ChatGPT is one of the most buzzworthy technologies today.
In addition to other generative artificial intelligence (AI) models, it is expected to change the world. In academia, students and professors are preparing for the ways that ChatGPT will shape education, and especially how it will impact a fundamental element of any course: the academic essay.
Students can use ChatGPT to generate full essays based on a few simple prompts. But can AI actually produce high quality work, or is the technology just not there yet to deliver on its promise? Students may also be asking themselves if they should use AI to write their essays for them and what they might be losing out on if they did.
AI is here to stay, and it can either be a help or a hindrance depending on how you use it. Read on to become better informed about what ChatGPT can and can’t do, how to use it responsibly to support your academic assignments, and the benefits of writing your own essays.
What is Generative AI?
Artificial intelligence isn’t a twenty-first century invention. Beginning in the 1950s, data scientists started programming computers to solve problems and understand spoken language. AI’s capabilities grew as computer speeds increased and today we use AI for data analysis, finding patterns, and providing insights on the data it collects.
But why the sudden popularity in recent applications like ChatGPT? This new generation of AI goes further than just data analysis. Instead, generative AI creates new content. It does this by analyzing large amounts of data — GPT-3 was trained on 45 terabytes of data, or a quarter of the Library of Congress — and then generating new content based on the patterns it sees in the original data.
It’s like the predictive text feature on your phone; as you start typing a new message, predictive text makes suggestions of what should come next based on data from past conversations. Similarly, ChatGPT creates new text based on past data. With the right prompts, ChatGPT can write marketing content, code, business forecasts, and even entire academic essays on any subject within seconds.
But is generative AI as revolutionary as people think it is, or is it lacking in real intelligence?
The Drawbacks of Generative AI
It seems simple. You’ve been assigned an essay to write for class. You go to ChatGPT and ask it to write a five-paragraph academic essay on the topic you’ve been assigned. You wait a few seconds and it generates the essay for you!
But ChatGPT is still in its early stages of development, and that essay is likely not as accurate or well-written as you’d expect it to be. Be aware of the drawbacks of having ChatGPT complete your assignments.
It’s not intelligence, it’s statistics
One of the misconceptions about AI is that it has a degree of human intelligence. However, its intelligence is actually statistical analysis, as it can only generate “original” content based on the patterns it sees in already existing data and work.
Generative AI models often provide false information — so much so that there’s a term for it: “AI hallucination.” OpenAI even has a warning on its home screen, saying that “ChatGPT may produce inaccurate information about people, places, or facts.” This may be due to gaps in its data, or because it lacks the ability to verify what it’s generating.
It doesn’t do research
If you ask ChatGPT to find and cite sources for you, it will do so, but they could be inaccurate or even made up.
This is because AI doesn’t know how to look for relevant research that can be applied to your thesis. Instead, it generates content based on past content, so if a number of papers cite certain sources, it will generate new content that sounds like it’s a credible source — except it likely may not be.
There are data privacy concerns
When you input your data into a public generative AI model like ChatGPT, where does that data go and who has access to it?
Prompting ChatGPT with original research should be a cause for concern — especially if you’re inputting study participants’ personal information into the third-party, public application.
JPMorgan has restricted use of ChatGPT due to privacy concerns, Italy temporarily blocked ChatGPT in March 2023 after a data breach, and Security Intelligence advises that “if [a user’s] notes include sensitive data … it enters the chatbot library. The user no longer has control over the information.”
It is important to be aware of these issues and take steps to ensure that you’re using the technology responsibly and ethically.
It skirts the plagiarism issue
AI creates content by drawing on a large library of information that’s already been created, but is it plagiarizing? Could there be instances where ChatGPT “borrows” from previous work and places it into your work without citing it? Schools and universities today are wrestling with this question of what’s plagiarism and what’s not when it comes to AI-generated work.
To demonstrate this, one Elon University professor gave his class an assignment: Ask ChatGPT to write an essay for you, and then grade it yourself.
“Many students expressed shock and dismay upon learning the AI could fabricate bogus information,” he writes, adding that he expected some essays to contain errors, but all of them did.
His students were disappointed that “major tech companies had pushed out AI technology without ensuring that the general population understands its drawbacks” and were concerned about how many embraced such a flawed tool.
How to Use AI as a Tool to Support Your Work
As more students are discovering, generative AI models like ChatGPT just aren’t as advanced or intelligent as they may believe. While AI may be a poor option for writing your essay, it can be a great tool to support your work.
Generate ideas for essays
Have ChatGPT help you come up with ideas for essays. For example, input specific prompts, such as, “Please give me five ideas for essays I can write on topics related to WWII,” or “Please give me five ideas for essays I can write comparing characters in twentieth century novels.” Then, use what it provides as a starting point for your original research.
You can also use ChatGPT to help you create an outline for an essay. Ask it, “Can you create an outline for a five paragraph essay based on the following topic” and it will create an outline with an introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion, and a suggested thesis statement. Then, you can expand upon the outline with your own research and original thought.
Generate titles for your essays
Titles should draw a reader into your essay, yet they’re often hard to get right. Have ChatGPT help you by prompting it with, “Can you suggest five titles that would be good for a college essay about [topic]?”
The Benefits of Writing Your Essays Yourself
Asking a robot to write your essays for you may seem like an easy way to get ahead in your studies or save some time on assignments. But, outsourcing your work to ChatGPT can negatively impact not just your grades, but your ability to communicate and think critically as well. It’s always the best approach to write your essays yourself.
Create your own ideas
Writing an essay yourself means that you’re developing your own thoughts, opinions, and questions about the subject matter, then testing, proving, and defending those thoughts.
When you complete school and start your career, projects aren’t simply about getting a good grade or checking a box, but can instead affect the company you’re working for — or even impact society. Being able to think for yourself is necessary to create change and not just cross work off your to-do list.
Building a foundation of original thinking and ideas now will help you carve your unique career path in the future.
Develop your critical thinking and analysis skills
In order to test or examine your opinions or questions about a subject matter, you need to analyze a problem or text, and then use your critical thinking skills to determine the argument you want to make to support your thesis. Critical thinking and analysis skills aren’t just necessary in school — they’re skills you’ll apply throughout your career and your life.
Improve your research skills
Writing your own essays will train you in how to conduct research, including where to find sources, how to determine if they’re credible, and their relevance in supporting or refuting your argument. Knowing how to do research is another key skill required throughout a wide variety of professional fields.
Learn to be a great communicator
Writing an essay involves communicating an idea clearly to your audience, structuring an argument that a reader can follow, and making a conclusion that challenges them to think differently about a subject. Effective and clear communication is necessary in every industry.
Be impacted by what you’re learning about:
Engaging with the topic, conducting your own research, and developing original arguments allows you to really learn about a subject you may not have encountered before. Maybe a simple essay assignment around a work of literature, historical time period, or scientific study will spark a passion that can lead you to a new major or career.
Resources to Improve Your Essay Writing Skills
While there are many rewards to writing your essays yourself, the act of writing an essay can still be challenging, and the process may come easier for some students than others. But essay writing is a skill that you can hone, and students at Harvard Summer School have access to a number of on-campus and online resources to assist them.
Students can start with the Harvard Summer School Writing Center, where writing tutors can offer you help and guidance on any writing assignment in one-on-one meetings. Tutors can help you strengthen your argument, clarify your ideas, improve the essay’s structure, and lead you through revisions.
The Harvard libraries are a great place to conduct your research, and its librarians can help you define your essay topic, plan and execute a research strategy, and locate sources.
Finally, review the “The Harvard Guide to Using Sources,” which can guide you on what to cite in your essay and how to do it. Be sure to review the “Tips For Avoiding Plagiarism” on the “Resources to Support Academic Integrity” webpage as well to help ensure your success.
The Future of AI in the Classroom
ChatGPT and other generative AI models are here to stay, so it’s worthwhile to learn how you can leverage the technology responsibly and wisely so that it can be a tool to support your academic pursuits. However, nothing can replace the experience and achievement gained from communicating your own ideas and research in your own academic essays.