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New HEPI Policy Note finds more than half of students have used generative AI for help on assessments – but only 5% likely to be using AI to cheat

typing in a laptop

In a new HEPI Policy Note, Provide or punish? Students’ views on generative AI in higher education (HEPI Policy Note 51) by Josh Freeman, HEPI and Kortext explore students’ attitudes to new generative AI tools like ChatGPT and Google Bard.

Since ChatGPT was released in November 2022, there has been an explosion of interest in generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) tools, which are capable of creating new content such as text, images and video. Many people are excited by GenAI’s potential to enhance learning, support students and reduce both student and staff workload. But there is equal concern over a potential epidemic of AI-based cheating.

This is the first UK-wide study to explore students’ use of generative AI since ChatGPT was released. We partnered with Kortext, the digital content, student experience and engagement data experts and creators of generative AI tool Kortext Premium, to lift the lid on how students think about and use new GenAI technologies.

We polled over 1,200 undergraduate students through UCAS, with results weighted to be representative of the current student population. We find that the use of generative AI has become normalised in higher education. Most students have used an AI tool to support their studies and universities are generally considered reliable at identifying work produced by GenAI. However, students want not just clear policies but also support with using generative AI to help them with their studies.

Key findings include:

  • More than half of students (53%) have used generative AI to help them prepare assessments.The most common use is as an ‘AI private tutor’ (36%), helping to explain concepts.    
  • More than one-in-eight students (13%) use generative AI to generate text for assessments,but they typically edit the content before submitting it. Only 5% of students put AI-generated text into assessments without editing it personally – which we expect will be prohibited by most institutions.    
  • More than a third of students who have used generative AI (35%) do not know how often it produces made-up facts, statistics or citations (‘hallucinations’).
  • A ‘digital divide’ in AI use may be emerging, with male students, students from the most privileged backgrounds and students of Asian ethnicity much more likely to have used generative AI than other students.
  • A majority of students consider it acceptable to use generative AI for explaining concepts (66%), suggesting research ideas (54%) and summarising articles (53%), but only 3% think it is acceptable to use AI text in assessments without editing.
  • A majority of respondents (63%) think their institution has a ‘clear’ policy on AI use, with only 12% thinking it is not clear. Two-thirds of students (65%) also think their institution could spot work produced by AI.
  • Students think institutions should provide more AI tools. While three-in-10 (30%) agree or strongly agree their institution should provide such tools, fewer than one-in-10 (9%) say they currently do so.
  • Only a fifth of students (22%) are satisfied with the support they have received on AI. Most students (62%) are neutral or say they do not know.
  • Nearly three-quarters (73%) expect to use AI after they finish their studies. They most commonly expect to use it for translating text (38%), enhancing written content (37%) and summarising text (33%). Only a fifth of students (19%) expect to use it for generating text.

The report further recommends that:

  1. Institutions should develop clear policies on what AI use is acceptable and what is unacceptable.
  1. Where AI has benefits, institutions should teach students how to use it effectively and how to check whether the content it produces is of high quality.
  1. To prevent the ‘digital divide’ from growing, institutions should provide AI tools for those who cannot afford them to aid learning.
  1. The Department for Education (DfE) and devolved administrations should urgently commission reviews to explore how academic assessment will be affected by AI.

Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI and author of the report, said:

As the dust settled after the launch of ChatGPT, some were predicting the end of assessment as we know it. But so far, higher education institutions have upheld standards of rigour, and they deserve credit. Students trust institutions to spot the use of AI tools and they feel staff understand how AI works. As a result, rather than having AI chatbots write their essays, students are using AI in more limited ways: to help them study but not to do all the work.

However, action is urgently needed to stop a new ‘digital divide’ from growing. AI tools are still new and often unknown. For every student who uses generative AI every day, there is another who has never opened ChatGPT or Google Bard, which gives some students a huge advantage.

The divide will only grow larger as generative AI tools become more powerful. Rather than merely adopting a punitive approach, institutions should educate students in the effective use of generative AI – and be prepared to provide AI tools where they can aid learning.

Robin Gibson, Director of External Affairs at Kortext, said:

Clearly the adoption of generative AI among the student population has been rapid and largely positive. Kortext was one of the first edtech companies to provide a bespoke generative AI solution for higher education, mitigating the uncertainties expressed by students in this research. We look forward to continuing to empower students with tools that foster a dynamic learning environment, to prepare future leaders for a world defined by limitless possibilities.

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