While ChatGPT has plenty of flaws, utilizing it in the classroom provides the perfect opportunity to enhance and increase critical thinking at various stages of the writing process.
It can also help students practice areas where they are generally still fledgling: generating ideas, crafting outlines, formatting bibliographies, etc.
Below we take a deep dive into six of the ways you can use ChatGPT to improve student writing. By examining these strategies in-depth we can illuminate ChatGPT’s strengths and weaknesses and shed light on how the other five activities can be used in the classroom.
The full 11 lessons (64 pages of worksheets and material) is available from Teachers Pay Teachers.
You can preview those plans by clicking the thumbnail below. Because each lesson in the unit has multiple pages, we have included only a few pages from each in the preview. The full plans are available for download from Teachers Pay Teachers.
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Using ChatGPT for Essay Topic Generation
Many students hate writing because they struggle to come up with topics to write about. At the start of any writing project, the first hurdle they face is a negative one.
ChatGPT provides an opportunity for students to quickly and easily discover topics to write about, thus alleviating a fair amount of anxiety right at the beginning. The key though is to encourage students to view ideation as a process.
Rather than accepting the very first response ChatGPT spits out, students need to keep digging and sifting to find a topic that is truly original and engaging for them.
Our lesson plans always take this approach, requiring students to move through multiple rounds with ChatGPT in order to produce the best results.
Let’s start with the tried and true: Romeo and Juliet.
ChatGPT’s List of Essay Topics
This is a pretty bland list. Nothing earth-shattering here. In fact, this sounds a lot like what a lazy teenager would come up with. But it is a starting point, and it gives us a place from which to begin digging.
Let’s select the subject of fate in Romeo and Juliet and drill down a bit.
More Essay Topics From ChatGPT
Now we’re getting more specific. At this point, students can keep prompting ChatGPT — just rinse and repeat — until they find a topic that interests them. You can also ask ChatGPT to be more specific, or more funny, or more unique, or pick your modifier. The more exacting the request, the more likely it is that ChatGPT will come up with something original.
Or students can add another variable to (possibly) make their writing more relevant and engaging. This can be achieved by asking ChatGPT to consider a variable from the student’s interests.
For example, we can ask ChatGPT to explore the role of society and culture in shaping fate in both Rome and Juliet and Star Wars.
Again, we’re getting more specific and — for Star Wars fans anyway — more interesting. Given the role of destiny and class in both stories, let’s select #3 and move on to outlining.
Using ChatGPT to Generate Outlines for Student Writing
Even good writers struggle with crafting quality outlines. Student writers, who rarely have more than the most basic experience with outlining, can understandably feel overwhelmed.
Here again ChatGPT can be leveraged to aid students in creating and refining their thoughts through the same process we used for ideation.
Let’s see what ChatGPT comes up with for a first pass.
I’ve left out the Introduction and Conclusion to focus on the meat of the outline.
So here we can see one of ChatGPT’s flaws. Sometimes it gets confused and gives you the wrong answer.
In this case, we wanted an outline comparing Romeo and Juliet and Star Wars, but ChatGPT only gave us R&J. In which case, we need to back up and ask again with greater clarity and precision.
Provide an outline for a 5 paragraph essay exploring the role of destiny in relation to class in Romeo and Juliet and Star Wars.
ChatGPT’s Second Outline
This looks better.
Now we’ve got both stories in there. But looking at this outline, it’s pretty clear that a five paragraph essay is barely going to skim the surface of this topic. With two different stories to analyze, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
Depending on the kind of writing assignment, we might ask ChatGPT to expand this outline to allow for more paragraphs. Or we might ask it to hone in even further, narrowing the scope of the essay.
In this case, we’re actually going to do both.
Provide an outline for an 8-paragraph essay exploring how class affects destiny for the characters of Romeo and Luke Skywalker.
ChatGPT’s Third Outline
You get the idea. This can go on and on, and quite frankly, for students, it probably should.
In our lesson plans, we ask students to provide multiple stages of outlines precisely because ChatGPT is unlikely to produce anything all that stunning unless prompted to go deeper and deeper.
But let’s say we’re okay with the outline above. We still need to ask if the outline is in the best possible order, or if there may be a paragraph (or two) that should be chucked in favor of something else.
Here is where we can ask students to be thoughtful and reflective about their outlines. Instead of just letting ChatGPT spit out an answer and move on, we can ask students to provide their reasons for why they chose a particular outline.
The purpose should be to illuminate for students that outlining is a creative thinking process, not a passive one.
Using ChatGPT for Identifying Resources
We have an outline. Fantastic. Now we need to find resources to draw on for our essay. ChatGPT can be utilized for this as well.
Online Resources Provided by ChatGPT
Now this is actually a solid list. ChatGPT has even provided hyperlinks, which is particularly useful as it lets us immediately identify whether or not the resources are real.
Always double-check ChatGPT’s resources. Often the program will provide fake articles, books and authors in an attempt to align with the topic of your inquiry. Any resource it provides should be Googled before being accepted as legitimate.
That said, even when ChatGPT provides fake resources, it’s not always a total loss. Sometimes the program simply mishmashes different titles and authors together, generating an overall fake resource, but one that when Googled will still pull up related results that can be used for research.
Print Resources Provided by ChatGPT
Now this is an interesting list. Four of these selections are from before 1975, with three of them being from before 1950.
Perhaps ChatGPT is showing off? Wanting to impress with the vastness of its reading?
Let’s ask it to be more current.
Well, it’s more current, but now a bit off-topic. We’re getting a book that focuses on John Updike and another that focuses on the heroine’s journey even though we’re supposed to be focused on Romeo and Luke.
The most interesting thing about this list though is #5. ChatGPT is stretching itself with that suggestion, offering us a book that it recognizes has nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet or Star Wars, but which it still believes can offer “theoretical framework for analyzing the impact of social class”.
And herein lies the strength and weakness of ChatGPT. On the one hand, it can get off track and need to be brought back into line. But on the other, it can make unexpected leaps that we may not have guessed at ourselves. Especially if we’re students.
Either way, we’ve also included in our lesson plans a CRAAP Test, which students are asked to use in order to determine how reliable ChatGPT’s recommendations are.
Using ChatGPT to Write Titles for Essays
Writing titles is often an afterthought for students, something they invest five minutes into at the very end of a writing project. And, to be fair, most teachers aren’t downgrading students for lame titles.
Even so, ChatGPT can help students understand the wider array of possibilities by recommending dozens of titles, and the process of title creation can open the door to a more thoughtful writing process.
After all, titles matter. At least in the real world.
ChatGPT Writes a Title
Now that’s not too shabby. Four of these are pretty bland, but #1 is fairly catchy. We can ask ChatGPT to provide variations on that single title and see what else it comes up with.
ChatGPT Refines Titles
By asking ChatGPT to provide “creative” variations, we can see the system kicking out titles with a little more pizazz.
ChatGPT’s go-to responses tend to sound very much like the unimaginative software program that it truly is. Which is why the most important skill students can learn when using ChatGPT is how to ask specific and creative questions.
Let’s give it one more whirl.
Now that’s some good stuff. Given that humor is cultural (a joke in another language is rarely amusing when translated into yours), one wonders precisely how ChatGPT has learned to mimic this kind of amusing wordplay. However it’s done, the results are — at least in this case — pretty clever.
And while a student’s grade may not hinge on how crafty the title of their essay is, what this exercise offers is a chance for students to reflect on how a particular title does (or does not) align with the essay they intend to write.
In fact, it’s quite possible that a student might find a title they like so much that it could (in theory) send them back to the drawing board to generate new outlines that better suit that title.
At every stage when working with ChatGPT, the goal should be for students to follow whatever sparks their creativity. Ultimately, using ChatGPT should foster inspiration for young writers by putting before them ideas they hadn’t considered, whether those ideas come during ideation, outline or even title creation.
Using ChatGPT to Write Topic Sentences
Some teachers may balk at allowing ChatGPT to write any part of the student’s actual essay. That’s fine. Every educator must decide where to draw the line in their own classroom.
What we want to explore here is simply how ChatGPT can clear an opening for students and remove some of the anxiety around the dreaded Topic Sentence.
ChatGPT Writes Topic Sentences
Definitely none of the wow factor in this first pass, which is probably fine for what we’re after.
However, if we’re going to allow ChatGPT to write actual sentences for us, we can leverage its ability to mimic in order to examine style, tone and word choice.
In our lesson plans, we ask students to prompt ChatGPT to provide sentences in the voice of various fictional characters. Then students can ponder how each sentence reflects the voice of those characters, hopefully leading students to think about their own style and voice.
Because ChatGPT takes this task so literally, it tends to go overboard to create “voice”. But that is actually to our advantage, as it makes more clear the delineations between styles. A more subtle and nuanced approach would likely defeat the purpose of this lesson.
We ask students to consider: what makes each writer unique? How does word choice and style reflect the way a particular writer thinks about the world? Which of these various sentences is the most effective? Why?
And also, because this is about student writing and not ChatGPT writing, we ask students to pick a sentence and improve it.
What matters, in the end, is that students use ChatGPT to encourage their own thinking.
Using ChatGPT for Feedback on Student Writing
ChatGPT is also useful for providing feedback to students on their own sentences and paragraphs. We don’t necessarily advise that students drop their entire essay into ChatGPT and ask for feedback, but it’s worth noting that because ChatGPT can provide an analysis instantly and repeatedly, it offers students something they can’t get elsewhere.
Namely an immediately available editor.
As teachers, we’d all love to be able to read a student’s work and give detailed feedback as often as possible. Unfortunately, as often as possible usually works out to only a handful of times each year.
ChatGPT can fill this gap by providing what teachers have such short supply of: time.
That said, let’s see what kind of feedback ChatGPT gives us.
Here’s the paragraph we gave ChatGPT:
Romeo’s destiny was heavily influenced by his class. He wasn’t rich and didn’t have any standing in his society. He couldn’t have the thiings he wanted because he didn’t have any money or any power or any friends who had money or power either and so when he wanted to get with Juliet there wasn’t anythiing he could do about it. She was out of his class.
And here’s what ChatGPT recommended:
This is solid advice. The kind of advice that any teacher would offer. Even better, ChatGPT provides its own edited example for comparison.
ChatGPT’s Edited Paragraph
Romeo’s lower social class greatly impacted his destiny in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. As a member of the Montague family, he lacked the wealth and power of the Capulets and other upper-class citizens in Verona. This meant he was unable to access the same opportunities and privileges as his wealthier counterparts, including access to education, social connections, and influential positions. When he fell in love with Juliet, he was immediately confronted with the reality of their class differences, which made it difficult for them to be together. Despite his efforts to win her over, he was ultimately unable to overcome the societal expectations and constraints that kept them apart.
Personally, my favorite part of this rewrite is the fact that ChatGPT correctly correlates “get with” and “fell in love”.
That aside, it’s immediately clear how ChatGPT can help students identify their own shortcomings as writers and steer them in the right direction.
However, we shouldn’t take ChatGPT’s advice as the be all, end all. It’s good advice, and the rewritten version is stronger than the original, but it also possesses all the stuffy hallmarks of dull, academic writing. In its effort to improve accuracy and quality, ChatGPT has given us something that is better but also rather leaden.
You can see this effect most clearly when prompting ChatGPT to “improve” lines that are quite literary.
Here are the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby:
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
ChatGPT Rewrites Fitzgerald
In assessing The Great Gatsby, ChatGPT advises poor Fitzgerald to use proper punctuation, vary his sentence structure, and stop being so damn poetic.
Here is ChatGPT’s improved version:
Well, there’s no accounting for taste.
Final Thoughts on Using ChatGPT in the Classroom
Hopefully this case study has made clear the ways in which ChatGPT can be useful in enhancing, encouraging and improving student writing.
In our lesson plans, there are additional activities regarding the creation of bibliographies, comparing human writing against ChatGPT (opening the discussion to what exactly defines “human” writing), and having student students create their own literary quizzes in order to better understand their reading.
ChatGPT is the first shot over the bow in a brand new world. It is already a stunning tool, and we can only wonder at how sophisticated such tools will be in the future.
What is obvious is that we cannot put the genie back in the bottle, and so we must ask if there are ways to make the genie serve us (while also inspiring us to be better).
For all the teachers out there, good luck.