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Risk Mgmt and Ins Higher Education Scene

Understanding ChatGPT

Brenda Powell Wells | July 7, 2023

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Hands typing on laptop keyboard with words ChatGPT, prompt, and AI floating above

Ever since ChatGPT was launched, I've been asked several times about it.

  • "What exactly is ChatGPT?"
  • "How do you know if a student is using it?"
  • "How do you keep students from cheating with ChatGPT?"

In this article, I'll share with you my observations about ChatGPT.

What Is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence (AI) engine available online. I will use the quote I found on the homepage of its creator, OpenAI.

OpenAI is an AI research and deployment company. Our mission is to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.

ChatGPT is good for researching questions you want answers to. I was recently creating a presentation on AI so I bought a subscription to ChatGPT. My first request was, "Make a PowerPoint presentation for me on AI."

ChatGPT said it did not create PowerPoint presentations, but it did offer up a very detailed outline of the paper it suggested I write about AI. I then asked it for the advantages and disadvantages of AI, and it gave me a beautifully accurate answer (verified with other sources) worthy of inclusion in my presentation. And yes, I told my audience where the answer came from!

But it isn't always correct. For fun, I asked it: "Who is Brenda Wells?" It did not know (!?!) So, then I said, "Who is Brenda Powell Wells, insurance professor?" I kept refining the question until it figured out who I was, but it was incorrect about where I work. I teach at East Carolina University, but ChatGPT said I teach at Temple. As I write this article, I tried it again. Today I tried again, and it said I teach at Mississippi State University. Still dead wrong. So, the rumors you've heard about how great and accurate it is are not necessarily true.

Should Students Be Allowed To Use ChatGPT?

I view it as a tool alongside Google, Bing, Wikipedia, etc. It can be very helpful if used correctly. But, let's take a detour for a moment … when does something stop being a tool and cross the line into cheating?

Remember CliffsNotes study guides? Was using those considered cheating when we used them in the 1980s? My contemporaries and I used them to help us understand "the literature classics" that our AP English teacher assigned. She always told us if we used CliffsNotes instead of reading the book, she would know it, and she would fail us.

She assigned us James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I read the first chapter and could not tell you what it said. It was the most convoluted, crazy sounding book my 16-year-old brain had ever tried to digest. I decided to give CliffsNotes a try. I used them to navigate my way through what I still consider to be poor writing. (And the books assigned in that class were often crappy!)

I then wrote a theme using my interpretation of the CliffsNotes interpretation of the book that made no sense to me. My teacher gave me an "A" with a nice comment about what an interesting interpretation I had of the book.

Was that cheating? I don't feel that it was. It was a study tool. But, let's say you think that was cheating. Then what is hiring a tutor? What is participating in a study group and sharing notes? Those are tools students can use that are not considered cheating. Why are CliffsNotes unethical and hiring a tutor is fine?

A True Story about Cheating

There are file-sharing websites out there where students can post notes, homework, quizzes, answers, etc. They do it to share information with their peers about the classes. Is that cheating? A lot of professors don't approve of it because their intellectual property is being shared without their permission. But I really don't have a problem with it as long as it is used to learn the material and not to cheat on exams.

I recall the time a colleague of mine brought me two students' exams, and their answer to one question was not only wrong, but it also bordered on gibberish. Their respective identical answers stood out like a sore thumb as cheating. The colleague called them into the office, and I served as a witness while the students were asked if they cheated off each other. They both denied it, but one was really adamant that he didn't cheat off the other person's paper. My colleague assigned them a zero on their exam, and the students left the office with their heads hanging low.

A few minutes later, the adamant student returned and said, "Look! Look at this website!" and he showed us a screenshot from one of the file-sharing services students use. A screenshot of an exam question, along with that same gibberish answer, was revealed. In other words, he said, "I didn't cheat off that guy; I cheated off this website!" The professor had not prohibited the use of those types of sites, so they had to rethink their position on what constituted cheating.

The real question is where does cheating start and fair use of study tools end? I tell my students that the goal in life is not to know all the answers but where to find all the answers. So, I encourage them to use technology but to use it wisely. If you're going to use resources to steal answers verbatim, you may be cheating. If you're using those sites during an exam, you may be cheating. At the very least, write your own answer in your own words!

How Can You Tell If Students Are Cheating with ChatGPT?

Honestly, I can tell whether a student is using ChatGPT the same way I can tell if they're cheating without ChatGPT: It just doesn't pass the smell test. Something always seems off about a paper that is plagiarized.

  • The transitions from one section to the next are not smooth and make no sense.
  • Typos are consistently repeated (in which case, I just toss the offending sentence into Google and I usually find the website where the work was taken from).
  • The writing style changes midstream in the paper for no apparent reason.
  • Information is provided that is irrelevant to the research question, often showing me that someone cut and pasted something into the paper without having a clue what they actually read.
  • The language seems too high brow for the student as I know them.
  • The paper is "too good" compared to past student performance.

We also have an antiplagiarism tool at our disposal that will look at a paper and tell me the likelihood that it was plagiarized. If I use that tool, is my use of that technology cheating? Am I cheating to catch cheating? It's a thought.

Smart ethical students can successfully use ChatGPT as a useful tool. They will get the information they need and put it into their own words. They'll cite multiple independent sources. They already do the same thing with Google and other search engines, so I just don't see the difference.


I am just not that worried about ChatGPT in part because I give very specific assignments with very specific requirements. If a student goes to ChatGPT and says "Tell me the criteria for a good underwriting factor and then write a 500-word essay on it, citing sources," that's fine. I teach that material in a very specific way, and I assure you (I checked) that ChatGPT does not hit the mark on questions pertaining to that subject. Let the ChatGPT user beware!

So, ask me again how to detect cheating, and I'll give you a simple answer: "I'll just ask ChatGPT!"

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