How to use ChatGPT as a learning tool

How to use ChatGPT as a learning tool

Rather than weaken student effort, artificial intelligence can help prepare students for the real world by encouraging critical thinking—with a few caveats. Here’s how to use ChatGPT and other AI technologic from psychology instructors about gy wisely

As technology advances, psychologists can find new opportunities to innovate in the field and education. But the introduction of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI)—the simulation of human intelligence by computers—can feel daunting. For psychology instructors in particular, the advent of a rapidly evolving AI software called ChatGPT (and the updated version, GPT-4) has introduced new challenges—but experts say it’s also ripe with the potential to help students learn in new ways and prepare them for careers after college.

ChatGPT, a chatbot software launched by the AI company OpenAI in November 2022, synthesizes online data and communicates it conversationally. Unlike a search engine, ChatGPT can write verse in the style of Shakespeare, dole out dating advice, and—especially concerning to educators—answer test questions and write essays. Early reviews of GPT-4, the next iteration of OpenAI’s large language model, indicate increases in the software’s capabilities. A New York Times article from earlier this year highlights instances of cheating with ChatGPT in college courses and instructors redesigning curricula to prevent academic dishonesty. Some schools are blocking the technology altogether: Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Education banned the use of ChatGPT based on concerns that it could hinder student learning (Huang, K., New York Times, January 16, 2023).

Some educators, however, see ChatGPT as an opportunity rather than a threat. In an LA Times op-ed published in early 2023, psychologist Angela Duckworth, PhD, argues against banning the bot, explaining that it and similar technologies are here to stay—and that instructors should learn how to incorporate it into curricula (Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2023).

Many psychology instructors are already experimenting with the software, recognizing that ChatGPT could be a useful tool to prepare students for the real world where critical thinking is more important than rote memorization.

“We have a choice here to lean in or run away, like we had a choice about whether we wanted to use calculators in statistics class,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. “We now know people can learn using calculators, so the question is: How do we increase critical thinking while also embracing what ChatGPT can do?”Integrating any new tool into the classroom should be done judiciously, and ChatGPT is no exception. Educators must consider ethics, cheating, and equity, just as they would when integrating other technologies into their courses. But with the right approach, ChatGPT can be a useful—and as some psychologists argue, revolutionary—tool to prepare students for their future careers. Here are some insights from psychology instructors about using ChatGPT to help students learn.

Every psychology course has different learning objectives. When determining whether—and how—to incorporate ChatGPT into your course, think about your specific goals as an instructor. “There are going to be classes for which using GPT would be inappropriate, but in other settings, it could be a useful learning tool,” said Daniel Oppenheimer, PhD, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Ask yourself: What are you trying to teach your students, and what abilities are you hoping to measure? It may help to think of ChatGPT like a calculator. If you were teaching simple addition, then a calculator might hinder learning. But in a calculus course, the same tool could free up cognitive resources to help students perform the more advanced skills they need to learn.

“We can do math better and faster now that we have calculators,” said Jaclyn Siegel, PhD, a postdoctoral research scholar and an adjunct psychology faculty professor at San Diego State University. “It’s harder to imagine a similar scenario happening in psychology, but maybe we’ll be able to think more creatively because we have basic facts at our fingertips.”

Similarly, if you’re teaching an introductory class, ChatGPT might pose a threat to students learning basic information. Spelling and grammar tools, for example, could get in the way of evaluating whether students can write. But if your goal is to encourage good ideas, “the other tools make essays easier to read and help instructors understand if students understand the material,” said Oppenheimer.

In classes that you determine would not benefit from using ChatGPT, using online proctors or programs that restrict access to ChatGPT may sometimes be appropriate.

ChatGPT offers fast and easy access to information, which you may deem inappropriate in certain learning scenarios. However finding ways to incorporate AI tools in your course could help prepare students for the real world, where they’ll need to apply concepts rather than simply recall facts. “We want to train students how to think like a psychologist rather than how to know what a psychologist knows,” Oppenheimer said.

The bot may be best used to help students think critically about topics they’re already familiar with, said Gary Lupyan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Like talking with a colleague, it can be an interactive partner that’s useful in areas you know a lot about already, so you can critically evaluate the suggestion without blindly copying it,” he said.

For example, Oppenheimer teaches a course on human intelligence and stupidity, in which he encourages students to compare GPT-generated text with human-generated text. Hirsh-Pasek requires her honors psychology students to use ChatGPT, asking them to use ChatGPT for a first draft and edit a second draft with critiques, corrections, and additions. “A really good essay is not just a synthesis of information, but also the ability to support a thesis,” she said. “ChatGPT teaches students to ask better questions and then defend those questions, which could help them become real scientists.”

ChatGPT can also be used to incite classroom or lab discussion, said James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. For example, you could ask the bot why one theory is better than another. Then, ask again why the second theory is better. “Students can learn to appreciate other arguments and see both sides objectively before establishing an opinion,” he said.

Using ChatGPT in your course not only encourages critical thinking about class concepts but also encourages your students to be technologically literate in an increasingly tech-centric world. “We should be thinking about the world we’re preparing our students to enter and what habits of thinking we want to instill in them so they can successfully represent the discipline of psychology,” said Oppenheimer. “That means figuring out how to incorporate novel technology they will be using in the real world into classroom exercises.”

All technology sparks concern about academic dishonesty. If your students have access to computers during an exam, then they theoretically have access to ChatGPT. Be aware that ChatGPT can easily answer test questions because of how it synthesizes information. Steering clear of multiple-choice exams can help resolve that concern, but open-ended assessments may be harder to grade, especially with large classes.

Lupyan cautions against overhauling your test questions to trick the system. If you try to design exams with questions ChatGPT can’t answer, you may miss questions your students need to be learning. “Questions that require synthesis and contrast are the type you want to be asking students and the type these models are excelling at,” he said.

It may be more worthwhile to implement practices shown to reduce all kinds of cheating, said Oppenheimer. Be clear about your expectations for the class and motivate students to be engaged with the material. Breaking assignments and papers into chunks that come together over time can make it more difficult to plagiarize, especially if you regularly provide feedback that students need to incorporate into their work. Just as important, offer support to students who may be struggling with the material.

Take time at the beginning of the semester to explain why academic integrity is so important in your class and beyond. “Tell them that while cheating may temporarily make things easier, it has a short time horizon, because they aren’t actually learning skills they need in their careers,” Oppenheimer said.

As ChatGPT and other AI technologies advance, universities will develop official conduct codes about their use. Until then, it’s up to you to implement and communicate expectations about how students can and can’t use these tools in your class. In your syllabus, offer specific scenarios in which it’s acceptable to use them and when it’s not, and be sure your teaching assistants are on the same page.

If you’re OK with students using ChatGPT in certain scenarios, Siegel emphasizes the importance of equity. She teaches a large online course for which she can’t prevent students from using notes or searching online for answers. As a result, she conducts open-book exams and allows students to use the internet or textbook to answer questions. (She emphasizes forcing students to put their cameras on during tests is inequitable if students don’t have sufficient internet bandwidth.)

To prevent savvier students from getting better grades, she introduces the whole class to ChatGPT to ensure that they know how to use it. “Curves are based on averages, so everyone should have knowledge and access to the same tools and materials,” she said.

Before determining how ChatGPT could help or hinder your students’ learning, spend time with it yourself. Test it out and see what it can (and can’t) do. If you’re not ready to bring the technology to your course, use it for planning or administrative purposes. Lupyan, for example, recently asked ChatGPT to suggest titles for a grant he wrote, and Siegel used it to generate active lessons for teaching about methods in sexology research for her human sexual behavior course.

Whether you run a lab or teach a course, encourage your students to try it out for fun, too. Pennebaker’s students, for example, have used ChatGPT to write haikus about psychological theories or rap battles between two well-known scholars. “With education, the more people can get their hands dirty and play with ideas, the better they learn,” he said.

Be patient as the technology continues to evolve. As of early 2023, ChatGPT has been intermittently inaccessible due to the overwhelming number of users. Consider signing up for auto-notifications so you know when it’s available.

Navigating new technologies like ChatGPT can be time-consuming and even overwhelming, but taking steps to understand them could empower both you and your class. “I get scared of new things, too, but they offer us a chance to grow,” said Hirsh-Pasek. “I challenge all of us to be the learners we want our students to be.”

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