ChatGPT Can Help Students (and Teachers) Make the Grade

If you haven’t heard, “the college essay is dead.” The cause? ChatGPT, a large language model trained on a massive dataset of human text that can generate human-like writing in response to prompts or questions. Since its release, ChatGPT has produced a lot of educational handwringing because it puts at students’ fingertips a machine that produces untraceable, mechanically flawless prose in seconds. Critics of the technology anticipate that students will ask the bot to do their writing for them, thus compromising academic integrity while robbing themselves of the chance to improve a crucial skill.

Scholars in the humanities and the sciences are hesitant about ChatGPT for different reasons. On the one hand, writing instructors find that the bot can produce writing without surface errors but also without substance. The bot’s superficial demonstration of knowledge will force professors to craft more idiosyncratic prompts to head off students at the cheating pass. On the other hand, scientists find the bot problematic because it’s so good at concocting word salad. Prompted to respond to real-world scientific problems, it makes up sources from whole cloth, fabricates scientific theories, and presents a patina of coherence without any objective foundation. In short, writing instructors say that ChatGPT is not good enough to generate the college-level writing demanded by the humanities, while scientists say it’s dangerously good at imitating scientific knowledge.

Despite these well-founded criticisms, ChatGPT can be an invaluable aid in helping students improve their reading, writing, and thinking. While critics are right to fear ChatGPT’s abuse, they should also consider its benefits. Many critics of ChatGPT have poisoned the well by assuming that students will use the bot to avoid work and giving it prompts accordingly. The tool generates subpar or misleading work when asked to respond to prompts without data. However, its clearest value comes from using it to help improve existing work. It can only do work as well as the person working with it. Rather than fearing that students will use ChatGPT to do their work for them, we should be figuring out how the tool can augment the work they’re already doing.

One of writing instruction’s double binds is that “the only way to become a better writer is to write.” But a student’s practice doesn’t make perfect unless that practice is perfect. Someone has to provide feedback for all that writing, or students will continue making the same mistakes. This holds true for reading comprehension and the logical rigor of a student’s thoughts. While tutors can help supplement the feedback by primary writing instructors, at some point, instructors must triage student concerns and the amount of feedback they provide.

[Related: “Grammar and Whiteness”]

ChatGPT provides a solution to this problem by giving students personalized assessments that will improve their reading, writing, and thinking skills. The tool offers the educational freedom of bespoke feedback at scale.

For example, a student can enter a passage from a reading assignment into the prompt box and ask ChatGPT to provide a summary in a style that is easier to understand. The student can then ask the bot to pose comprehension questions about the material and provide feedback on their answers. The bot produces bespoke questions in any format the user desires: multiple choice, true/false, or short answer. Students can also use ChatGPT to provide additional analysis or clarification of a reading assignment’s key terms, using its feedback to practice applying those terms to new examples. As a way to test the rigor of their own comprehension, students can even try “reverse exams” by entering incorrect information and seeing how the bot responds. This can help students better understand the correct applications of concepts and avoid false positives.

If students want to improve their writing, they can benefit from ChatGPT’s suggestions and instantaneous feedback. The prompt “Evaluate the readability of the following paragraphs and make suggestions for improvement,” followed by a copy-and-pasted sample of the student’s work, produces a list of specific areas for growth, such as the use of shorter sentences, the definition of unfamiliar terms, and the addition of transitional words. The bot does not correct these mistakes in the original sample. Instead, it has given the student an agenda for practice. If the student provides a prompt, “Generate an exercise for me that would help me improve my use of transitional words,” the bot does just that. If the student asks the bot to provide feedback on the completed exercise, it will.

The bot also provides concrete help while writing essays. The following prompts have helped me write essays, including this one: “Assess the following paragraphs and suggest ways to improve them,” “Suggest five ways of expanding the following topic sentence,” and “I’ve revised the paragraphs based on your recommendations. Assess them again to check for improvement.” In each case, ChatGPT provided specific suggestions that, while not doing my work for me, helped me significantly improve the quality of my work. My conversation was similar to one I might have with a writing tutor or a colleague about an as-yet-incomplete idea for an essay. Students won’t always have access to an instructor when they’re writing. ChatGPT offers them a way of getting immediate feedback whenever they need it.

[Related: “Teaching Academic Integrity”]

Finally, students can use ChatGPT to help them improve their thinking. They can use the bot to test the logical validity of their own reasoning by testing the connection between premises and a conclusion. For example, if I start with the premise that ChatGPT produces unique paragraphs of mechanically flawless prose that aren’t trackable and another premise that it responds to prompts with passable content, I can see whether those premises provide a logically valid conclusion that college writing as we know it is done for. The bot will tell me that such a syllogism skips too many steps. But if I readjust my premises to include the idea that writing instruction and assessment require academic integrity, and that ChatGPT can compromise this integrity in academic writing, then I can reach the conclusion that it threatens the way we instruct and evaluate writing.

Another way ChatGPT can improve our thinking is by helping us ask better questions. The tool is only as good as the input we give it, so it’s important to be specific and clear about what we want it to do. If we ask it to “assess” an email we’ve written, it will give us a different response than if we ask it to “improve” that same email. If a user guides the bot’s output, it’s more likely to help and less likely to deceive. For example, a teacher can ask it to write a rubric to assess student writing with five categories and three levels of mastery. That prompt will generate something different and less helpful than if I give it a prompt and ask it to write a rubric assessing student responses.

The common feature in my suggestions for using ChatGPT is a feedback loop. These real-time responses are an essential component of deliberate practice, the method of mastering any skill. ChatGPT offers a scalable method of reading, writing, and thinking instruction that can supplement traditional methods, making it a valuable resource for students and teachers alike. Yes, we know how to abuse the tool, but we should acknowledge its potential too. Doing so gives reason for hope, not just fear.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Jonathan Sircy

    Jonathan Sircy is Department of Humanities coordinator and associate professor of English at Southern Wesleyan University. Prior to this, he taught for seven years at Charleston Southern University, where he was a recipient of the 2017 Excellence in Teaching Award.

6 thoughts on “ChatGPT Can Help Students (and Teachers) Make the Grade

  1. When I think about these suggestions in my role as an author of >125 peer reviewed scientific journal articles and a textbook, and mentally role play how it would go, what I come to is that if I were to use ChatGPT as an aid in my writing, then I would quickly come to doubt myself as a writer. I would assume my instinct and experience is incorrect and needs the help of ChatGPT. I would end up dependent on the tool, and over time a less and less capable writer, while perhaps becoming better and better at developing prompts for it to write things for me. I’d essentially become a writing overseer, rather than a writer myself. To the extent I use a calculator or Excel to a lot of math instead of doing it by hand, maybe that is not so different; we’ve just never had a writing aid like this before. But it seems different to me in an important way. Setting up a complex array formula in Excel and allowing Excel to run it to get the answer still seems like I am in control of the creative part of the work. in contrast, establishing the parameters of a paragraph and having ChatGPT write it out, seems like I am not in control. But maybe when we are all dependent on the tool, nobody will care any more. (Put this paragraph into ChatGPT and it’ll probably articulate my thoughts and feelings better than I am, but it won’t be me any more, either)

  2. To believe students will use ChatGPT to “help improve their work” or “help improve their thinking” is, at best, incredibly naive.

    Years ago students could do a simple internet search to find companies that would write essays for them. Now, they have a new tool.

    It’s called ChatGPT.

    1. Yes, I remain dumbfounded by how strangely optimistic so many people are of human nature in general, never mind patterns in student behaviour.

  3. A colleague tells me that ChatpGPT spews out nonsense answers to basic homework problems from introductory science courses. I wonder how long that will last.

    I’m afraid it may be too much to hope that typical students will use AI essay help in the constructive way that the author envisions here.

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