During the Winter 2023 semester, my students at Marianopolis College began the semester being very aware of ChatGPT and its potential to affect their education, as did I. I responded to the advent of this tool by experimenting with allowing students to use ChatGPT for 1 take-home assignment. I concluded that it is possible for students’ use of ChatGPT to be unproblematic and even enhance their learning.

The courses I taught and my experimentation

This semester (Winter 2023), I taught a Business Communication LPE (or B-Block) course (2 sections) and Literary Survey 102 course (1 section).

I decided to authorize students to use ChatGPT for 1 graded take-home analytical writing assignment per course:

  • a resume and cover letter assignment for Business Communication
  • a literary essay for Literary Survey

I accordingly provided students with guidance concerning how to effectively use ChatGPT.

The pre-semester survey

Before the beginning of classes, I sent my students a pre-semester questionnaire asking them to share their thoughts about the impact of ChatGPT on education.

Students’ responses showed that they possessed highly varied attitudes towards it:

  • Some called for the full integration of ChatGPT in the name of embracing the future.
  • Other students expressed concerns about negative impacts on learning and academic integrity and so suggested a full ban.
  • Some pointed out the futility of a ban and called for a thoughtful, balanced approach to ChatGPT integration in education.
  • Many displayed confusion about how the use of ChatGPT could be reconciled with academic integrity and educational objectives.

The Resume and Cover Letter assignment

Business Communication is a 4th-semester English course at Marianopolis College. The Resume and Cover Letter assignment requires students to respond to a fictional job posting for a summer internship and then create a resume and cover letter that is customized to reflect both the job posting and students’ real backgrounds. The result of this assignment should be students understanding the features of the resume and cover letter and being able to implement those features.

A Sample Job Posting for one of the eight job postings that a student could be assigned

Adapting the course and the assignment

I was concerned that students’ use of ChatGPT might distort assignment averages and standard deviations, enable cheating, and cause students to not learn.

Considering those concerns, I transformed what had been the course’s one other take-home assignment into an in-class assignment so that students would not be able to receive assistance from ChatGPT.

I also reduced the weight of the Resume and Cover Letter assignment from 25% to 20% to reduce undesirable ChatGPT impacts on the course’s average grade and standard deviation.

In addition, there were 2 major adaptations to the Resume and Cover Letter assignment:

  • I edited the instructions regarding academic integrity to encourage seeking help from others, notably ChatGPT, regarding content, writing, and formatting. I also specified that “the only sense in which a student might cheat is if they submit a resume and/or cover letter that do not reflect their real background.”
  • I provided a section in the instructions called “Using ChatGPT” which accomplished the following:
    • Cautioning students about ChatGPT’s limitations
    • Providing links to 3 articles discussing the use of ChatGPT to prepare resumes and cover letters
    • Outlining ChatGPT use cases along with example queries and responses

Resume and Cover Letter Assignment Instructions and Evaluation

Rationales for the adaptations

So long as the Resume and Cover Letter assignment was a take-home assignment, I felt that authorizing the use of ChatGPT was the best option: some students would doubtless use it, and I did not want to create a situation where I would predictably have to sift ambiguous evidence to determine whether to recommend academic sanction based on probabilistic verdicts generated by ChatGPT detection tools.

Why not an in-class handwritten assignment?

In theory, I could have developed an in-class handwritten version of the assignment. However, I judged this option to be unfeasible. This is because both the resume and cover letter are time-consuming, partly due to all the norms governing those genres, partly since they must be customized to reflect a job posting and an individual’s background.

Also, students could not produce a realistically-formatted resume via handwriting.

Finally, it would have resulted in a poor simulation of and thus poor preparation for the time-unlimited typed at-home process students would use when preparing applications for real jobs.

Having authorized students to use ChatGPT, it was also logical to authorize other forms of support, such as receiving help from peers. While this more liberal approach to academic integrity left me uncomfortable, I believed the odds of students offloading the assignment were low for a number of reasons:

  • The highly personal nature of the assignment and students’ belief in the real-world usefulness of the assignment would strongly motivate students to want to independently produce their resumes and cover letters to a great degree.
  • The assignment is very complex, notably due to having to marry the conventions of 2 genres, a job posting, a student’s real background and my very specific grading criteria, such that arranging for a third party (e.g. ChatGPT) to creditably produce the assignment would require a great deal of time and effort.
  • My experimentation with ChatGPT suggested to me that its tendency to produce vague, wordy, and impersonal writing would dissuade students from relying on it unthinkingly.

How ChatGPT may benefit students

What also helped offset my discomfort was my excitement at how ChatGPT might benefit my students.

First, ChatGPT was a potentially powerful tool to help students achieve the linguistically perfect resumes and cover letters demanded by employers: it generally produces correct English, and it has a considerable ability to identify and correct grammar errors and other issues with language. I, therefore, wanted my students to gain proficiency in using ChatGPT to help them create their applications for the course’s fictional jobs and then later for real jobs.

Second, using ChatGPT effectively for this assignment would require a knowledge of and reflection about resume and cover letter conventions in order to effectively design prompts and critically evaluate responses, potentially enhancing students’ learning.

Results and findings

In the end, the assignment average and standard deviation were appropriate for both sections. Therefore, allowing the use of ChatGPT did not result in high averages and low standard deviations as I had feared it might.

However, the average was somewhat low and the standard deviation was somewhat high compared to previous averages for this assignment. This grade data is consistent with my findings from reading students’ assignments: an unusually large number of cover letters featured some consistent problems. For example, the opening paragraphs of the cover letters were sometimes quite poorly executed and tended to be vague, while the cover letter body paragraphs were sometimes very unfocused.

These problems may have partly resulted from vague writing produced by ChatGPT. Regardless, I am certain that those problems resulted in large part from uncritical copying from sample cover letters I had supplied.

The post-assignment survey

After returning the assignment feedback and grades, I invited the students to complete a Google Forms survey regarding their experience with ChatGPT. I received 55 responses out of the 66 students registered in the courses. Here are some of the survey results:

  • 47.3% of respondents reported that they opted to not use ChatGPT
  • Of those who said they did use it, 73.3% mentioned that ChatGPT was only “somewhat helpful” or even “not at all helpful”

These results suggest that students’ reliance on and use of ChatGPT was limited.

The survey further reveals that those who did not use ChatGPT made that choice notably due to valuing personalized work, lacking time, ChatGPT being unavailable, or having doubts about its ability to meaningfully help.

Those who did use ChatGPT identified many ways in which it helped them:

  • modifying and/or providing feedback about writing
  • providing examples to inspire students’ own writing
  • assisting with brainstorming
  • checking and/or correcting grammar/syntax
  • writing drafts of paragraphs/letters
  • finding synonyms
  • identifying a job posting’s keywords
  • featuring a more professional tone
  • writing with enhanced directness/precision/concision/variety

13 students explicitly declared that allowing the use of ChatGPT positively impacted the assignment, mostly because this resulted in greater realism; only 1 student explicitly declared that the assignment was negatively impacted.

Impacts of the use of ChatGPT

In general, the assignment was positively impacted by the integration of ChatGPT, notably due to enhanced relevance and enhanced learning:

  • Students’ perceptions of the assignment’s relevance was increased.
  • The assignment’s relevance was objectively increased by incorporating what is already a standard tool for resume/cover letter writing.
  • Some students developed the skill of effectively using a large language model (LLM), specifically to prepare resumes/cover letters, partly by increasing their awareness of LLM strengths and limitations.
  • The students who used ChatGPT likely increased their understanding of the resume and cover letter since crafting prompts and evaluating responses required further reflection about resume and cover letter conventions, and that reflection was from a novel perspective.
  • To the extent that students inappropriately and unthinkingly copied example cover letters, lower grades fostered equity, and my assignment feedback made this copying an opportunity to foster learning (e.g. that cover letter openings should name specific qualifications).
  • I spent no time or energy on investigating and prosecuting academic misconduct, and experienced none of the associated teacher-student conflicts that can compromise learning.
  • I was empowered relative to my students and my credibility was increased by being the one teaching the students how to use ChatGPT and its limitations.

However, one main negative impact of allowing the use of ChatGPT must be considered: the more liberal approach to academic integrity resulted in a modestly increased number of students uncritically copying example cover letters and so reducing their learning at the composition stage of the assignment. This copying likely occurred because students knew they would not be charged with academic misconduct and may have perceived this copying to be less unethical or even sanctioned by me. Thus, I think it is highly likely that the unthinking copying of example cover letters was an unforeseen consequence of allowing students to use ChatGPT.

To try again?

Next year, I intend to proceed similarly with the Resume and Cover Letter assignment by allowing the use of ChatGPT and other forms of support. However, I will warn students against uncritically copying example resumes and cover letters, explaining how this will result in less effective applications and so lower grades.

Also, I will add the use cases of generating job posting keywords and generating synonyms to the “Using ChatGPT” section of the assignment instructions.

Finally, I’ll likely return the assignment’s weight in the course to 25% given that the assignment’s average and standard deviation have proven to be unproblematic despite allowing the use of ChatGPT.

Proceeding this way will be possible if ChatGPT limitations remain the same. However, if there are new publicly available versions of ChatGPT that are more capable, I will need to assess whether I can continue to allow students to use these new versions.

The Literary Essay assignment

I have recently repeated the exercise of allowing the use of ChatGPT with my Literary Survey class, this time with a take-home literary essay assignment on the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Therefore, I modified my instructions by adapting the Academic Integrity section and by adding a Reporting on Support section.

Academic Integrity

Normally, students are expected to complete assignments independently, and so copying ideas and/or wording from sources (e.g. from the internet) without citation would constitute plagiarism and result in academic sanctions.

However, this assignment will approach academic integrity differently, reflecting how collaborating with others and using various tools (e.g. technological ones) can be ethically legitimate and are important skills. Thus, while working on this assignment, you may seek assistance from others (e.g. other students, parents, grammar checkers, AI chatbots) regarding essay wording and/or content. Also, while providing in-text and bibliographic citations for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, my lectures and my PowerPoints is mandatory, it is not necessary to do so for other sources (e.g. a friend who suggests improved wording, an AI chatbot whose response inspires an argument).  Instead, you will supply a short account of the support you received from other people and/or tools (see “Reporting on Support” below).

—Excerpt from the instructions I gave to my students

When it comes to citing ChatGPT, I chose not to include it in the Works Cited list or credit the AI as a co-author. Instead, I asked the students to describe their use of ChatGPT or any other forms of support in a dedicated “Support” section.

Reporting on Support

Starting on a new page after the Works Cited page that is titled “Support,” describe any assistance you received in developing the essay’s content and writing.  For each assistance provider (e.g. a person, a grammar checker, an AI chatbot), indicate the following in roughly fifty words:

  • The name of the assistance provider
  • The type of assistance (e.g. with brainstorming, with correcting grammar mistakes, with eliminating off-topic content)
  • The process through which the assistance was obtained (e.g. speaking with someone, having someone read a draft and provide written feedback, inputting prompts into a chatbot dialogue box); for ChatGPT, give some samples of your prompts/questions, although this will require more than 50 words
  • How the final version of the essay reflects the assistance (e.g. the inclusion of a specific argument or quotation, a more fully articulated argument, a corrected approach to a certain aspect of writing/grammar); be as specific as you possibly/reasonably can

—Excerpt from the instructions I gave to my students

I have also developed a Guide to Using ChatGPT to Help Write Literary Essays for my students that explains the nature of an LLM and its limitations, provides specific use cases along with example prompts, and describes how an iterative approach to prompting ChatGPT can be fruitful.

Having graded these essays and read the Support pages where students described their use of ChatGPT, it seems that students’ use of ChatGPT was limited and not very substantial. I believe this was partly because I warned them at length about its limited usefulness. Indeed, ChatGPT cannot do a good job at close reading and at following a fairly specific essay paragraph structure. As long as the assignment involves any complex tasks, or demands in-depth analysis and critical thinking, as is the case for a literary essay, ChatGPT cannot do the work for the students at a good to great level.

To sum up, once again, I found that allowing the use of ChatGPT for an argumentative writing assignment was unproblematic: while ChatGPT offered students a degree of assistance, it did not relieve them from doing the work that is essential to their learning.

How to successfully integrate ChatGPT into your assignment

Would you like to try allowing students to use ChatGPT for an assignment? Think carefully about whether or not my experience would be yours in light of differences in disciplines and types of assignments.

Based on my experiments, I have identified these 4 key principles that I think favour the successful integration of ChatGPT in an assignment:

  • ChatGPT cannot independently produce the assignment at a good to great level.
  • ChatGPT can meaningfully help students develop the assignment.
  • Using ChatGPT (for example, by crafting prompts) requires knowledge and understanding and thus enhances learning (i.e. the achievement of learning objectives).
  • Students care about the assignment (for example, they believe in its relevance).

If you decide to allow the use of ChatGPT for an assignment, I offer the following suggestions:

  • Keep in mind that students’ views about ChatGPT are varied and frequently nuanced.
  • Convince students of the benefits of using ChatGPT and teach them how to do so.
  • Think carefully about the potential for unintended and/or undesirable consequences if you modify your approach to academic integrity to allow students to use ChatGPT.
  • Advise students to respect your expectations, for example, your guidelines for the assignment.

What about you? Have you discussed issues of ethics, academic integrity, source reliability, and guidance regarding the use of ChatGPT with your colleagues? Have you authorized the use of this tool into your classroom? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below!

About the author

Andrew Burton

Andrew Burton is an English teacher at Marianopolis College where he offers courses on topics such as the Western, rites of passage, and business communication. His areas of pedagogical interest include active learning, peer observation, mentoring, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and the conjunction of education and artificial intelligence/large language models.

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