How Sydney academics are using generative AI this semester in class

Our approach to ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligence (AI) at the University of Sydney is one of productive and ethical engagement. Whilst recognising the need to safeguard academic integrity, we want to help prepare students to be ethical leaders in a future where AI provides new and exciting possibilities.

In the first part of this series, we spoke with academics who are experimenting with ways to help students better understand generative AI and use it to power-up their research and discussions. These are all low-workload but high-impact practices that you could try in your own classes.

Helping students explore and understand ChatGPT

Holding open class discussions

Kim Weatherall, a professor in the Sydney Law School, coordinates senior elective units on Law and Technology. “The focus of the units are on the relationship between law and technology: how we regulate new and emerging technologies; how law can or should respond when societies, economies, human capabilities and behaviour are changed by developments in new technologies,” she says. ChatGPT is the perfect contemporary example for her students to wrestle with. Kim is allowing her students to use it during the process of putting together a research essay, but they aren’t allowed to submit text written by these tools.

To gear up her students to think critically about ChatGPT, she ran a class discussion where students were active and engaged. “I demonstrated it live in class: we asked it to explain some law & tech issues; then write a joke about AI, then write a haiku about AI, then write an essay outline for us. It was an eye opener for some of the students I think. I then put a series of questions to small group discussion before we talked as a whole class,” she reflects. To encourage open discussion, she shared a collaborative document with her class and invited students to note their comments into the document. After demonstrating ChatGPT, she posed questions around benefits, risks, and ethics – and she has shared her discussion prompts for others to use.

Kim is engaging with these AIs in class because it is part of her students’ future:

By allowing, and encouraging them to use the tool and explore its capabilities, students will develop a deeper understanding of it, which will serve them both in the course and in future careers if they pursue practice in this area.

Critiquing ChatGPT’s responses together

Charlie Warren, an associate professor in the Faculty of Science, wanted to use ChatGPT as a “trendy hook” to highlight that it was still important to learn to think critically. In his third-year undergraduate unit on Applied Plant Function, the class activity he ran “served as a nice real-world demonstration of ChatGPT’s limitations and, by inference, the very real need for human cognition.”

He started with an overview of how scientists would usually research a topic – evaluating and then synthesising multiple reputable sources. He then demonstrated ChatGPT responding to a trivial short answer exam question, about which Charlie quips, “I knew ChatGPT would get wrong because the majority of responses on the internet are misconceptions”. ChatGPT was then asked to summarise and write to research questions about trees and carbon dioxide sequestration. Students then worked in groups to evaluate and improve ChatGPT’s responses, which Charlie had pre-generated before class so students didn’t need to create their own accounts. Groups were asked to mark up Word documents and comment on logical problems, misinformation, shallow analyses, and other issues. Finally, students were asked to reflect on their experience with ChatGPT and its utility as a research tool. Charlie has made available his class activity for others to adapt.

Like Kim, Charlie’s goal was to encourage his students to approach ChatGPT realistically:

It’s an emerging technology that students are using. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist or attempt a ban. It seems reasonable that we help students explore its limitations.

Encouragingly, the initial exposure helped students to become more comfortable with experimentation. Charlie reflects that his class “seemed to enjoy exploring the limitations of ChatGPT as a research tool, while also recognising how it could be useful (e.g. for initial research, setting out a framework, and/or overcoming writer’s block),” and that some even went further to try and engineer better prompts.

Activity slide, asking students to use ChatGPT to generate and critique responses to topics they know well
Hamish’s class activity

In a similar way Hamish Fernando, a lecturer from the Faculty of Engineering, asked his students to examine ChatGPT’s responses in his second-year units on AI, Data, and Society in Health. He encourages students to use generative AI for creative assignment and writing ideas, and as a friendly programming assistant. To help his students build critical familiarity with ChatGPT, he ran a class activity where students generated a response from the AI on a topic in which they had substantial knowledge, and worked together to critique its quality and attempt to improve the prompt to generate better responses.

Helping students research

Carolyn Stott, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, started engaging with ChatGPT herself because she was fearful. “I was initially scared of the ramifications for assessment!” she reflects. Now, she uses ChatGPT in her senior undergraduate French unit to assist students’ research processes and bolster their understanding of language. “In my French units I have openly discussed ChatGPT as one piece of software – among many others – that might contribute to their language learning, if used appropriately. I have encouraged students to trial it in class (in French) as part of formative learning activities e.g. research a definition of a particular literary genre and share it with the class or research the significance of a particular date or group of actors in the Algerian War,” she says.

While these activities using ChatGPT have produced good responses, she also includes activities that ChatGPT struggles with. “I have also shown them what happens when ChatGPT is asked to come up with literary analysis of a number of texts”, she says, noting that ChatGPT does not do this well because some of the texts she uses are not well known. She plans to use it to teach grammar, “by encouraging students to ask it to provide simple grammatical explanations of topics they don’t understand.”

Carolyn wants her students to have a realistic approach to ChatGPT. “Discussing openly the pros and cons of this tool is important,” she notes. “Students can see how it can help them in formative tasks and perhaps at the beginning of a summative task – like they might use Wikipedia, for example. They can also understand the ethical issues around its use and hopefully make the appropriate decisions.”

Spurring class discussion

JJ de Vries Robbé teaches in International Financial Transactions and International Sustainable Finance, postgraduate intensive units in the Sydney Law School. To help students ease into the subjects, he includes short pre-class exercises, some with ChatGPT. He also uses ChatGPT as a means to kickstart discussions in class. “My recommendation to students is to use ChatGPT for what it is: as a brainstorming buddy. At the same time I caution on believing the prompts – do not simply accept, but challenge what’s been put before you. This applies to ChatGPT, but of course to many things in life” he says.

Personalising teaching

Tatjana Seizova-Cajic, a senior lecturer from the Faculty of Medicine and Health, uses ChatGPT to teach quantitative study design to undergraduate, Honours, and postgraduate students in different faculties. With diverse cohorts, it’s hard to find examples of interest to all, let alone discuss topics of special interest. But with ChatGPT, she now has “a teaching assistant who knows something about each field”.

“After I introduce a concept or study design, students request an example in their field of interest from ChatGPT” she says. “We discuss and evaluate ChatGPT output. It’s important to have the time to do it.” ChatGPT allows Tatjana’s students to quickly contextualise a new concept or methodology within their preferred topic area, making it come alive and helping to motivate their engagement with new concepts.

ChatGPT can also help to break awkward silences, by giving students a starting point for discussion and critique. “Once I described a simple study in the lecture, and asked if a causal conclusion was justified. Silence. I encouraged them to ask ChatGPT by typing in the scenario and question. The answer was clear and several students volunteered their version,” she reflects. This also provides an opportunity to discuss ChatGPT’s limitations and errors. “We have had fun in class with some references it confabulated.”

Tatjana finds that her students are better engaged through using ChatGPT, and using it actually encourages them to learn more:

It develops critical thinking because students soon realise that confidently presented text could be wrong. It does not replace thorough sourcing of information or the need to develop a body of knowledge.

Her students seem to agree – early feedback suggests that they approach ChatGPT as a generalised information source and see its limitations (such as factuality), whilst recognising that it can be more useful for activities like summarisation and translation.

As we lead our students through this new frontier of teaching and learning, our role as teachers is to model transparent, ethical, and productive engagement with generative AI. Tatjana has some wise words for educators everywhere: “Sure, some forms of assessments have to change, but our main role is to teach and I don’t want to put assessment before teaching. Students know that ChatGPT cannot replace their own understanding of material. We cannot and should not try to hold them back from using AI out of concern that their professional growth will suffer. I think it’s quite the opposite: it will suffer if we don’t help them use AI.

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