Students and Generative AI: Exploring trends across the university

A graphic image showing 3 students with electronic devices on a blue background
AI generated image [BETA]; prompt: happy students in different devices filling out a survey on AI
In this extra post, Elizabeth Anderson explores how students at the university are utilising generative AI, particularly ChatGPT, and delves into their perspectives on the ethical dimensions of this technology. Elizabeth Anderson is a fourth-year Electronics and Computer Science↗️ student at The University of Edinburgh and a former ChatGPT intern at the School of Engineering↗️.

As the School of Engineering’s ChatGPT intern, I have had two main areas of interest:

How are students using generative AI?
What do students think of the ethical implications of generative AI?

To understand these questions more I started to do my own research by using ChatGPT and getting myself more comfortable with generative AI. I started by asking ChatGPT random questions and seeing how helpful I found it to help me with random topics such as history and general knowledge. I wanted to see how I could use ChatGPT intuitively. After this, I did some reading and found UNESCO (1)↗️ to be a very helpful source on how to use ChatGPT to help with studying. I started by trying all the suggested ways to use generative AI. While I personally found some ways more helpful than others, I’ve realised that other students feel the opposite. For example, I found using the generate new answer function in ChatGPT to be unhelpful for understanding a concept whereas other students have stated they find it very helpful. I think UNESCO is very helpful and it mostly depends on a student’s learning style what they find effective.

After doing this initial research I started to do research with the current students at the
University of Edinburgh by holding a focus group and creating a survey. For the survey I
wanted to get responses from all over the university so I could get many different
perspectives. To be able to receive responses from out with the school of engineering, I had to submit the survey to the student’s survey ethics committee so it could be approved. This was approved two weeks later and the survey was then released to the university. Despite being forwarded to other schools I personally only had access to the School of Engineering’s email lists so I believe it will still be majority engineering students who filled in the survey. I received 109 responses by emailing and forwarding the survey in group chats and to friends. While the survey was being approved/ was receiving answers, I worked on hosting a focus group. The focus group had 5 students and 3 fellow interns helped take notes. Throughout the rest of the report I will be referring to the answers I received from the survey and focus group, although I will not refer to any students’ names due to privacy reasons.

Figure 1: A graph depicting responses to the question - do you use generative AI and what type?

From the survey it can be seen that, unsurprisingly ChatGPT is the most popular Generative AI with 73.8% of students saying they use it, although 21.4% of students say they don’t use any form of generative AI (Figure 1). This could be because Generative AI is still very new with ChatGPT only being released on the 30th November 2022 (2)↗️. I also believe that due to the newness of this technology a lot of students don’t know how to effectively use generative AI. Some students even said they would be interested in being taught how to use ChatGPT most effectively “in the same way we are offered resources on how to conduct academic searches, etc” (this is a response from the survey). I also think some students are still unclear on the university’s current stance on ChatGPT as I have spoken to many students who believe it to be banned or at least discouraged by the university. It might be useful to make students more aware of the university’s guidance on ChatGPT (3)↗️ by emailing about it and mentioning it in lectures when talking about coursework.

Figure 2: illustration showing response to the question: During the semester, How often do you use AI?
Figure 2

How often students are using ChatGPT seems to vary quite a lot as can be seen in Figure 2. While most students (33.3%) say they use ChatGPT a few times a week there is still a lot of students who rarely or never use ChatGPT (24.8% rarely and 19% never). This just
emphasises my previous point that students may need help to fully utilise ChatGPT as a
helpful tool.

Figure 3: Illustration showing responses to the quesion - How do you use AI to help with your studies
Figure 3

The use of generative AI for studying also seems to vary quite a lot with answering questions being the most popular use at 63% which can be seen in Figure 3. Also, a lot of international students mentioned how they find ChatGPT especially useful for improving language and grammar in essays and coursework (45.7% say they use ChatGPT for ‘Improving language and grammar’ as can be seen in Figure 3). In the ‘other’ section of Figure 3 some students said that they find arguing with ChatGPT to be a useful form of studying as it helps with their comprehension of the course. Others also mentioned that they used ChatGPT as a way to find further reading and expand their knowledge from what is taught in lectures. A lot of students find it useful to ask ChatGPT to ‘explain as if talking to a ten-year-old’ or something similar so they can understand the topic they’re trying to understand on a more basic level and build from there.

Figure 4: Illustration showing responses to the question - What type of coursework do you use AI to help with
Figure 4

Help with coding seems to be a large part of what students are using ChatGPT for (in Figure 4 it can be seen that 51.1% of students use ChatGPT to help with coding). Some examples include: creating a starting place when doing a coding project; inputting error messages the student receives so that ChatGPT can help them decipher their mistakes and help them find a solution; or students can even put their own code in and ask ChatGPT to debug their code for them. I think coding lends itself nicely to be helped by ChatGPT as it can be typed into the search bar easily by copying and pasting and there is a lot of information on many different coding languages on the internet already so there a vast bank of knowledge for ChatGPT to take from to improve user’s code.

Figure 5: Illustration showing response to question - Do you think AI is reliable?
Figure 5

Something I have found quite reassuring during my research is that students are still quite wary of generative AI only 1% of students said they find generative AI to be ‘always reliable’ as can be seen in Figure 5. Most students I have spoken to within the focus group or with replying to the survey have said that they like to check their own answers as they know that generative AI can ‘hallucinate’ answers. One concern some students have had is that generative AI will say something as fact and this will lead to misinformation spreading which could be very detrimental, so I think it is good to see that many students aren’t taking generative AI’s word as fact.

Figure 6: illustration showing responses to the question - Do you think AI is helpful for understanding of your course and coursework?
Figure 6

Despite the wariness, students are finding generative AI to be a helpful tool in helping their understanding of their courses (11.5% saying always helpful and 53.1% saying ‘Mostly helpful’ as can be seen in Figure 6). Many students say they find the way generative AI explains topics is very helpful – also the fact that they can ask generative AI to expand on certain parts they may be unsure of. Some students also use generative AI if they have gone over a word count to shorten their essay to fit the needed word count.

Student’s thoughts on the ethics of generative AI tend to vary quite a lot with some
students comparing generative AI to calculators saying it’s a very helpful tool and it may as well be used. Whereas other students seem worried about how reliable generative AI is. A lot of students don’t seem to be too worried about generative AI as they believe that AI is a tool and will still need someone to input prompts/ use the tool.

When it comes to data protection a lot of students seem to think AI is similar to using
google where they are always collecting your data through cookies. Data is always being
collected about people so what does one more website mean?

Overall, I think the best way to support students will be to make sure students know
generative AI such as ChatGPT is allowed by emailing and mentioning it in lectures as
students throughout the university seem to be unclear on the guidelines from the
university. I also believe it could be useful for there to be some advice on how students can use ChatGPT whether it be an in-person workshop or a link to online help such as the UNESCO article (I think it could also be useful to mention it in the Learn pages for courses that ChatGPT can be used as another resource to answer questions etc.). The number of ways ChatGPT can be used is endless but a good starting place seems to be interrogating ChatGPT (getting ChatGPT to elaborate) and also using ChatGPT to explain concepts in very simple terms. I believe that ChatGPT will be an incredibly useful resource for students and lecturers alike. It just might take a bit more time for all students to be using ChatGPT effectively.


1. 2023 [cited 2023 Sep 4]. Available from:↗️.
2. When was ChatGPT released? [Internet]. Scribbr. [cited 2023 Sep 4]. Available from:↗️
3. AI Guidance for Staff and Students [Internet]. The University of Edinburgh. 2023 [cited
2023 Sep 4]. Available from:↗️
ChatGPT was used in the writing of this report to give the report a rough outline.

Photograph of the author - Elizabeth AndersonElizabeth Anderson

Elizabeth Anderson is a fourth year Electronics and Computer Science Student here at the University of Edinburgh. Previously she was the ChatGPT intern at The School of Engineering during Summer 2023.

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