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The University of Nevada at Reno campus with buildings on the right and a blue sign on the left with a capital “N” in the center

The University of Nevada at Reno has launched two courses that put students head-to-head with ChatGPT, comparing their writing with AI answers.

University of Nevada, Reno

Amid the swirl of concern about generative artificial intelligence in the classroom, a Nevada university is trying a different tactic by having students compete against ChatGPT in writing assignments.

Students in two courses at the University of Nevada, Reno, are going head-to-head with ChatGPT by answering the same prompts as the AI and aiming to get a higher grade.

“ChatGPT comes out and everyone is using it, talking about it, whether or not we’d like them to,” said Leping Liu, professor of information technology and statistics at the University of Nevada at Reno. “We have to deal with it, so we [wanted to] find a way to augment our teaching and learning and not just focus on cheating [concerns].”

Liu and Rod Case, associate professor in the department of educational study, began discussing in the summer of 2023 how to harness the then-new ChatGPT. They sought to combine Liu’s expertise in information technology with Case’s experience in educational studies.

The duo settled on a mashup of gamification, analysis and competition in two courses for education majors—Second Language Acquisition and a course focused on teaching methods for English learners. In the resulting assignments, students must complete a writing prompt and try to earn a higher grade than ChatGPT, which answers the same prompt.

This is not the first time ChatGPT has played a “student” role in the classroom. Last year, Michigan-based Ferris State University made waves when it announced it was enrolling two ChatGPT bots into its university, hoping they would complete degrees.

But introducing ChatGPT in such a large role in the classroom is still relatively new.

Marshall Jones at Winthrop University in South Carolina, said UNR’s approach is particularly helpful in ensuring that pervasive AI technology is addressed and not ignored.

“One of the things that happened with cell phones is that grownups didn’t understand them, so kids made up their own rules,” said Jones, a professor of learning design and technology. “My theory is if we remain reactive to this, it’ll remain a parallel where they make up their own rules.”

A key part of the Nevada approach is having students look at ChatGPT’s answers and then adjusting their own writing, Case said.

“They begin to understand the nature of ChatGPT and how it writes and puts content together and understanding its limits as well,” he said. “They’re future teachers and need to understand its limits in the way it writes and what they can and can’t use it for.”

Beyond boosting students’ familiarity with the technology, students’ work improved once they saw ChatGPT’s output. Students went beyond the required writing length and also had more in-depth answers.

“The result between the first paper they wrote and the second they wrote was quite striking,” Case said. “It's a much higher level of critical thinking, of engagement in terms of their lives as future teachers. ChatGPT acted as a conduit to spur on deeper levels of critical thinking.”

That engagement could be, in part, due to a side challenge in the competition. As part of the gamification, when students earn a higher grade than ChatGPT, they mark that achievement by advancing through six cities named in the book Dune—a story widely known from two recent movies—giving students a sense of accomplishment.

Case said he wanted to add gamification to the challenge, giving students a framework they already knew. He said it would allow the asynchronous, online courses to be more engaging.

“With online stuff, it can be a bit disconnected—this engages them in interactive and state-of-the-art ways of how media is used in their lives,” he said. “Adding gamification and Dune into this, it lets them engage with something contemporary in their own lives.”

Combining AI and gamification into courses is gaining popularity, according to Robert Seamans, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business who studies game theory. The key thing, he said, is to inform the students they are playing against the technology.

“If you’re in a classroom setting or at home and it’s, ‘Play this game against ChatGPT,’ there’s no harm in that; it’s the equivalent of saying, ‘Go home tonight and research XYZ using the internet,’” Seamans said. “They’re being instructed to use a piece of technology to help them learn, and I don’t think there’s any danger in that.”

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