Using AI for studying: Priceless or pointless?

In recent years, the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has witnessed remarkable advancements, transforming various aspects of our lives. Higher education is one of many affected sectors. But should students lean in to the trend?


Pali Feledi

8/11/20236 min read

Image: A robot helps a child with their homework. AIs will become increasingly important parts of our lives as more and more gets automated.

In recent years, the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has witnessed remarkable advancements, transforming various aspects of our lives. Higher education is one of many affected sectors. Today, AI tools like ChatGPT are becoming increasingly integrated into university settings, revolutionising the way students learn. At universities, AI-powered products offer immense potential for students, helping them improve their learning experience, increase productivity, and achieve academic success. However, universities must draw up clear ethical guidelines for the use of AI services. Otherwise, policy ambiguity will damage the validity of academic credentials and cause honest students to face some awkward choices.

ChatGPT and Large Language Model (LLM) AIs

Can university staff find when ChatGPT was used?

Academics are struggling to understand the implications of AI for higher education. Staff at the University of Bath have, however, made an attempt. After testing coursework questions on ChatGPT, they found that while it can solve multiple choice questions almost perfectly, more complex questions requiring critical thinking often lead to unsatisfactory results. When the results are nonsensical at heart but seem sensible at first glance, this can suggest to the marker of an assessment that ChatGPT has been used.

What can ChatGPT do?

Large Language Model (LLM) AIs like ChatGPT are trained on large data sets of written information in order to perform certain tasks, like answer questions, and they have come a long way in recent years. However, when tasked with answering an essay question, the limitations of ChatGPT at least become tangible. As the researchers at the University of Bath found, it tends to simply restate the essay question, provide minimal evidence for its arguments, concoct simple sentences that add no extra value to the content, and fabricate sources.

Is ChatGPT useful?

Dr Richard Harvey, a professor at the University of East Anglia (UEA), argues that an assessment completed with the help of ChatGPT usually ‘has a very deeply boring but beautifully done argumentation structure’. Whilst this pithy statement may oversell the quality of the arguments that ChatGPT makes, it is certainly true that LLM AIs will tend to produce generic, cookie-cutter outputs that are unlikely to catch a sharp thinker’s eye. This genericism is often by design. In terms of input, LLM AIs could be thought of as taking an “average” across the available and relevant information within their trainer data set. In terms of output, deliberately making things bland may close the gap between desired output and actual output, by making many somewhat satisfied rather than some very satisfied and others somewhat dissatisfied.

What happens if I get caught using ChatGPT?

In a recent case of students using ChatGPT to complete assessments, 22 students at the University of Kent have been given a mark of zero. Within the UK, 377 students have been accused of cheating through AI, including those studying at most of the Russell Group universities. The number of students using AI tools to cheat on their assessments is estimated to be significantly higher.

However, even if lecturers learn to identify with unnerving precision if the work was done by AI, there can be cases in which students are falsely accused of cheating. This occurred at the University of Bolton earlier this year, which points out the need for a more comprehensive approach to dealing with the risks AI poses to academic integrity.

How should students use ChatGPT?

In spite of the drawbacks, ChatGPT and other LLM AIs remain a powerful tool for students that can make their academic lives a lot easier. It can provide instant responses to student queries, offer insightful explanations, and stimulate genuinely critical thinking. The interactive nature of ChatGPT can help students explore concepts, and promotes active learning by delivering feedback immediately. As such, ChatGPT has the potential to improve academic outcomes for students.

While ChatGPT can provide valuable assistance, getting the most out of it is contingent on recognising its downsides. ChatGPT relies on historical rather than live data, and may not always possess timely or accurate information. Universities should ensure that students are aware of these limitations and can reflect conscientiously on the answers ChatGPT gives them, encouraging them to validate information from multiple sources.

Universities must set out clear guidelines on the use of ChatGPT

The way in which universities handle AI services such as ChatGPT with regards to aiding student coursework is still to be formalised. Presently, a complete ban does not seem feasible. Therefore, they will probably aim to use regulation to control its use by students. In line with that, the Quality Assurance Agency has called for efforts to be made by universities to educate students on responsible AI use. A survey conducted in March showed that students were generally unsure about the way in which they were allowed to use AI services in university settings. This signals the necessity of formulating clear policies around the issue.

Five guiding principles to the use of AI

Recently, Russell Group universities have accepted five guiding principles to streamline their approach to AI. They have committed to:

  1. Help both students and staff learn using the service

  2. Support staff on how to educate students on the proper and ethical use of the software

  3. Tailor teaching and coursework in a way that draws on the transformative opportunity presented by AI to renew the educational methods in use

  4. Guard academic integrity

  5. Share best practices with other universities.

This means the use of AI will indeed not be prohibited, at least in the UK.

Useful AI tools beyond ChatGPT

Gradescope, Knowji, Dragon, Century Tech

Although ChatGPT is the most popular currently used service harnessing Large Language Model AI capabilities, there are various other services available that students can use to assist them with their studies. For example, Gradescope is a program powered by machine learning, that grades student assessments saving time for staff to concentrate on other tasks. Knowji is a research-based audio-visual vocabulary app for language learning. Nuance’s Dragon Speech Recognition software can transcribe up to 160 words per minute. Century Tech, an intelligent tutoring system, claims that it integrates student data with cognitive neuroscience to provide students with individualised study plans. Century Tech analyses data on students' performance, learning styles, and preferences to provide targeted feedback, adaptive instructions, and customized study materials around the clock.

While these services can be helpful, it is important to realise some of the pitfalls they might come with. For instance, Gradescope might make the grading process easier for staff, but if it entirely substitutes staff for marking student work, it will take away a key way in which educators get to know their students on an individual basis: marking their assessments. Furthermore, Dragon Speech Recognition operates with only a 99% success rate. This may sound very good, but in reality, the lack of complete accuracy means that it is still necessary to proofread its results. Reliability issues plague most AI-based systems, to varying degrees.

Conclusion: Everything in moder(AI)tion

Should I use AI to help me study?

The integration of AI into higher education offers significant potential for students to optimise their learning experience and improve academic achievement. However, it is crucial to approach AI-powered tools responsibly, and ensure they supplement study efforts rather than replacing both critical thinking and human interaction.

Will AI be regulated by universities?

Universities play a vital role in guiding students and staff on the ethical use of AI whilst promoting a holistic educational experience. They are also instrumental in safeguarding academic standards. In the 2023 academic year, UK universities will begin to implement the first round of measures to deal with the risks and opportunities posed by AI.

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