Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic


A Brief Summary of the Capability of ChatGPT

by: Michelle Kassorla, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Georgia State University | Perimeter College, Dunwoody

A Brief Summary of the Capability of ChatGPT

You may be familiar with ChatGPT, or at least the controversy surrounding it. In short, ChatGPT is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool that uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) to generate text-based items such as essays, code, letters, etc. It is the latest, and most advanced, iteration of the OpenAI project which began releasing AI tools as early as 2018. If you noticed a sudden change in the quality of your students’ writing, it is likely they discovered these AI tools much earlier than you did, and they have been using them to significantly improve their essays, tests, and projects. The most disruptive and popular tool, ChatGPT, was released just before final’s week of Fall 2022, and, depending upon how and what you use to gage your student’s learning, may have contributed to a much higher passing score than you expected on your final projects and exams.

What ChatGPT Can Do

ChatGPT can be used to write simple essays, including answering essay questions on exams, letters, speeches, and even code. Basically, anything that is text-based, ChatGPT can handle.  Stephan Marche’s article in The Atlantic, “The College Essay is Dead,” seemed to indicate that ChatGPT’s capabilities are limited to the English department, but they aren’t. They are not even limited to the humanities. ChatGPT can:

  • write simple essays (including responses about literary works),
  • establish connections between unlike things,
  • write answers to essay questions in all subjects,
  • write and debug code (including notes),
  • figure out physics problems and apply the appropriate equations,
  • write about chemical bonds and how they work,
  • write graduate-level essay responses to complex medical questions,
  • answer complex legal questions and the precedents that extend to those questions,
  • create cover letters for specific jobs,
  • write speeches of all kinds,
  • compose press releases,
  • write newspaper and magazine articles, and
  • understand and write about philosophy, religion, and logic.

This is not a comprehensive list, but it provides a good general idea of how the tool can and will be used by your students (and probably already has been). Now that I have you completely freaked out, here’s some good news!

What ChatGPT Can’t Do

Here a list of things ChatGPT can’t do, and most of them include critical thinking tasks that require sophisticated connections between things that are not often connected. ChatGPT can’t:

  • write papers with references,
  • correctly answer all questions,
  • provide graphics (like showing chemical bonds),
  • write about objects, stories, or articles not yet written about widely on the internet,
  • create novel solutions to problems, and
  • solve math problems.

The biggest snag I found in ChatGPT is that it cannot reference sources. It can reference legal precedents, but when it comes to in-text citations and Works Cited, it is incapable. In addition, if you ask it to write about something that has not been widely discussed or written about on the internet, it can’t do it because it gets its intelligence from us—from the thousands upon thousands of comments, writing, and articles about things that already exist. If you ask it about something that has not been widely written about, it is stumped. It also had difficulty with premises not widely supported on the Internet—and gave wrong answers to those premises. So, if your student is not competent, they may produce an essay or answer that is opposite of the truth. They have to have knowledge of the topic in order to check ChatGPT’s answer. Finally, ChatGPT has not been trained to do mathematics (this doesn’t mean your students won’t employ a different AI tool to get their math done—like Wolfram Alpha. So, don’t get too cozy!).

What Does This Mean for Us?

In order to make your online and take-home questions ChatGPT-proof, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Play with ChatGPT Often. If you are planning to make your class ChatGPT-proof, you have to play with the tool. Make sure you plug in all the questions you are asking your students to answer in discussion, in essay or short-answer questions, or in essays for your class. Don’t stop with one try. Make sure you are constantly testing your material, as Artificial Intelligence systems grow and change with more input and more time. What ChatGPT can’t do this week, it may be capable of doing next week. It makes sense to test your materials one to two weeks before using them, just to make sure that ChatGPT has not caught on to the answers.

Flip Your Face-to-Face Classroom. If you haven’t done so yet, make students learn material outside of class, and prove what they have learned in-class. Bring back old-fashioned teaching techniques like making students answer out loud, write answers on the board, or conduct mediated discussions in class. Demonstrate ChatGPT for your class, and show its limitations. Sometimes a quick demonstration of how it isn’t always right can scare some students into learning the material despite their use of ChatGPT.

Require Citations in Online Courses. It may seem like a lot, but for online classes, you should require in-text citations and Works Cited in discussions and for essay tests, use multiple-choice questions, and write questions about topics ChatGPT is unlikely to understand. It is also helpful to use tools like VoiceThread that has students chatting via video. In lieu of VoiceThread , you can have students make videos and post them in chat—but that doesn’t mean they won’t cheat by having ChatGPT write their script.

Get to Know ChatGPT’s Voice. Every writer has a voice, and if you have been reading essays and exam answers long enough, it is easy to tell one student’s voice from another. ChatGPT is no exception. ChatGPT has a voice, and it is obvious when you read it. Practice using ChatGPT enough times that you understand how it answers questions and what its voice sounds like. It isn’t as easy to prove as plagiarism, but telling the voice of an AI apart from the voice of your students, and warning them that you know what’s up, will probably scare enough of them straight to protect the integrity of your course.

Start Working With ChatGPT instead of Against It. Find ways to use ChatGPT to generate ideas, set up essays and outlines, and provide the basis of projects. It is great at working out the basics before your students start writing their essay. It can also explain metaphors, compare characters, and uncover historical facts that students may be unaware of. Chatting with the ChatGPT may help your student clarify and focus ideas for papers, projects, and concepts. ChatGPT and other AI tools are not going away. We need to find ways to work with these tools to make our students work smarter in the work they do in our classes and beyond.

lcarruth • January 4, 2023

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  1. Dr. Stephanie Y. Evans January 7, 2023 - 6:37 pm

    Hello! THANK YOU for the excellent synopsis of what we are dealing with…this is very helpful. For the past 20 years, I’ve required multiple source types as a way to challenge students to incorporate course sources, their own intellectual/professional interests, and a diverse set of external sources. Having course assignments where students articulate their own interest and relate it to course information as well as information they locate (I call these REAL BAD NEWS sources) makes students demonstrate competence in several ways, especially knowledge, comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and application. Below are two links that might be helpful for folks interested in developing assignments for their own courses.
    TEACHING FROM THE SOURCE: Inside Higher Education article
    TEACHING FROM THE SOURCE: Website Resource

  2. Michael Black January 11, 2023 - 7:45 pm

    Love it. Thank you, Michelle!

  3. Miles June 25, 2023 - 6:20 pm

    Thanks for the article!

Comments are closed.

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