7 Ways AI can Impact Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

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AI has the potential to transform education by improving students' learning experiences and bolstering their critical thinking skills. This topic is of particular interest to many instructors and surfaced many times during “The Importance of Truth, Honesty, and Pedagogy in an AI World” webinar, which featured Macmillan Learning CEO Susan Winslow. t that 

For some instructors, AI raises the concern that LLMs (Large Language Models) will serve as a shortcut to students, hindering the development of their critical thinking skills, including problem-solving and writing. However, that doesn’t need to be the case. One instructor noted during the webinar: “If the gauntlet is just to submit a written paper, we’ve missed the mark of what and how to teach.” He said that the goal instead should be to encourage students to critically navigate life. He added that this would require teaching in a way that helps students to recognize when or why to use these LLMs and, in turn, help them better understand the world around them. 

From educators becoming AI learners themselves, to the crucial role of teaching responsible AI use, there are many different ways that it is showing up in the classroom. Before the start of the Spring term, here are seven ways that AI can impact students’ critical thinking skills.

Teaching Responsible Use: A crucial aspect of fostering critical thinking in an AI-driven world is teaching responsible AI usage. AI is undeniably a powerful tool, and one instructor on the webinar stated that "it is on us to teach responsible use." By imparting the importance of using AI consciously and ethically, instructors can help equip students with the skills needed to make the best possible choices both in and out of the classroom. 

Understanding AI Limitations: Critical thinking involves not only leveraging AI, but also understanding its limitations. Knowing this helps students to make informed decisions about when and how to use AI as a resource. In addition to helping foster a deeper understanding of its role in their learning journey, students can also learn the kind of human touches that AI simply cannot replicate -- which they’ll need to know as they consider their future careers. According to one instructor, part of teaching responsible use is letting students know "what AI can do well, what it can't, and what do WE add that AI can't?" 

Mitigation, Not Elimination: Because challenges such as plagiarism may never be fully eliminated, some instructors support the idea of "mitigation" instead. One instructor noted, “as educators, we have the duty to help students navigate the gray areas and use AI to improve, not undermine their writing.” To that end, instructors can encourage students to view AI as a means to expedite research, fix grammatical errors, or enhance their understanding of a topic. By steering students away from the temptation to copy and paste, educators help students leverage technology to augment their learning rather than supersede it.

AI's Role in Feedback: Constructive feedback is paramount to learning, but not all students readily embrace it. Introducing AI into the feedback loop can transform this experience and make it more positive, engaging and effective for students. As students interact with AI-generated feedback that’s personalized to them, they are prompted to reflect critically on their work, fostering continuous improvement and enhancing their overall critical thinking abilities.

Evolving Classroom Dynamics: AI introduces a level of scalability and personalization that can change classroom dynamics. By tailoring learning experiences to individual student needs and pace, students can engage in a more participatory learning process tailored to their abilities. One instructor noted: “if we allow for AI to take care of most of the basic education students need, then brick and mortar schools have the opportunity to become a place for flourishing of project-based learning, social and cultural development, and experiential education-- all of which will still need us teachers to facilitate!"

AI as an Enhancer of the Learning Process: Although AI cannot replicate human touch or original ideas, it can contribute significantly to the learning process. It can provide explanations, aid comprehension, and offer a platform for students to explore and understand complex topics. For students who may feel uncomfortable asking repetitive questions in a traditional setting, AI can act like a tutor and serve as a reliable and accessible resource. It democratizes education and becomes what CEO Susan Winslow refers to as “the great equalizer.”

Educators as AI Learners: When it comes to AI, instructors are also students. Many are actively engaged with AI technologies, continually experimenting with different approaches to harness its power in and out of the classroom. This iterative process of improvement ensures that they’re well-equipped to guide their students as well as take advantage of the latest advancements. As they adapt and refine their approaches, they become role models for students in embracing technology to help augment their critical thinking abilities.

AI in education represents more than just a technological advancement; it is a paradigm shift that empowers students to adapt, explore, and refine their critical thinking skills. It can bring about a significant shift in education, creating new landscapes for students to adapt, explore, and enhance their critical thinking skills. As educators embrace AI as a tool for enrichment, they pave the way for a more engaging, equitable, and intellectually stimulating educational landscape.

If you're curious about the intersection of education and AI, check out additional insights from instructors on Supporting Academic Integrity in an AI World or check out Five Things Instructors Should Consider When Assigning Homework in a World with ChatGPT.