February 28, 2024

Cherie Shields, a high school English teacher in Oregon, told me that she recently had students in one of her classes use ChatGPT to create outlines for their essays, comparing and contrasting two 19th-century texts involving gender and Short Story Health on Psychological Themes: Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper”. Once an outline is generated, her students put away their laptops and handwrite their papers.

The process, she says, not only deepens students’ understanding of the story. It also taught them how to interact with AI models and how to get useful responses from them.

“They have to understand, ‘I need this to make an outline about X, Y and Z,’ and they have to think about it very carefully,” Ms. Shields said. “If they don’t get the results they want, they can always modify it.”

Creating an outline is just one of the many ways ChatGPT can be used in the classroom. It can write individualized lesson plans for each student (“Explaining Newton’s Laws of Motion to a Visuospatial Learner”) and come up with ideas for classroom activities (“Writing a script for an episode of ‘Friends’ that took place at the Constitutional Convention”). It serves as an after-hours tutor (“Explain the Doppler effect, using language an eighth grader can understand”) or a debate sparring partner (“Convince me that animal testing should be banned”). It can be used as a starting point for classroom exercises or as a tool for English learners to improve basic writing skills. (The teaching blog Ditch That Textbook has a long list Possible classroom uses of ChatGPT. )

Even ChatGPT’s flaws—such as its frequent answers to factual questions—could be fodder for critical-thinking exercises. Several teachers have told me that they have instructed students to try and stumble ChatGPT, or rate its responses the way teachers rate students.

ChatGPT also helps teachers save time on lesson preparation. Jon Gold is an eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School, a pre-K through 12th grade Quaker school in Providence, Rhode Island , he said he had tried using ChatGPT to generate quizzes. For example, he gave the robot an article about Ukraine and asked it to generate 10 multiple-choice questions to test students’ understanding of the article. (Of those 10 questions, six are usable, he said.)

In the end, Mr. Gold said ChatGPT was not a threat to students’ learning as long as teachers combined it with substantive classroom discussions.

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