Does ChatGPT mean the end of the essay as an assessment tool?

Jisc advocates a balanced and fully informed approach to AI-generated content.

ChatGPT and its ability to produce high quality essays with minimal human input has created a flurry in the UK education sector and many are questioning whether this signals the end of the essay as a primary mode of assessing learners.

Jisc advises the sector not to view AI-generated content as simply a threat and highlights the need to work towards integrating these tools into education rather than legislating against them.

Michael Webb, Jisc’s director of technology and analytics, explains:

“While assistive computation tools like ChatGPT can undoubtedly be seen as presenting a challenge to the sector, they also have the potential to change it in really positive ways – by cutting staff workloads, for example, or enabling new assessment models.

“The fact that ChatGPT can generate properly structured, grammatically correct pieces means that students could well use it to produce essays. Equally, though, it could be used by educators to help them generate course content, reports and feedback.

“The knee-jerk reaction might be to block these tools in order to stop students cheating, but that’s neither feasible nor advisable. We should really regard them as simply the next step up from spelling or grammar checkers: technology that can make everyone’s life easier.

“Like it or not, AI-powered computation tools for written content, image generation and coding are here to stay. Aspects of them will soon be integrated into apps like Microsoft Office. The key is to understand their shortcomings and weak points as well as their strengths. We should all be aware, for example, that ChatGPT’s output can be poorly argued, out of date and factually inaccurate.

“We don’t need to revert to in-person exams: this is a great opportunity for the sector to explore new assessment techniques that measure learners on critical thinking, problem-solving and reasoning skills rather than essay-writing abilities. Factual knowledge can be assessed during the learning process, while the application of that knowledge could be tested in project work.

“At Jisc’s national centre for AI we’ve been looking at this area for some time and we think the most important thing right now is to make sure that institutions – and the sector as a whole – have a clear understanding of what the technology can really do. Then we can start to have a meaningful conversation about how we use it to improve the experience of staff and students.”

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