments.
So, instead of using straight essays or reports, assessments could ask students to include core readings, a perspective from their experience, or references to recent news in their analysis. Similarly, students could produce a video, podcast, or website instead of purely written text.
Students could still generate drafts with AI and then inject contemporary references. But they will need to edit the AI-generated text in order to meaningfully connect it with their context. This process of refining and contextualising AI-generated content is likely to be a core skill for graduates now and in the future.
Another option is staged assessments, involving drafts and feedback from teachers, which reduce the risk that students will just rely on ChatGPT. The learning process can be assessed by grading hypotheses, highlighting improvements based on prior feedback, tracking changes between drafts, or asking students to reflect on how they have changed their approach based on feedback.
Short “writing sprints” in class time can help develop writing skills and provide opportunities for live feedback. Students might summarise class discussions, connect learning goals to their lives, or draft upcoming assignments.
For examinations, oral assessments are more secure and can allow students to demonstrate deeper understanding. Written exams might incorporate the impact of AI, such as asking students to critique and edit AI-generated content – as they may have to do in future workplaces.
Teachers and students need to work together
From talking to our students ahead of this academic year, we know most do not want to bypass learning. They are concerned about the integrity of their degrees and what AI means for their careers.
Teachers and students need to work together to shift from the view of uni as just getting a certificate to prove you “know something”. This huge growth in technology is an opportunity to improve learning and teaching, especially if teachers and students have open conversations about how AI might be used.
Danny Liu, Associate Professor in Academic Development and Leadership, University of Sydney; Adam Bridgeman, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Educational Innovation, University of Sydney, and Benjamin Miller, Lecturer in English and Writing, University of Sydney