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I spy with my little AI: Four ways to improve your approach to chatbots

A graphic resembling Artificial Intelligence elements. Students must balance their utilization of AI chatbots without crossing the fine line of academic dishonesty. ILLUSTRATED BY ISHA SHAH/THE STATESMAN

Carly Santore is a Stony Brook University senior in the Mathematics Teacher Education program who intends to teach at a Long Island high school. The role of chatbots and other AI technology in modern American middle, high school and college is a central component of her senior honors thesis.

Students are bound to be exposed to ChatGPT, Google’s Bard, Image Creator from Microsoft Designer and other Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbots sooner or later. AI is a hot topic that students and professors alike can’t help but be curious about. Who wouldn’t want to make their job a little easier? Whether it comes up with a title to your paper, an outline or writes the whole thing for you, ChatGPT is the robot assistant you always wanted as a kid, but never thought could exist. 

Navigating the ins and outs of this new technology in an academic setting can be tricky. Students with access to these tools have to balance the desire to use AI to assist with their work while also trying not to cross the line of academic dishonesty. With this in mind, how can students utilize AI technology in 2024?

      Understand the differences between chatbots

ChatGPT 3.5 specializes in offering unique responses to a prompt using accessible information that’s available through the internet. Its strengths lie in creative writing and using colloquial language to break down advanced topics. Its weaknesses include responding with out-of-date information, providing weak or incorrect responses to niche topics that haven’t been adequately explored in its database and evaluating the uniqueness of an answer over the accuracy. ChatGPT will never replicate an answer, even if it was worded better in a previous response. 

Bard scours the Internet for the most up-to-date factual information via Google. Its technology focuses on the accuracy of a response rather than the creativity behind it. This chatbot, compared to ChatGPT, values correctness over conciseness. This makes Bard optimal for content-learning projects, whereas ChatGPT has an advantage in more informal endeavors. 

Image Creator from Microsoft Designer uses AI to produce multiple drawings or pictures based on a written prompt. It does not provide text responses, whereas ChatGPT and Bard do not currently provide image responses. 

Provide context for your chatbot

If you have a problem that you’d like to talk to a friend about, do you knock on their door, let yourself in and start venting in their face before they have the chance to say “hello”? Not if you’re a good friend. Instead, you’d knock on their door, ask if you can come in and if they have time to chat, exchange pleasantries, give them context about what’s going on and then dive into the issue at hand. 

Since a chatbot isn’t a real person, you might be able to skip the first three steps without causing offense, but you should still give context so it is better able to understand what you’re looking to gain from the conversation. For example, as a college math student, I might introduce myself to the chatbot by writing, “I’m taking a college class on advanced geometry and topology and am struggling to answer a question about the classes of homeomorphic letters.” I would then initiate my request by asking, “Can you define the concept of homeomorphism and provide two examples of homeomorphisms?” This is more clear than a generic request such as, “Write down the classes of homeomorphic letters.”

By providing context, you’re not directly pleading for the answer and the chatbot can understand what your goal is while helping you with the learning process behind the question. The AI acts like a professor answering an email by providing an explanation, only much faster and in layperson’s terms.

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification

If you ask an AI a question and aren’t satisfied with the answer, don’t be afraid to ask again. Unlike the embarrassment that comes with telling a professor that you don’t understand, a chatbot will try and try again in exactly the same way until a concept is as clear as possible. 

If you’ve ever asked ChatGPT to come up with a joke, you’ll notice that chatbots will often struggle to match up to Generation Z’s sense of humor. It’s the same thing with framing academic explanations to fit the needs of a particular student: it’s not always a one-shot process.

Don’t cheat and still go to class

Chatbots are extraordinary tools. They can teach you quite a bit, but they can’t teach you everything. When it comes to essay writing, they can certainly draft up some interesting ideas. However, you’re not going to have a perfect structure, transitions, word choices and source citations. It won’t sound natural, and it’s certainly not going to sound human, either. You’ll be caught by your professor — and if not by your professor, then by an AI detector — in a heartbeat. You should be using technology to answer your own questions, not the questions on an assignment. 

Having the opportunity to understand the underlying concepts behind a math problem and clear up misconceptions at the root is a wonderful thing. Taking advantage of that to get an immediate answer might help in the short run, but you certainly won’t learn anything that will help you in the long run. 

Having the opportunity to clear up minor misunderstandings with AI can be helpful; however, your professor is an expert in their field, and ultimately the one making the exams and grading the homework. They’re the ones that you want shaping your understanding of the material and curriculum you’re paying for. Don’t get so tangled up in the World Wide Web that you forget the purpose of the class you’re taking. It’s important to make the distinction between a learning tool — which is an insentient thing —and a living, breathing teacher or teaching assistant. Chatbots have many features, but they don’t have empathy or personality, and they certainly aren’t deciding your final grade. If you could learn everything off of Google alone, don’t you think you would’ve done that by now, instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for a college education? AI is no different.

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