Can Artificial Intelligence Teach Students How to Critically Think? 

By: Cherie Lucas, PhD, BPharm, Grad Cert Educ Stud (Higher Educ), MPS

Dr. Jeff Cain recently published a CPTL Pulses article showcasing the ease of use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools, their potential benefits and challenges, and their possible impact on teaching, learning and scholarship.1  Beyond the teaching and learning context, AI tools are also being developed in the healthcare practice setting; for example, Glass can assist healthcare professionals with generating patient care plans. With the recent flurry of AI tools landing in these spaces, one even making it to ‘author status’ in academic literature, should pharmacy educators be worried the use of tools such as ChatGPT, Jasper, and AcaWriter  will replace student critical thinking skills?2-5

It would be detrimental for educators to simply ignore their existence, and there is the potential students have already accessed and engaged with these tools. As educators, it is our role to be updated and trained in the area of technological advances to help our students understand the potential use and misuse. Despite the capabilities of many AI tools, they  are often not tailored to be patient / individual specific and are more generic in nature. This is why critical thinking processes still need to be at the forefront when using AI, and it’s imperative we explore how to incorporate AI into the education environment and train students for future practice.

How do AI  tools work? 

It is important to realize most of these tools utilize natural language processing techniques (NLP), a subfield of linguistics which emphasize patterns in text. Extensive research underpins the algorithms used in NLP. For example, AcaWriter is used in numerous higher education settings (Pharmacy, Law, Business), and its capabilities have been continually fine-tuned via critiques of researchers in these areas.2-5 AcaWriter  also specifies that machine learning does not replace human critical thinking and includes a disclaimer encouraging users to ignore feedback if they are confident in their writing abilities, thus encouraging critical thinking processes even when using the tool. 

Understanding what prompts to use involves thinking critically about the context, the possible outcomes, and the nuances involved with a developing situation. In a recent opinion piece in a prominent Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), academic writer Dan Dixon stated that “if AI has all the answers, universities must change the questions,” implying that these tools are only as good as the input prompts they have been provided. Similarly, with ChatGPT, depending on the prompts and key words, the quality and accuracy of the output has been shown to vary significantly. In other words, humans play a huge role in that quality output. For example, if educators decide to use ChatGPT and provide minimal prompts to retrieve related citations for those prompts, this tool will not provide the correct citations related to the context in all cases, and it is important to check the authenticity of these citations. 

“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”: How could we use AI tools in pharmacy education?

As educators, we have to acknowledge these tools exist, and will continue to be ‘out there’ for students to access. This simply cannot be ignored! There is the potential these tools could be utilized to improve the critical thinking process, especially those tools that are well established and developed with the foundation of extensive evidence-based research. A task could be set that involves (i) critiquing the AI output via track changes and tasking users to (ii) provide a reflection on why they have adjusted, changed the text, and justified related text and context citations. Thus, this process may highlight the thinking processes to a user’s approach by tasking reasoning for their use of the types of input prompts.   

Should pharmacy educators be worried about the use of these tools replacing critical thinking processes? 

I think not!  There has been a history of educators providing prompts for most other areas of teaching and learning. Having these tools provide outputs from prompts that are inputted by the individuals or educators are no different. How we use that input to provide the output is the critical step in the learning process. Reflecting on the effective input and the potential effectiveness and accuracy of the output could be utilized to assist critical thinking. It is the process, context, and nuances in that thinking that will affect outputs from these tools. Careful consideration of human input into the prompts utilized for these tools could be compared and discussed as a group, thus facilitating a new approach to critical thinking. 

What AI tools are being utilized by your faculty and in the higher education space and what processes are in place to ensure critical thinking is not lost?


  1. Cain J. Artificial Intelligence wrote most of this article. CPTL Pulses, 2023; 26 Jan
  2. Gibson A, Aitken A, Sandor A, Buckingham Shum S, Tsingos-Lucas C, Knight S. Reflective writing analytics for actionable feedbackProceedings of LAK17: 7th International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge, March 13-17, 2017, Vancouver, Canada.
  3. Lucas C, Gibson A, Buckingham Shum S. Utilization of a novel online reflective learning tool for immediate formative feedback to assist pharmacy students’ reflective writing skills. Am J Pharm Educ.2019 Aug; 83(6): 6800
  4. Lucas C, Buckingham Shum S, Liu M,  Bebawy M. Implementing a Novel Software Program to Support Pharmacy Students’ Reflective Practice in Scientific Research Am J Pharm Educ. 2021, 85 (10) Article 8320.
  5. Lucas C. Accessorizing the science foundation with internal mirrors: A novel open source tool to enhance reflective practice. CPTL Pulses, 2018; 28 Aug 

Author Bio(s):

Dr. Cherie Lucas, PhD, BPharm, Grad Cert Educ Stud (Higher Educ), MPS is a Senior Lecturer in Pharmacy Education and Practice at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), a licenced pharmacist, and resides on the Pharmacy Council of NSW, Australia. Her educational and research interests include developing reflective practice tools, feedback and assessment, and working with the Connected Intelligence Centre at UTS with the co-design and use of the AI tool, AcawWriter in pharmacy education. In her free time she enjoys pilates, dancing, reading and the arts. 

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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