There are No Shortcuts to Thinking

A teacher sees promise in the way students are already using AI as a learning tool

A teacher points to a laptop as students follow along

I really thought everyone would cheat.

Halfway through the semester, I asked my students to tell me (through an anonymous survey) how they used ChatGPT in their other college courses. In my own class I had worked hard to show them how AI could be their TA: helping them brainstorm ideas, organize their writing, and focus and clarify their thinking around complex issues. That’s what a good cognitive apprenticeship is all about. But in my students’ other courses, well, all bets were off. Put simply, ChatGPT offers students the perfect shortcut to doing their work.

That’s why I was shocked by their responses. “I use it the same way we use it for this class,” one student wrote. “It’s weird but useful getting to learn how to use ChatGPT as a tool and guide rather than a way to complete your work,” another commented. “I use ChatGPT to give me ideas when I struggle with what to write,” a third student said. Overall, about 80 percent of my students used some form of AI, yet only about 20 percent said they’d used it to cheat, as in having ChatGPT write all or most of their assignments for them. I realized most of my students used ChatGPT as an aid to, rather than a replacement of, their learning. In essence, they’re using it as a mentor.

Call me naïve, but I am incredibly excited by this. In an age of depersonalization and massification in higher education, I strongly believe students are desperate for personalized mentoring; indeed, research tells us that “mentoring may serve in a catalytic capacity” for enhancing critical thinking.

The problem, of course, is how do I, a single instructor, provide one-on-one guidance to a roomful of 30 or 150 students? Forget about it. Yet I want to suggest that if faculty can actually embrace AI in higher education (rather than reject it), ChatGPT could become a powerful tool to help faculty offer a high-quality education to all of our students.

However, that is a big “if.”

“Critical thinking”—which has been defined as “reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do”—is actually really hard to teach. I can’t just plug-and-play the right answer into my students’ brains. Students need time and practice to figure out complex stuff, whether it’s chess or ethical dilemmas. Luckily, cognitive science research tells us that “given favorable learning conditions for deliberate practice and given the learner invests effort in sufficient learning opportunities, indeed, anyone can learn anything they want.”

But fostering high-quality learning requires high-quality teaching. I can’t just lecture at my students; rather, teaching complex subject matter requires a combination of dialogue, authentic engagement, and mentoring. The science of learning has given us lots of strategies to foster powerful conversations and engage in case studies, problem-based learning, and other authentic real-world practices. But as for mentoring? Until ChatGPT came along, I was stuck.

Listen, therefore, to what another one of my students wrote: “I use ChatGPT as my TA and for it to give me extra help with brainstorming different ideas, like I would with any other person.”

Dear reader, let that sink in: “like I would with any other person.”

Let me be clear: I am not trying to anthropomorphize ChatGPT or pretend that it can solve all of the woes of higher education. Rather, I think we are at a crossroads with AI.

One path makes it easier and easier for all of us in higher education—faculty and students—to fall into a vicious downward spiral of performative spectacle: we pretend to teach (by lecturing) and they pretend to learn (by letting AI do the work for them). If you think the value of higher education is questioned now, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

But there is the potential for another path, one where my students begin to accept that ChatGPT can indeed, like any other person, mentor and help them learn to think carefully and critically. And so, I—and the rest of higher education—must step up and show them the way down that path. There are no shortcuts here.

Dan Sarofian-Butin was the founding dean of the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College and is now a professor of education there.

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