It is a regular school day. You have just assigned an essay to your students about ants. As they were busy writing, you took your mobile phone and skimmed through the news, when your eyes caught the news about the release of ChatGPT. As you kept reading, you learned that ChatGPT was a chatbot developed by OpenAI capable of writing essays, solving science and math problems and producing working computer code. You also learned that ChatGPT was capable of responding to users’ questions in ways that allowed it to search large databases and create well-formed essays that could be used by students to submit as their own. Suddenly you became alarmed because you realized that your students could perform the assignment you just gave them in a second by asking ChatGPT to write them an essay about ants.
This was the reality that most teachers were faced with last November when the software was released to the public. Reactions were fierce at first when most teachers understood the impact that ChatGPT will have on their teaching. A few districts immediately banned it and went on to conduct teaching as usual, while others who understood that ChatGPT was here to stay, decided to be guided by the saying ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ These teachers decided to create accounts and explore how they could use ChatGPT to their and their students’ benefit.
It is true that for lots of assignments ChatGPT can do the work for you. Students can ask a question and ChatGPT will respond with an output that is fluid and grammatically correct and they can copy/paste the response to their own documents. Some people will, undoubtedly, try to find ChatGPT detectors to track down students using it. They’re not reliable. And this approach isn’t the long-term solution to helping your students become modern learners. As I mentioned above, some school districts decided to block the application on their school network, but that would not eliminate the application from students because they could access it via their cell phones or their home computers. Teachers experimenting with the application learned that it could be quite beneficial for them and their students once they rethink the way they teach.
So, how can you turn ChatGPT or any other similar AI tool into a beneficial learning tool for you and your students? When considering this question, we first need to look at the best methods that can enhance student learning and see how using these AI tools can serve or hinder that purpose.
How the Brain Learns
The process of learning starts with a basic awareness of our environment, proceeds to rote memory, working (short term) memory, patterning and connections to relational memory and long-term memory storage.
In rote memory, we try to remember facts that we eventually forget. In most cases, these facts lack context or any form of pattern or connectivity that the brain can use to map the information into contextualized clusters. In working or short-term memory, the brain is capable of holding and manipulating information for only about 20 minutes. If we fail to move these working memories into long-term memory within 20 minutes, the memory gets lost. We can retain the new information by activating our previously learned knowledge that relates to the new material. This prior knowledge exists in stored loops of brain cell connections. Effective teaching uses strategies to help students recognize patterns and then make the connections required to process the new working memories so they can travel into the brain’s long term storage areas.
The Most Effective Ways to Teach With ChatGPT
ChatGPT or any similar AI tool completely eliminates rote learning because it provides well-formed answers to any user questions, thus removing the need for students to search for the precise information that answers their question and to formulate it as an essay. This, of course, caused the biggest panic amongst teachers because lesson plans based on this method of learning became useless. However, relying solely on these AI tools is not healthy either for our brains because everything we learn and all our experiences are mapped into our brains and get contextualized in a way that later helps us retrieve it easily. This body of knowledge also becomes the necessary foundation used by our executive faculties to analyze and synthesize information. Here are several teaching methods based on neuroscience that will help you avoid the negative impact that tools like ChatGPT can have on learning.
Teaching Method1: Enhance Traditional Learning With Fact Checking
Why Do This: This means that students still need to learn and get this information stored in their long-term memory. When helped by ChatGPT or a similar tool, they will get their information prepackaged and formatted. However, these tools can be wildly inaccurate and that is where learning for students still lies.
What Can You Do: Knowing this, a teacher can assign students to write an essay about any subject and use ChatGPT or other AI tools to do it, but then have them use other resources to make sure that what they got from the AI tool is accurate. Have students come up with a list of inaccuracies they found and then have them write the essay with the accurate information in mind.
Why Does This Work: By having to check the facts, students delve deep into their topic and conduct a compare and contrast between the content provided by the AI tool and what they come up with during their search. To accomplish this goal, students need to activate their executive faculties, facilitating the storage of data into long-term memory. The assignment will conclude with students writing the essay based on the accurate information they discovered.
Teaching Method2: Personalize Information to Be Learned
Why Do This: Neuroscientists believe that personalizing information to be learned activates the areas of the brain that help form memories. AI tools such as ChatGPT can provide users with information, but they cannot say anything about how that information relates to each of us.
What Can You Do: Having students discuss a topic while relating it to students’ personal experiences is unique to each student and cannot be done by AI.
Why Does This Work: Personalizing and interacting with the information stimulates multiple brain pathways to enter long term memory and it cannot be done by any AI tool.
Teaching Method3: The Surprise Factor
Why Do This: Our brains are structured to remember novel events that are unexpected. When I was in college, one of my professors who was teaching social psychology started a lesson by sliding into class with a skateboard. She later told us that she wanted to make a point about the value of acting for teaching. I will never forget that lesson just because it was so different and because I was not expecting it. You can do the same. Use surprise to bring student’s brains to attention.
What Can You Do: Strategies that can achieve these goals include partner discussions and Think-Pair-Share, or students can add a sketch in their notebook about the surprise, the new information they learned and what their response is to it. What did I learn? What surprised me? What do I want to know more about? What did this information remind me of?
Why Does This Work: In addition to the surprise, it also has the personalized information component. Students can use AI tools to do the research, but then need to do the discussion, Think-Pair-Share or any other surprising methods on their own.
Teaching Method4: Bring Assignments to Life
Why Do This: Instead of assigning some tedious, passive homework task containing questions that students need to answer by searching the chapter or their notes for the answers.
What Can You Do: Teachers can create classroom opportunities to bring these questions to life, such as using these questions to interview a partner as if for a television news show, create a presentation, read the notes of partners and advise them on what they missed, etc.
Why Does This Work: When teachers take steps to engage students’ brains for new information to pass from awareness to working memory, students’ brains can take over and build upon their existing knowledge.
Teaching Method5: Experiential Learning
Why Do This: Experiential learning that stimulates multiple senses in students, such as hands-on discovery science, is not only the most engaging, but also the most likely to be stored as long-term memories.
What Can You Do: You can do hands-on experiential learning, such as the process of photosynthesis, which consist of factual information that is specifically structured into the lesson and episodic or event memories stored, such as the sensory input from touching, seeing, measuring and investigating the plant.
Why Does This Work: It provides experiences that enable students to interact with knowledge in ways that triggers their physical senses and positive emotions or connects the new information with their past experiences and interests. AI tools can only provide the factual information, students need to perform the episodic or event parts on their own. So, when tying the factual to the episodic, students need to provide their own narrative about what they have experienced.
Teaching Method6: Graphic Organizers
Why Do This: Graphic organizers are a creative alternative to rote memorization because they enable students to make connections, see patterns, access previously stored related memories, and expand upon existing memory circuitry.
What Can You Do: Sample Instructions for Student-Generated Graphic Organizer
You will create a graphic organizer with evidence to support the following generalization: Eating healthy food is good for me
Put the generalization in the center of the graphic organizer page
For each fact that you select to support the generalization, include a visual symbol, or clipart.
Use at least three colors.
Include at least four supporting facts
Branch out with at least three levels of supporting facts
Why Does This Work: I asked ChatGPT to generate a graphic organizer for ‘Eating healthy food is good for me,’ and here is its response:
Outstanding, right? However, the format it provides is not exactly student friendly and a graphic organizer has extended branching, which ChatGPT cannot produce. It also does not allow adding the images that are specified above. It also fails to display the type of relationship that exists between the branches. You need to specify to your students that you expect them to have the generalization in the center and then branch out with at least three levels of supporting facts, as well as specify the type of relationship that exists between the branches.
The best graphic organizers engage the students’ imagination and positive emotions in a creative process in which they recognize, sort, and discover patterns for themselves. In addition, the use of graphic organizers to connect information in meaningful relationships allows students time for reflecting about the information.