Can ChatGPT become your ally in building a TOEFL iBT® course syllabus?

Most educators understand the pivotal role technology currently plays in the industry, recognizing its potential utility when appropriately integrated into their daily professional activities. Firstly, technology establishes a common ground between teachers and students, who are frequently well-versed in various devices, software, and technological advancements. Secondly, it can be an exceptionally useful instrument that might significantly enhance work efficiency and effectiveness. 

Among the most recent technological resources, ChatGPT undoubtedly stands out as the one on everyone’s lips: this remarkably potent tool is believed to be able, over time, to replace people in several jobs, as it demonstrates an ability to perform numerous tasks more quickly and proficiently than the individuals themselves; it has already received attribution as a co-author of some published scientific articles, for example.  

Yet, in our role as English Language Teachers (ELT), a job where people are irreplaceable, or so we hope, how can we explore the potential of ChatGPT not only to make our lessons more attractive but to actually take some workload off our shoulders? 

How can ELTs use ChatGPT? 

Let us begin by acknowledging that once you become acquainted with the tool, and start to explore its features, you will discover its ability to actually help teachers with some interesting hints and tools to assist them in their role. After a brief exchange with the tool about ELT needs, we found out that it can help you: 

  • List some professional development opportunities tailored for English language teachers, mentioning, among others, teacher associations or online English teaching platforms, also providing a brief description of what these have to offer. 
  • Recommend some digital assessment tools, specifying what each of them can do. For instance, describing one of these tools, it specifies that it lets you design interactive quizzes and games that engage students and encourage active participation and that it is particularly effective for review sessions.
  • Give advice about what ELTs can use in their lessons, such as authentic materials, and provide an extensive list of said materials and the way to use them. For example, with magazine advertisements, students can analyze them for language patterns, persuasive techniques, and cultural messages. Students can then create their own advertisements or discuss marketing strategies.
  • Create a course syllabus. Yes, that’s right! We tried it and will share our feedback below.


Creating a course syllabus for TOEFL iBT® prep using ChatGPT: An experiment 

Working with ChatGPT is extremely easy and user-friendly: once you register for free (a paid subscription is available for the latest version, but the free one is very valid too), you can start interacting with the tool by simply typing your request in the chat box. To formulate a course syllabus for TOEFL iBT, we opted to submit two distinct requests, each reflecting varying degrees of specificity. 

  • Design a 60-hour course syllabus to prepare a student for the TOEFL iBT test: our initial inquiry lacked specificity, as we omitted details regarding the student's initial proficiency level, as well as the intended score or desired CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) level to be attained. 
  • Design a 60-hour course syllabus to prepare a B1-level student to reach a B2 level score in the TOEFL iBT (range of scores 72-94): Therefore, we decided to provide a more precise input by selecting a starting level (B1) for the example proficiency level of a student undertaking preparations for the TOEFL iBT test. Additionally, we specified the desired attainment level as B2. This was done to assess whether the tool would acknowledge the context and whether this particular student (or group of students) would receive level-based learning objectives and recommendations. 

An essential point to recognize is that such tools enhance their performance through learning and exposure to new data. Therefore, it could be useful to attempt generating the answers multiple times or to revisit the task after a period of time, so we asked the same questions again after about a month. In our scenario, during the initial attempt, the tool generated a course structured around a 5-week timeframe for both cases: general preparation and B1 students targeting a score within the B2 range. However, in the subsequent attempt, the course duration was arbitrarily extended to 10 or 11 weeks, without making specific or extensive changes to the course content. Before discussing the content, let us examine the syllabi presented by ChatGPT.

Is the course syllabus for TOEFL® offered by ChatGPT effective? 

As you've observed, all the generated syllabi are generally well-constructed and can be valuable for a teacher who is preparing students for the TOEFL iBT. Each syllabus emphasizes all four language skills and provides techniques for enhancing them. Furthermore, they consistently incorporate a practice test as an assessment resource to evaluate students' readiness before the actual test day. Without specific information about the students, ChatGPT structured the syllabus to allocate equal time to all language skills. However, teachers have the flexibility to tailor it to their students' needs. For instance, if someone requires more focus on improving listening or writing skills, the allocation of time can be adjusted accordingly. 

“ELT professionals can surely find a way to integrate AI effectively and fruitfully into their profession”


Some elements in the syllabi, that can prove particularly useful to teachers stood out: 

  • Regarding Reading skills, the syllabi consistently highlight the necessity of teaching skimming and scanning techniques, as well as the ability to identify main ideas, supporting details, and make inferences. These aspects align well with the TOEFL learning objectives 
  • In the part dedicated to Listening, ChatGPT underlines the importance of note-taking strategies, that are crucial for a successful outcome in the test. 
  • For both Speaking and Writing, the AI mentions peer-assessment, which, together with self-assessment, can serve as a highly valuable tool for enhancing skills, particularly when performed following the official TOEFL iBT scoring rubrics


While the overall impression of the syllabi is positive, there are still some challenges and notable observations that have emerged: 

  • A conspicuous issue arises in the context of writing preparation, as the tool appears to be unaware of the new TOEFL writing task. This is because the free version of ChatGPT was last updated in September 2021, and so it cannot possibly know about the changes that took place in July 2023
  •  The courses exhibit a certain degree of generality, as they lack specificity. Notably, there are no significant distinctions between the general preparation course and the one intended for a B1 student aiming to achieve a low B2 proficiency level.  
  • The artificial intelligence only employs the practice test as a concluding point to evaluate the student's readiness, rather than utilizing it as an initial diagnostic measure to determine the test taker's proficiency level, which could indeed prove to be a highly valuable step.  
  • There is a notable absence of explicit reference to specific preparation advice for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) vocabulary, reading and writing genres, etc., a crucial aspect that should receive primary emphasis when preparing for the TOEFL iBT.  

In conclusion, when employed judiciously and with a clear acknowledgment of their strengths and, mostly, their weaknesses and limitations, these technologies can be considered valuable tools or initial resources to support the role of teachers.  

Perhaps, with the most recent update, there is potential for even more improved outcomes that take into account the latest changes in the test, but, in any case, it appears highly improbable that, even with further refinement, ChatGPT will ever fully replace educators.  

However, ELT professionals can surely find a way to integrate AI effectively and fruitfully into their profession making sure they critically review the content produced and evaluate its accuracy and possible deficiencies.