Learn how to use ChatGPT to help you (or your students) quickly and creatively generate and explore ideas.
Most of the higher ed discourse about ChatGPT centers on its ability to produce human-readable text. However, much more fertile ground can be found in using ChatGPT as part of the learning process. For example, ChatGPT can help students compare and critique text, conduct research, spark discussion, and organize their ideas.
One way I’ve found value out of using ChatGPT is as an ideation partner. AI chatbots can serve as a sounding board and let you explore and iterate ideas quickly and creatively.
This approach to ChatGPT can work well for both students and teachers – I’ve even used ChatGPT to help me ideate on emails, vacations, and a tabletop roleplaying campaign. As I explore how this approach can work for both you and your students, I’ll highlight some techniques you can use to improve your “prompt writing,” or the process of communicating with ChatGPT to produce positive results. If you want more information on prompt writing, I recommend Anna Bernstein’s video “Master the Art of Prompt Writing.”
A caveat: This article will be somewhat uncritical toward ChatGPT. Critically evaluating AI tools like ChatGPT is both valuable and necessary, but I simply do not have the space to do so here. I encourage both you and your students to not simply use ChatGPT but to consider what role you want it to play in your work. Approaching ChatGPT with a healthy amount of skepticism will serve you well.
How to Give ChatGPT Effective Context: Coming Up with Assignment Ideas (Faculty)
Let’s say we want assignment ideas for a graphic design course, specifically for a unit that teaches students about color theory. We could just ask ChatGPT to “come up with ideas for an assignment in a graphic design course that helps students learn color theory.” This may generate some good ideas, but it may also just give you lots of variations on the same general thing.
Instead, giving ChatGPT constraints and guidance goes a long way. A good first step here is to tell it how many ideas to give you. For example, you can ask, “Give me 10 ideas for an assignment in a graphic design course that helps students learn color theory.”
Even still, ChatGPT is likely to produce more “misses” than “hits.” When I put in the above prompt, only 2 or 3 of the 10 ideas were actually viable.
Of course, that’s largely my fault. The above prompt gives very little context for ChatGPT to incorporate. Who are my students? What are the learning goals? What other types of assignments am I using in the course?
There are 3 tricks that can help you give more context to ChatGPT. First, try telling ChatGPT who it is. For example, “You are a faculty member teaching at a mid-size public university in the Midwest.” This helps you give some general background context that can inform more specific details through the next two techniques.
Next, write your prompt and follow it with this: “Don’t do anything yet. Instead, tell me what you think I’m asking you to do.” This will result in ChatGPT stating how it is interpreting your prompt, and you will have the opportunity to correct it. In this case, I realized that through my wording, ChatGPT thought the entire course was about color theory, not the specific assignment. This gave me the opportunity to correct that error.
Finally, after confirming what ChatGPT thinks you are asking, write, “Before you begin generating ideas, ask me 10 questions that can help you do your job better.” This is extremely effective, since it allows ChatGPT to get context without you trying to think of every possible detail. For example, in this case, here are the 10 questions that ChatGPT asked me (which are all valid questions to ask).
By correcting any errors in ChatGPT’s thinking and having it ask you questions to gather context, you can generate a list of mostly reasonable, viable ideas. In the next section, I’ll shift gears to using it as a student so we can examine how to iterate on and dive deeper into specific ideas.
How to Explore Ideas: Coming Up with Research Topics (Students)
Let’s say you’re a student working on a research project where you have to come up with your own research topic related to Ball State’s campus. You have ChatGPT generate a list of ideas, perhaps using some of the techniques detailed above. This is where the real magic of using ChatGPT as an ideation partner begins.
Again, there are 3 tricks that can help you get closer to an idea that is “ready to go.” First, consider drilling down into a specific idea that interests you by asking, “Tell me more about X idea.” If you follow the previous advice to have ChatGPT list a specific number of ideas, you can simply refer to an idea by number. For example, if you’re interested in idea #7 about the cost of dining halls on campus, you can say, “Tell me more about #7.” ChatGPT will then expand upon that idea and give you more things to think about.
Next, you can ask for variations on that idea: “Give me 10 variations on #7.” At that point, ChatGPT will create “spin-off” ideas, such as ideas about cost disparities between different dining halls or issues surrounding the cost of healthy or organic food options. Many of these ideas will be clunkers, but that’s okay – you can always ask for more variations. These variations can lead you down interesting avenues, and you may even want to ask ChatGPT to synthesize multiple variations into a single idea.
Finally, you can ask ChatGPT to expand on an idea, but with a twist. “Expand on #7, but focus specifically on the cost of chain restaurants on campuses, such as Taco Bell or Starbucks.” Once ChatGPT explores this idea, you may want to return to one of the previous techniques, such as asking it to drill down more, clarify, or spin off variations of the idea.
Conclusion: ChatGPT’s Power as an Ideation Partner
ChatGPT is by no means a perfect ideation partner – it gets things wrong and comes up with unviable ideas. However, it is quicker than us humans will ever be, and it is surprisingly creative in its ability to combine ideas and come up with variations. Also, importantly, it’s free, meaning that you don’t have to ask for someone’s time or energy to come up with and explore ideas.
The next time you’re ideating on something – whether it’s meal planning or writing a research paper or figuring out how to plan a course – try using ChatGPT as an ideation partner. Just make sure to give it context and help it explore ideas so that you can make the most of this tool.
How have you used ChatGPT in your work or personal life? How could you use it to help you explore ideas? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Anna Bernstein, “Master the Art of Prompt Writing: 6 Tips to Writing Better Prompts,” YouTube video, 13:56, May 26, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPf251bDKY0.