Writing recently at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Columbia University undergraduate Owen Kichizo Terry declared that faculty “have no idea” how much students are using ChatGPT.
Terry shows how he prompted ChatGPT through a series of steps to produce a six-page close reading of The Iliad, starting by using it to generate a series of thesis statements, which he could then argue. Of this he declared, “already, a major chunk of the thinking had been done for me.”
He then used ChatGPT as a tool to guide structure and content, essentially creating a set of instructions for himself to produce the end product.
Terry teases out a tension, suggesting that students should be learning how to use AI to produce a “better essay” or should be given assignments on which AI “can’t possibly help.” He is worried that because of ChatGPT and its ilk, he and his colleagues at Columbia are “not being forced to think anymore” (emphasis mine).
At The Atlantic, Ian Bogost shares some insights from the instructor side of the equation, as professors realize that the AI-detection services don’t actually work. Bogost talks to an English instructor in Florida who has been “demoralized” over the introduction of ChatGPT into the work his students produce. Some students are even outsourcing nearly all the work on an assignment to the AI. The teacher tells Bogost, “With tools like ChatGPT, student think there’s just no reason for them to care about developing these skills.”
The instructor can’t force them to think when this tool that can simulate thinking to a sufficient degree to pass a college assessment is in the mix.
It strikes me that the problem we need to tackle, then, is how to get students to think.
I would like to suggest that now that the year is over and everyone has a chance to catch their breath, this problem is neither particularly new nor dire. Students have always been able to get through school without doing much thinking. The chief difference with ChatGPT is that it makes this practice more visible, more efficient and more difficult to ignore—if we actually do care anything about student learning, that is.
But as I say, not thinking is not new to college. I successfully navigated college without doing much thinking at all for large swaths of time.
For example, second semester freshman year, while consuming a course diet of primarily large lectures, I attended well south of 50 percent of my class meetings and finished with three A’s and two B’s by cramming sufficient information into my short-term memory to pass the exams. I retained almost nothing beyond the immediate period following the exams and retain zero percent of the material today.
I considered the semester a big success. Lots of other things happened that semester that I remember quite well. I pledged a fraternity, was a top midfielder on the lacrosse club, lined up a job for the summer as a sports-oriented day camp counselor and broke up with my high school girlfriend, a relationship that had persisted into college but was clearly not going to persist all the way through college, despite her obvious awesomeness.
What I learned that semester had nothing to do with the content of or work inside my academic courses. No one cared. As far as the system was concerned, I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It’s a significant sign of progress over the years that more people seem to care about what and how much students learn in college. The problem is that the kinds of activities and experiences that continue to be emphasized in classes often remain divorced from meaningful learning.
Consider how Owen Kichizo Terry utilized ChatGPT to give himself a step-by-step prescription for a “good essay,” which he recognizes obviates the need for thinking. In many cases, students have no need for the ChatGPT guidance because it’s already been provided in the form of templates and prescriptions.
Using templates and prescriptions to produce a passable school-related written artifact is the overwhelming experience of students prior to college as we claim to be teaching them how to write. That a student would reinvent this model for themselves using ChatGPT is rather predicable.
The Florida English instructor is seeing students use ChatGPT to crank out “thesis writing, bibliographies, outlines, and essays,” the stuff of a “typical” composition course. I do not intend to be harsh, but if ChatGPT can make these things seem worthless in an instant, perhaps it is past time to rethink the kinds of things we ask students to do, as well as how we ask them to do them.
Some takeaways we should be considering:
- Writing is thinking. This was my mantra before ChatGPT. These will quite possibly my last words before I expire. If text is produced without thinking, that’s not writing. That’s something else. Those are writing-related simulations.
- Every student has the right to think and should be supported in that aim. A recent Inside Higher Ed Views piece is, in my opinion, particularly misdirected when the author suggests that less prepared students using ChatGPT as a tool to generate initial drafts and structures will help close equity gaps. This may help students produce writing-related simulations which receive a higher grade, but this will not provide them with the stuff that is truly meaningful, practice thinking.
- You can’t force anyone to think. Never could. You can coerce students into producing a simulation of thinking in order to satisfy a grade requirement, but surely this is not what we desire when we talk about meaningful critical thinking.
- Much of what we’ve allowed to pass for thinking wasn’t thinking. This is perhaps most true when it comes to writing, but we let it slide anyway because it seemed like the general abilities and habits that doing well on those assessments required were worth rewarding. I am talking about myself here for many years of my career, but I’m certain others will recognize these behaviors in themselves. This is academic cosplay rooted in a system that privileges schooling over learning. There’s nothing stopping us from ending the fiction.
- Most students have not been rewarded for thinking in school. At the least students have experienced few intrinsic rewards for thinking in school. It is not surprising they arrive believing that thinking must be forced.
- People enjoy thinking. That includes students. I’ve witnessed thousands of discussions with and among students that demonstrated great enthusiasm for thinking. This is not always on the deepest of subjects—for example, the question “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” would generate lots of spirited thinking—but once student thinking is made visible to them in subjects more native to their experiences, it is a relatively small matter to redirect that process to other subjects.
- But thinking, particularly in school contexts, requires practice. A big part of my approach to teaching writing is helping students make their thinking visible to themselves. It’s weird that so much of school obscures the fact that students are native to thinking, but let’s face it, it kind of does.
- The route to thinking is rooted in process and experience, rather than forms and artifacts. Consider the annotated bibliography, an invaluable tool for processing and tracking research, one that I frequently assigned, and one that most students went through the motions on in varying degrees, leading to dissatisfaction all around.
Instead of combing through a larger universe of possible sources and identifying the most relevant ones, as instructed, students would do a single search of a library database and select the first five (or six or how many I required) sources and list those in the bibliography. Rather than demonstrate that they had read and processed the text as part of the thinking that happens in this stage of writing, they would vaguely describe what the source was about, rather than what it said.
Because I wanted students to actually read and think about these sources, I changed my annotated bibliography assignment to one where students instead write trivia questions based in their sources, following a process that requires them to develop knowledge below the surface about their chosen subject.
Judged in a vacuum, as an aid to producing a researched essay, trivia questions are an inferior product as compared to an annotated bibliography, but the process of getting students to write good trivia questions about their subjects induced them to spend much more time reading and thinking about their sources in depth, which is the behavior I want to engender.
After writing the trivia questions, if I wanted, I could have them produce an annotated bibliography, and it would be much better for having gone through the process and experience of writing trivia questions.
- These necessary changes are more accessible than you may be thinking. At the close of his piece in The Atlantic, Bogost says, “Rethinking assignments in light of AI might be warranted, just like it was in light of online learning. But doing so will also be exhausting for both faculty and students. Nobody will be able to keep up, and yet everyone will have no choice but to do so. Somewhere in the cracks between all these tectonic shifts and their urgent responses, perhaps teachers will still find a way to teach, and students to learn.”
While I agree with the need for rethinking assignments (obviously), I do not think this process needs to be exhausting. I found rethinking my curriculum that is now collected in The Writer’s Practice hugely energizing, an interesting and worthwhile problem to solve that paid immediate dividends, and continued to pay off over time. This was particularly true when I started involving students in discussions about my goals and the changes I was making.
No, it does not happen overnight, but starting the process cured the personal despair I was feeling about the disconnect between my goals for student writing and what students were producing.
- Help is available, and this shouldn’t fall on individual instructors. Lots of folks, me included, are tackling these issues and stand ready to help, but if this is not supported by the institutions, changes will be spotty and will fall disproportionately on those with the least resources and status, and the disruption will be prolonged.
It’s a big lift, but I can testify from the other side of a curriculum that privileges experiences and engagement, it’s a process very worth doing.
I’m currently offering an asynchronous online course on Teaching in a World of Artificial Intelligence, with a future course in collaboration with others on teaching with AI in a way that preserves thinking coming soon.
 This entire experience is outlined in The Writer’s Practice.