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ChatGPT in an Intro Coding Course

Updated: Apr 22

I think it's important to have conversations with students about ChatGPT. They know it exists and it might become an integral part of their work flow one day. It seems like a bad idea to avoid or ignore it's existence or helpfulness. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to communicate to students about this but the main thing I want to get across is:

Using a tool, like ChatGPT, needs be done with regards to the final goal. If your goal is to have a piece of code that does X, then asking ChatGPT may be a good idea. However, in college, and in my course, the main goal is not the end piece of code that does X. The goal is for students to develop critical thinking, problem-solving through algorithms, and strategies to improve their own learning. With this goal in mind, students can still use ChatGPT but for specific types of questions.

Some good question could be:

  1. "I am learning about dangling pointers in C++ but am still confused, could you give me an additional example?"

  2. "I am getting this error message <error message> and am confused what it means."

  3. "I want to get more practice with 2D vectors, can you give me 3 practice problems?"

  4. "I've loved learning about dynamic memory! However, I still don't know where it is used in real world applications, do you have some examples?"

Some bad questions could be:

  1. <coding assignment prompt>. Help me by writing the solution.

  2. Here is my code <code>, it doesn't work. Please fix it!

To dive into this topic and get another opinion, I reached out to the source itself, ChatGPT. Below is our conversation. Leave comments below on what you think!

Prof. Schatz

What do you think are the pros and cons of students using ChatGPT in a intro CS course at a university?


Pros: Instant access to help, personalized explanations, reinforcement of concepts, and exposure to real-world applications.

Cons: Potential reliance on the tool, reduced critical thinking development, and limitations in complex problem-solving compared to human interaction.

Prof. Schatz

How do you think we can avoid the cons?


To avoid the cons, it's crucial to balance ChatGPT usage with other forms of learning and problem-solving. Encourage students to use it as a supplement rather than a primary source, foster discussions, incorporate hands-on projects, and provide opportunities for collaborative problem-solving. Additionally, periodically assess students' understanding through assessments that require critical thinking and application of concepts beyond what ChatGPT can provide.

Prof. Schatz

What is a good way of explaining that to students?


You can explain to students that while ChatGPT is a valuable tool for quick assistance and reinforcement, it's essential to use it wisely. Emphasize that relying solely on it might hinder their development of critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities. Encourage them to view it as a supplement rather than a substitute for active learning and engagement with the course material. Encourage discussions on when and how to best use ChatGPT and highlight the importance of diverse learning methods for a well-rounded education.

Prof. Schatz

What is an example of a question a student might ask ChatGPT in a CS 2 course in C++ that is appropriate?


A student might ask: "How can I implement a binary search tree in C++ and ensure it maintains its properties after insertion and deletion operations?"

Prof. Schatz

Wouldn't that just give the student the answer? Not giving them the opportunity to think themselves about the solution?


You're absolutely right. Instead, a more appropriate question might be: "I'm working on implementing a binary search tree in C++. I understand the basic structure, but I'm struggling with ensuring it maintains its properties after insertion and deletion operations. Could you provide some guidance on the key steps I should consider to address this challenge?" This way, the student is seeking guidance rather than a direct solution, allowing them to engage in problem-solving and critical thinking.

Prof. Schatz

What would be a bad question a student might ask ChatGPT in this setting? That would not be helpful to their learning


A bad question might be: "Can you write the code for a binary search tree in C++ for me?" This question doesn't encourage active learning or problem-solving; it simply seeks a solution without the student engaging with the material or thinking through the problem independently.

Prof. Schatz

How would you define the distinction between a good question for learning to ChatGPT and a bad one?


A good question for learning would typically involve seeking clarification, guidance, or conceptual understanding. It encourages critical thinking and problem-solving by prompting the student to engage with the material and apply their knowledge.

On the other hand, a bad question often seeks a direct solution without effort or engagement from the student. It may involve asking ChatGPT to provide code solutions or answers without attempting to understand the underlying concepts or actively work through the problem. These types of questions can hinder learning and development by promoting dependency on external sources rather than independent thinking and learning.

Prof. Schatz

How can I encourage my students to only use ChatGPT with good questions for their learning?


You can encourage your students to use ChatGPT effectively by setting clear expectations and guidelines for its usage. Here are some strategies:

  1. Provide examples: Show students examples of good questions that encourage learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Similarly, illustrate examples of bad questions that simply seek solutions without engagement.

  2. Emphasize understanding: Stress the importance of understanding concepts rather than just seeking answers. Encourage students to ask questions that promote deeper understanding and application of the material.

  3. Set guidelines: Establish specific guidelines for using ChatGPT, such as asking questions that require explanations, clarifications, or guidance rather than seeking direct solutions.

  4. Foster a supportive environment: Create a classroom culture where students feel comfortable asking questions and seeking help from both ChatGPT and their peers. Encourage collaboration and discussion to enhance learning.

  5. Provide feedback: Regularly review the questions students ask and provide feedback on their effectiveness. Reinforce positive behaviors and redirect inappropriate use of ChatGPT.

  6. Incorporate reflection: Encourage students to reflect on their learning process and the effectiveness of their questions. Prompt them to consider how they can improve their questioning skills to enhance their learning experience.

By implementing these strategies, you can help your students use ChatGPT as a valuable learning tool while promoting critical thinking and independent learning.

Prof. Schatz

Do you think allowing students to use ChatGPT is a bad idea?


Allowing students to use ChatGPT can be beneficial if implemented thoughtfully and with clear guidelines. It can provide instant access to information, explanations, and guidance, which can enhance learning and problem-solving skills. However, it's essential to ensure that students use ChatGPT responsibly and in ways that promote active engagement with the material rather than dependence on the tool for answers. As long as there are clear expectations, proper guidance, and an emphasis on critical thinking, allowing students to use ChatGPT can be a valuable addition to their learning experience.

Prof. Schatz

Thank you for answering my questions! Have a wonderful virtual day.

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