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"It Was Like Being Able to Access a New Chapter of the Textbook”

March 1, 2023
High school junior Zachary Clifton uses ChatGPT to bridge gaps in his understanding

When Zachary Clifton, a high school junior from Corbin, Kentucky, first heard about ChatGPT, he was “somewhat cynical” about the implications for education. He witnessed peers using the new AI to get around doing their assignments and was fairly certain his classmates would “never write essays again.”

But after experimenting with the generative chatbot for a few months, Clifton now believes it’s possible to use ChatGPT as a tool, rather than a crutch. When studying for an accounting midterm in February, Clifton identified gaps in his knowledge that weren’t sufficiently covered by the textbook, his teacher’s lessons, his notes or previous graded work.

High school student Zachary Clifton speaks at a podium.
Kentucky high school student Zachary Clifton believes it’s possible to use ChatGPT as a tool, rather than a crutch to help with his studies.

In search of a clearer explanation of cash versus accrual basis accounting. as well as the difference between accrual and deferral methods of adjusting, he fed specific financial scenarios to ChatGPT.

He asked it to determine the appropriate accounting method to use. The chatbot provided responses and rationale. It helped Clifton clearly synthesize information he had previously struggled to understand. In short, ChatGPT became his tutor.

“I manipulated ChatGPT’s algorithm for my benefit,” Clifton says. “It [was like being] able to access a new chapter of the textbook. I had new study material that other students didn’t have access to.”

Clifton was interviewed as part of the Walton Family Foundation's research into how ChatGPT is being used by teachers and students.

Most students (68%) and teachers (73%) agree that ChatGPT can help them learn more at a faster rate.

Clifton ended up getting a 95% on the accounting exam. He now sees much more potential for using ChatGPT as a personalized study tool in other subjects. He’s used it in chemistry to better understand a reaction between ammonium nitrate and sodium bicarbonate. He imagines using it in biology, to help categorize characteristics of animals.

His success in using ChatGPT for school got him curious about how it might help him beyond the classroom. As an intern at an economic development nonprofit in eastern Kentucky, Clifton had a hypothesis that dwindling jobs in the once-dominant coal mining industry were to blame for the area’s high unemployment rates.

This is an algorithm I can take advantage of and use it to advance myself.
High school junior Zachary Clifton

When he asked the chatbot to list the causes of unemployment in the community, his hunch was confirmed. “It was validating,” Clifton says. “I’ve almost used it as a way to verify my thinking.”

Like many Gen Zers, Clifton was concerned that AI-powered technology could take over human functions and eliminate jobs. But now he believes that capitalizing on tech like ChatGPT can be empowering. “As a young person, I see my future as in some ways limited by computers and algorithms, knowing there are jobs [that can be] replaced by automation,” he says. “But this is an algorithm I can take advantage of and use it to advance myself… It’s something I can use responsibly and will use responsibly moving forward.”

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