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CodeRunner Documentation (V2.4.2)

Moodle Book version of the project's (see GitHub)

Site: CodeRunner
Course: CodeRunner
Book: CodeRunner Documentation (V2.4.2)
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Date: Saturday, 20 January 2018, 6:01 PM

1 Introduction

NOTE: This is the documentation for Version 2.4.2. Version 3.0.0 is now available and is documented here.

CodeRunner is a Moodle question type that requests students to submit program code to some given specification. The submission is graded by running a series of tests on the code in a sandbox, comparing the output with the expected output. A trivial example might be a Python function sqr(x) that returns its parameter squared, but there is essentially no limit on the complexity of questions that can be asked.

CodeRunner is intended to be run in an adaptive mode, so that students know immediately if their code is passing the tests. In the typical 'all-or-nothing' mode, all test cases must pass if the submission is to be awarded any marks. The mark for a set of questions in a quiz is then determined primarily by which questions the student is able to solve successfully and then secondarily by how many submissions the student makes on each question. However, it is also possible to run CodeRunner questions in a traditional quiz mode where the mark is determined by how many of the tests the code successfully passes.

CodeRunner and its predecessors pycode and ccode has been in use at the University of Canterbury for about five years, running many hundreds of thousands of student quiz submissions in Python, C , Octave and Matlab. Laboratory work, assignment work and mid-semester tests in the introductory first year Python programming course (COSC121), which has around 400 students in the first semester and 200 in the second, are all assessed using CodeRunner questions. The final exams for COSC121 have also been run using Moodle/CodeRunner since November 2014.

The second year C course (ENCE260) of around 200 students makes similar use of CodeRunner using C questions and a third year Civil Engineering course (ENCN305), taught in Matlab, uses CodeRunner for all labs and for the mid-semester programming exam. Other courses using Moodle/CodeRunner include:

  1. EMTH171 Mathematical Modelling and Computation
  2. COSC261 Formal Languages and Compilers
  3. COSC367 Computational Intelligence
  4. ENCE360 Operating Systems
  5. SENG365 Web Computing Architectures

CodeRunner currently supports Python2 (considered obsolescent), Python3, C, Java, PHP5, JavaScript (NodeJS), Octave and Matlab. C++ questions are not built-in but can be easily supported by custom question types. The architecture allows easy extension to other languages.

For security and load reasons, it is recommended that CodeRunner be set up on a special quiz-server rather than on an institution-wide Moodle server. However, CodeRunner does allow use of a remote sandbox machine for running all student-submitted code so provided only that sandbox is enabled, as discussed below, this version should actually be safe to install on an institutional server.

A single 4-core server can handle an average quiz question submission rate of about 60 quiz questions per minute while maintaining a response time of less than about 3 - 4 seconds, assuming the student code itself runs in a fraction of a second. We have run CodeRunner-based exams with around 250 students and experienced only light to moderate load factors on an 8-core Moodle server. The Jobe server, which runs student submissions (see below), is even more lightly loaded during such an exam.

The CodeRunner question type can be installed on any modern Moodle system (version 2.6 or later), on Linux, Windows and Mac. For security reasons submitted jobs are usually run on a separate machine called the "Jobe server" or "Jobe sandbox machine". Linux installations have the additional option of using the third-party Liu sandbox for running C jobs directly on the Moodle server and there is also a sandbox called the RunGuard sandbox built into CodeRunner, although the latter is now deprecated. See the Sandbox Configuration section for details. Note that the Jobe sandbox runs only on Linux systems.

2 Installation

This chapter describes how to install CodeRunner. It assumes the existence of a working Moodle system, version 2.6 or later. If you wish to install the optional Runguard sandbox, you must be running a Linux-based system and you need administrator privileges.

If you are installing for the first time, jump straight to section 2.2.

2.1 Upgrading from an earlier version

CodeRunner version 2.4 uses different database table names from earlier versions and some of the column names have been changed too. The script upgrade.php will make these changes for you, and the code for importing questions and restoring courses has been extended to handle legacy-format exports. All the same, because the database is being significantly altered it is recommended that:

  1. You do not attempt such an upgrade during term time.

  2. You make a complete backup of your existing server's database before attempting the upgrade so that you can, if necessary, revert to the previous version of the code.

  3. You do a full backup of any existing courses that use CodeRunner questions before starting the upgrade.

  4. You export all your CodeRunner questions from the question database in Moodle XML format.

Also, please feel free to contact the developer ( either to discuss your upgrade beforehand or afterwards if any problems occur.

With all those caveats, upgrading from an earlier version should be as simple as a raw installation. Move the existing moodleHome/local/CodeRunner folder to a backup location, then just follow the instructions in the next section.

Note that all existing questions in the system CR_PROTOTYPES category with names containing the string PROTOTYPE_ are deleted by the installer, which then re-loads them from the file


Hence if you have developed your own question prototypes and placed them in the system CR_PROTOTYPES category you must export them in Moodle XML format before upgrading. You can if you wish place that exported file in the 'db' directory with a name ending in _PROTOTYPES.xml; they will then be automatically loaded by the installer. Alternatively you can import them at your leisure later on using the usual question-bank import function in the web interface.

2.2 Installing CodeRunner from scratch

Note: if you're installing CodeRunner on an SELinux system and you wish to use the deprecated RunguardSandbox you will probably need to disable SELinux. This can be done with a command like

sed -i-dist -e 's|SELINUX=enforcing|SELINUX=permissive|' /etc/selinux/config
setenforce 0

There are three different ways to install CodeRunner, as follows:

  1. Download the latest version of CodeRunner and extract the files and Unzip these into the directories moodlehome/question/type and moodlehome/question/behaviour respectively. This installation method does not support the use of the RunGuard sandbox (see below). It can be used on any Linux, Windows or Mac.

  2. Clone the entire repository into any directory you like, say somewhere and then copy the type/coderunner and behaviour/adaptive_adapted_for_coderunner subtrees into the Moodle question/type and question/behaviour directories. The commands to achieve this under Linux are

    cd somewhere
    git clone
    cd CodeRunner
    sudo ./install
  3. Clone the entire repository into the moodlehome/local directory and then make symbolic links from Moodle's question/type and question/behaviour directories into the corresponding CodeRunner subtrees. The commands to achieve this on a Linux system are

    cd moodlehome/local
    git clone
    cd CodeRunner
    sudo ./devinstall

The first of these methods is the more traditional Moodle install, while the second is equivalent in effect but makes it possible to also install the RunGuard sandbox (provided you're running a Linux-based Moodle) and gives you the full CodeRunner source tree to experiment with. The third method, which also allows use of the RunGuard sandbox (on Linux systems only), is intended for developers. Because it symbolically links to the source code, any changes made to the source in the moodlehome/local/CodeRunner subtree will take immediate effect.

Having carried out one of the above methods, if you have local question prototypes to add to the built-in prototype set you should now copy them into the moodlehome/question/type/coderunner/db folder. They should be Moodle XML file(s) with names ending in _PROTOTYPES.xml (case-sensitive). [If you don't understand what this paragraph means, then it probably doesn't concern you ... move on.]

After carrying out one of the above install methods, you can complete the installation by logging onto the server through the web interface as an administrator and following the prompts to upgrade the database as appropriate. Do not interrupt that upgrade process. If you are upgrading from an earlier version of CodeRunner you will likely receive quite a few warning messages from the cachestore, relating to files that have been moved or renamed in the transition from version 2.3. These warnings can be safely ignored (I hope).

In its initial configuration, CodeRunner is set to use a University of Canterbury Jobe server to run jobs. You are welcome to use this during initial testing, but it is not intended for production use. Authentication and authorisation on that server is via an API-key and the default API-key given with CodeRunner imposes a limit of 100 per hour over all clients using that key. If you decide that CodeRunner is useful to you, please set up your own sandbox (Jobe or otherwise) as described in Sandbox configuration below. Alternatively, if you wish to continue to use our Jobe server, you can apply to the developer for your own API key, stating how long you will need to use the key and a reasonable upper bound on the number of jobs you will need to submit her hour. We will do our best to accommodate you if we have sufficient capacity.

If you want a few CodeRunner questions to get started with, try importing the files MoodleHome/question/type/coderunner/db/simpledemoquestions.xml and/or MoodleHome/question/type/coderunner/db/python3demoquestions.xml These contains all the questions from the two tutorial quizzes on the demo site. Note, though, that some of the questions from the python3demoquestions file make use of the University of Canterbury prototypes in uoc_prototypes.xml, so you'd need to import them, too.

WARNING: at least a couple of users have broken CodeRunner by duplicating the prototype questions in the System/CR_PROTOTYPES category. Do not touch those special questions until you have read this entire manual and are familiar with the inner workings of CodeRunner. Even then, you should proceed with caution. These prototypes are not for normal use - they are akin to base classes in a prototypal inheritance system like JavaScript's. If you duplicate a prototype question the question type will become unusable, as CodeRunner doesn't know which version of the prototype to use.

2.3 Building the RunGuardSandbox

Note: the RunGuardSandbox is no longer being maintained and will probably be removed in the near future.

The RunguardSandbox allows student jobs to be run on the Moodle server itself. It users a program runguard, written by Jaap Eldering as part of the programming contest server DOMJudge. This program needs to be 'setuid root', and hence the install script requires root permissions to set this up.

If you wish to use the RunguardSandbox you must have used either the second or third of the installation methods given above. Do not proceed until you have read the various security warnings in the section The Runguard Sandbox below. Then, if you still wish to install RunGuard, type the command

sudo ./install_runguard

from within the outermost CodeRunner directory. This will compile and build the runguard program and add the user account coderunner, which is used for running the submitted jobs. The install script may prompt for details like the office and phone number of the coderunner user - just hit enter to accept the defaults.

All going well, you should finish up with a user 'coderunner' and a program runguard in CodeRunner/coderunner/Sandbox/ with setuid-root capabilities. runguard should be owned by root with the webserver user as its group. This program should not be accessible to users other than root and the web server. Note that any subsequent recursive chown or chmod on the question/type/coderunner directory tree will probably break runguard and you'll need to re-run the runguard installer.

2.4 Sandbox Configuration

You next need to decide what particular sandbox or sandboxes you wish to use for running the student-submitted jobs. You can configure sandboxes via the Moodle administrator settings for the CodeRunner plugin, accessed via

Site administration  Plugins  Question types  CodeRunner.

Available sandboxes are as follows:

  1. The JobeSandbox.

    This is the only sandbox enabled by default. It makes use of a separate server, developed for use by CodeRunner, called Jobe. As explained at the end of the section on installing CodeRunner from scratch, the initial configuration uses the Jobe server at the University of Canterbury. This is not suitable for production use. Please switch to using your own Jobe server as soon as possible.

    Follow the instructions at to build a Jobe server, then use the Moodle administrator interface for the CodeRunner plug-in to define the Jobe host name and perhaps port number. Depending on how you've chosen to configure your Jobe server, you may also need to supply an API-Key through the same interface. If you intend running unit tests you will also need to edit tests/config.php to set the correct URL for the Jobe server.

    Assuming you have built Jobe on a separate server, the JobeSandbox fully isolates student code from the Moodle server. However, Jobe can be installed on the Moodle server itself, rather than on a completely different machine. This works fine and is a bit more secure than using the Runguard Sandbox but is much less secure than running Jobe on a completely separate machine. If a student program manages to break out of the sandbox when it's running on a separate machine, the worst it can do is bring the sandbox server down, whereas a security breach on the Moodle server could be used to hack into the Moodle database, which contains student run results and marks. That said, our Computer Science department used the even less secure Runguard Sandbox for some years without any ill effects; Moodle keeps extensive logs of all activities, so a student deliberately breaching security is taking a huge risk.

  2. The Liu sandbox

    If you wish to run only C or C++ jobs and wish to avoid the complication of setting up and maintaining a separate Jobe server, you might wish to consider the Liu sandbox, which can be installed on the Moodle server itself. It runs all code with ptrace, and disallows any system call that might allow escape from the sandbox, including most file i/o. The job to be run is compiled and built as a static load module before being passed to the sandbox. While the possibility of an exploit can never be absolutely disregarded, the Liu sandbox does offer a high level of protection.

    The Liu sandbox can be obtained from here. Both the binary and the Python2 interface need to be installed. Note that CodeRunner does not currently work with the Python3 interface to the sandbox.

    The easiest way to install the Liu sandbox is by downloading appropriate .debs or .rpms of both libsandbox and pysandbox (for Python version 2). Note that the pysandbox download must be the one appropriate to the installed version of Python2 (currently typically 2.6 on RHEL systems or 2.7 on most other flavours of Linux).

    The Liu sandbox requires that C programs be compiled and built using static versions of the libraries rather than the usual dynamically-loaded libraries. Many versions of the C development packages no longer include static libraries by default, so you may need to download these separately. Before trying to use the Liu sandbox, check you can build a statically linked executable with a command like

    gcc -Wall -Werror -std=c99 -static src.c -lm

    It is also possible to use the Liu sandbox to run other languages, but it must be configured to allow any extra system calls required by those languages and also to access those parts of the file system that the language expects to access. These are many and varied so this approach is not recommended.

  3. The RunguardSandbox.

    [Note: The RunguardSandbox is no longer being maintained and will probably be deleted from CodeRunner in the near future.] The RunguardSandbox is the easiest one to use, as it requires no extra resources apart from whatever languages (Python3, Java etc) you wish to use in CodeRunner questions. However, the RunguardSandbox is also the least secure. It runs student submitted jobs on the Moodle server itself, so most certainly should not be used on an institutional Moodle server, but it is reasonably safe if a special-purpose quiz server is being used, assuming that server requires student login. Our own quiz server at the University of Canterbury made extensive use of the RunguardSandbox for two years with no known security failures. You should be aware that it does not prevent use of system calls like socket that might open connections to other servers behind your firewall and of course it depends on the Unix server being securely set up in the first place.

    The RunguardSandbox uses a program runguard, written by Jaap Eldering as part of the programming contest server DOMJudge. This program enforces various resource limitations, such as on CPU time and memory use, on the student program. It runs the code as the non-privileged user coderunner so student-submitted code can do even less than a student with a Linux account can do (as they can't create files outside the /tmp directory and have severe restrictions on cpu time, threads and memory use).

2.5 Checking security

Until recently the default Moodle install had all files in the tree world-readable. This is BAD, especially if you're running code in the Runguard sandbox, because the all-important config.php, which contains the database password, can be read by student code. So it's most important that you at very least ensure that that particular file is not world-readable.

A better fix is to set the group of the entire Moodle subtree to apache (or www-data depending on what user the web server runs as) and then make it all not world readable. However, if you do that after installing CodeRunner you'll break the set-uid-root program that's used to start the Runguard sandbox. So you then need to re-run the runguard installer to fix it.

2.6 Running the unit tests

If your Moodle installation includes the phpunit system for testing Moodle modules, you might wish to test the CodeRunner installation. Most tests require that at least python2 and python3 are installed.

Before running any tests you first need to edit the file moodlehome/question/type/coderunner/tests/config.php to match whatever configuration of sandboxes you wish to test and to set the jobe server URL, if appropriate. You should then initialise the phpunit environment with the commands

    cd moodlehome
    sudo php admin/tool/phpunit/cli/init.php

You can then run the full CodeRunner test suite with one of the following two commands, depending on which version of phpunit you're using:

    sudo -u apache vendor/bin/phpunit --verbose --testsuite="qtype_coderunner test suite"


    sudo -u apache vendor/bin/phpunit --verbose --testsuite="qtype_coderunner_testsuite"

This will almost certainly show lots of skipped or failed tests relating to the various sandboxes and languages that you have not installed, e.g. the LiuSandbox, Matlab, Octave and Java. These can all be ignored unless you plan to use those capabilities. The name of the failing tests should be sufficient to tell you if you need be at all worried.

Feel free to email me if you have problems with the installation.

3 The Architecture of CodeRunner

Although it's straightforward to write simple questions using the built-in question types, anything more advanced than that requires an understanding of how CodeRunner works.

The block diagram below shows the components of CodeRunner and the path taken as a student submission is graded.

Following through the grading process step by step:

  1. For each of the test cases, the Twig template engine merges the student's submitted answer with the question's per-test-case template together with code for this particular test case to yield an executable program. By "executable", we mean a program that can be executed, possibly with a preliminary compilation step.
  2. The executable program is passed into whatever sandbox is configured for this question (e.g. the Jobe sandbox). The sandbox compiles the program (if necessary) and runs it, using the standard input supplied by the testcase.
  3. The output from the run is passed into whatever Grader component is configured, as is the expected output specified for the test case. The most common grader is the "exact match" grader but other types are available.
  4. The output from the grader is a "test result object" which contains (amongst other things) "Expected" and "Got" attributes.
  5. The above steps are repeated for all testcases, giving an array of test result objects (not shown explicitly in the figure).
  6. All the test results are passed to the CodeRunner question renderer, which presents them to the user as the Results Table. Tests that pass are shown with a green tick and failing ones shown with a red cross. Typically the whole table is coloured red if any tests fail or green if all tests pass.

The above description is somewhat simplified. Firstly, it ignores the existence of the "combinator template", which combines all the test cases into a single executable program. The per-test template is used only if there is no combinator template or if each test case has its own standard input stream or if an exception occurs during execution of the combined program. This will all be explained later, in the section on templates.

Secondly, there are several more-advanced features that are ignored by the above, such as special customised grading templates, which generate an executable program that does the grading of the student code as well. A per-test-case template grader can be used to define each row of the result table, or a combinator template grader can be used to defines the entire result table. See the section on grading templates for more information.

4 Question types

CodeRunner support a wide variety of question types and can easily be extended to support others. A CodeRunner question type is defined by a question prototype, which specifies run time parameters like the execution language and sandbox and also the templates that define how a test program is built from the question's test-cases plus the student's submission. The prototype also defines whether the correctness of the student's submission is assessed by use of an EqualityGrader, a NearEqualityGrader or RegexGrader. The EqualityGrader expects the output from the test execution to exactly match the expected output for the testcase. The NearEqualityGrader is similar but is case insensitive and tolerates variations in the amount of white space (e.g. missing or extra blank lines, or multiple spaces where only one was expected). The RegexGrader expects a regular expression match instead. The EqualityGrader is recommended for all normal use as it encourages students to get their output exactly correct; they should be able to resubmit almost-right answers for a small penalty, which is generally a better approach than trying to award part marks based on regular expression matches.

Test cases are defined by the question author to check the student's code. Each test case defines a fragment of test code, the standard input to be used when the test program is run and the expected output from that run. The author can also add additional files to the execution environment.

The test program is constructed from the test case information plus the student's submission using one of two templates defined by the prototype. The per-test template defines a different program for each test case. To achieve higher efficiency with most question types there is also a combinator template that defines a single program containing all the different tests. If this template is defined, and there is no standard input supplied, CodeRunner tries to use it first, but falls back to running the separate per-test-case programs if any runtime exceptions occur. Templates are discussed in more detail below.

4.1 An example question type

The C-function question type expects students to submit a C function, plus possible additional support functions, to some specification. For example, the question might ask "Write a C function with signature int sqr(int n) that returns the square of its parameter n". The author will then provide some test cases of the form

    printf("%d\n", sqr(-11));

and give the expected output from this test. There is no standard input for this question type. The per-test template wraps the student's submission and the test code into a single program like:

    #include stdio.h

    // --- Student's answer is inserted here ----

    int main()
        printf("%d\n", sqr(-11));
        return 0;

which is compiled and run for each test case. The output from the run is then compared with the specified expected output (121) and the test case is marked right or wrong accordingly.

That example ignores the use of the combinator template, which in the case of the built-in C function question type builds a program with multiple printf calls interleaved with printing of a special separator. The resulting output is then split back into individual test case results using the separator string as a splitter.

4.2 Built-in question types

The file moodlehome/question/type/coderunner/db/builtin_PROTOTYPES.xml is a moodle-xml export format file containing the definitions of all the built-in question types. During installation, and at the end of any version upgrade, the prototype questions from that file are all loaded into a category CR_PROTOTYPES in the system context. A system administrator can edit those prototypes but this is not generally recommended as the modified versions will be lost on each upgrade. Instead, a category LOCAL_PROTOTYPES (or other such name of your choice) should be created and copies of any prototype questions that need editing should be stored there, with the question-type name modified accordingly. New prototype question types can also be created in that category. Editing of prototypes is discussed later in this document.

Built-in question types include the following:

  1. c_function. This is the question type discussed in the above example. The student supplies just a function (plus possible support functions) and each test is (typically) of the form

    printf(format_string, func(arg1, arg2, ..))

    The template for this question type generates some standard includes, followed by the student code followed by a main function that executes the tests one by one.

    The manner in which a C program is executed is not part of the question type definition: it is defined by the particular sandbox to which the execution is passed. The Jobe Sandbox, Liu Sandbox and Runguard sandboxes all use the gcc compiler with the language set to accept C99 and with both -Wall and -Werror options set on the command line to issue all warnings and reject the code if there are any warnings. The Liu sandbox also requires that the executable be statically linked; you may need to download the static libraries separately from the default C development install to enable this.

  2. python3. Used for most Python3 questions. For each test case, the student code is run first, followed by the test code.

  3. python3_w_input. A variant of the python3 question in which the input function is redefined at the start of the program so that the standard input characters that it consumes are echoed to standard output as they are when typed on the keyboard during interactive testing. A slight downside of this question type compared to the python3 type is that the student code is displaced downwards in the file so that line numbers present in any syntax or runtime error messages do not match those in the student's original code.

  4. python2. Used for most Python2 questions. As for python3, the student code is run first, followed by the sequence of tests. This question type should be considered to be obsolescent due to the widespread move to Python3 through the education community.

  5. java_method. This is intended for early Java teaching where students are still learning to write individual methods. The student code is a single method, plus possible support methods, that is wrapped in a class together with a static main method containing the supplied tests (which will generally call the student's method and print the results).

  6. java_class. Here the student writes an entire class (or possibly multiple classes in a single file). The test cases are then wrapped in the main method for a separate public test class which is added to the students class and the whole is then executed. The class the student writes may be either private or public; the template replaces any occurrences of public class in the submission with just class. While students might construct programs that will not be correctly processed by this simplistic substitution, the outcome will simply be that they fail the tests. They will soon learn to write their classes in the expected manner (i.e. with public and class on the same line, separated by a single space)!]

  7. java_program. Here the student writes a complete program which is compiled then executed once for each test case to see if it generates the expected output for that test. The name of the main class, which is needed for naming the source file, is extracted from the submission by a regular expression search for a public class with a public static void main method.

  8. octave_function. This uses the open-source Octave system to process matlab-like student submissions.

As discussed later, this base set of question types can be customised or extended in various ways.

C++ isn't available as a built-in type at present, as we don't teach it. However, as the Jobe server is by default configured to run C++ jobs (using the language ID 'cpp') you can easily make a custom C++ question type by starting with the C question type, setting the language to cpp and changing the template to include iostream instead of, or as well as, stdio.h. The line

    using namespace std;

may also be desirable.

4.3 Some more-specialised question types

The following question types used to exist as built-ins but have now been dropped from the main install as they are intended primarily for University of Canterbury (UOC) use only. They can be imported, if desired, from the file uoc_prototypes.xml, located in the CodeRunner/coderunner/db folder.

The UOC question types include:

  1. python3_cosc121. This is a complex Python3 question type that's used at the University of Canterbury for nearly all questions in the COSC121 course. The student submission is first passed through the pylint source code analyser and the submission is rejected if pylint gives any errors. Otherwise testing proceeds as normal. Obviously, pylint needs to be installed on the sandbox server. This question type takes the following template parameters (see the section entitled Template parameters for an explanation of what these are) to allow it to be used for a wide range of different problems:

    • isfunction: unless this is explicitly set to false, a dummy module docstring will be inserted at the start of the program unless there is one there already. Thus, if your question is of the "write a program" variety, you should set this to false. Otherwise omit it. This purpose is to stop pylint issuing a spurious missing module docstring message.

    • pylintoptions: this should be a JSON list of strings. For example, the Template parameters string in the question authoring form might be set to {"isfunction": false, "pylintoptions":["--max-statements=20","--max-args=3"]} to suppress the insertion of a dummy module docstring at the start and to set the maximum number of statements and arguments for each function to 20 and 3 respectively. See the pylint documentation for a list of its options.

    • proscribedconstructs: this is a list of Python constructs (if, while, def, etc) that must not appear in the student's program.

    • prescribedconstructs: this is a list of Python constructs (if, while, def, etc) that must appear in the student's program.

    • allowglobals: set this to true to allow global variables (i.e. to allow lowercase globals, not just ALL_CAPS "constants")

    • maxnumconstants: the maximum number of constants (i.e. uppercase globals) allowed. An integer, defaulting to 4. Such such constraint is required when teaching pylint at early stages to stop students achieving pylint compliance with a global script simply by typing all identifiers in upper case.

    • norun: if set to true, the normal execution of the student's code will not take place. Any test code provided will however still be run. This is intended for dummy questions that allow students to check if their code is pylint-compliant.

    • stripmain: if set to True, the program is expected to contain a global invocation of the main function, which is a line starting "main()". All such calls to main are replaced by 'pass'. If no such line is not present a "Missing call to main" exception is raised.

    • runextra: if set (to any value) the Extra Template Data is added to the program as test code before the usual testcode. This allows the question author to load extra test code through the Extra Template Data which the student does not get to see (usually because it would confuse them).

  2. matlab_function. Used for Matlab function questions. Student code must be a function declaration, which is tested with each testcase. The name is actually a lie, as this question type now uses Octave instead, which is much more efficient and easier for the question author to program within the CodeRunner context. However, Octave has many subtle differences from Matlab and some problems are inevitable. Caveat emptor.

  3. matlab_script. Like matlab_function, this is a lie as it actually uses Octave. It runs the test code first (which usually sets up a context) and then runs the student's code, which may or may not generate output dependent on the context. Finally the code in Extra Template Data is run (if any). Octave's disp function is replaced with one that emulates Matlab's more closely, but, as above: caveat emptor.

5 Templates

Templates are the key to understanding how a submission is tested. There are in general two templates per question type (i.e. per prototype) - a combinator_template and a per_test_template. We'll discuss the latter for a start.

The per_test_template for each question type defines how a program is built from the student's code and one particular testcase. That program is compiled (if necessary) and run with the standard input defined in that testcase, and the output must then match the expected output for the testcase (where 'match' is defined by the chosen validator: an exact match, a nearly exact match or a regular-expression match.

The question type template is processed by the Twig template engine. The engine is given both the template and a variable called STUDENT_ANSWER, which is the text that the student entered into the answer box, plus another called TEST, which is a record containing the test-case that the question author has specified for the particular test. The template will typically use just the TEST.testcode field, which is the "test" field of the testcase, and usually (but not always) is a bit of code to be run to test the student's answer. As an example, the question type c_function, which asks students to write a C function, has the following template:

    #include stdio.h
    #include stdlib.h
    #include ctype.h


    int main() {
        {{ TEST.testcode }};
        return 0;

A typical test (i.e. TEST.testcode) for a question asking students to write a function that returns the square of its parameter might be:

    printf("%d\n", sqr(-9))

with the expected output of 81. The result of substituting both the student code and the test code into the template would then be a program like:

    #include stdio.h
    #include stdlib.h
    #include ctype.h

    int sqr(int n) {
        return n * n;

    int main() {
        printf("%d\n", sqr(-9));
        return 0;

When authoring a question you can inspect the template for your chosen question type by temporarily checking the 'Customise' checkbox. Additionally, if you check the Template debugging checkbox you will get to see in the output web page each of the complete programs that gets run during a question submission.

As mentioned earlier, there are actually two templates for each question type. For efficiency, CodeRunner first tries to combine all testcases into a single compile-and-execute run using the second template, called the combinator_template. There is a combinator template for most question types, except for questions that require students to write a whole program. However, the combinator template is not used during testing if standard input is supplied for any of the tests; each test is then assumed to be independent of the others, with its own input. Also, if an exception occurs at runtime when a combinator template is being used, the tester retries all test cases individually using the per-test-case template so that the student gets presented with all results up to the point at which the exception occurred.

As mentioned above, both the per_test_template and the combinator_template can be edited by the question author for special needs, e.g. if you wish to provide skeleton code to the students. As a simple example, if you wanted students to provide the missing line in a C function that returns the square of its parameter, and you also wished to hide the printf from the students, you could use a template like:

    #include stdio.h
    #include stdlib.h
    #include ctype.h

    int sqr(int n) {
       {{ STUDENT_ANSWER }}

    int main() {
        printf("%d\n", {{ TEST.testcode }});
        return 0;

The testcode would then just be of the form sqr(-11), and the question text would need to make it clear to students what context their code appears in. The authoring interface allows the author to set the size of the student's answer box, and in a case like the above you'd typically set it to just one or two lines in height and perhaps 30 columns in width.

You will need to understand loops and selection in the Twig template engine if you wish to write your own combinator templates. For one-off question use, the combinator template doesn't normally offer sufficient additional benefit to warrant the complexity increase unless you have a large number of testcases or are using a slow-to-launch language like Matlab. However, if you are writing your own question prototypes you might wish to make use of it.

6 Advanced template use

It may not be obvious from the above that the template mechanism allows for almost any sort of question where the answer can be evaluated by a computer. In all the examples given so far, the student's code is executed as part of the test process but in fact there's no need for this to happen. The student's answer can be treated as data by the template code, which can then execute various tests on that data to determine its correctness. The Python pylint question type mentioned earlier is a simple example: the template code first writes the student's code to a file and runs pylint on that file before proceeding with any tests.

The per-test template for such a question type in its simplest form might be:

import subprocess
import os
import sys

def code_ok(prog_to_test):
    """Check prog_to_test with pylint. Return True if OK or False if not.
       Any output from the pylint check will be displayed by CodeRunner
        source = open('', 'w')
        env = os.environ.copy()
        env['HOME'] = os.getcwd()
        cmd = ['pylint', '']
        result = subprocess.check_output(cmd, 
            universal_newlines=True, stderr=subprocess.STDOUT, env=env)
    except Exception as e:
        result = e.output

    if result.strip():
        print("pylint doesn't approve of your program", file=sys.stderr)
        print(result, file=sys.stderr)
        print("Submission rejected", file=sys.stderr)
        return False
        return True

__student_answer__ = """{{ STUDENT_ANSWER | e('py') }}"""
if code_ok(__student_answer__):
    __student_answer__ += '\n' + """{{ TEST.testcode | e('py') }}"""

The Twig syntax {{ STUDENT_ANSWER | e('py') }} results in the student's submission being filtered by a Python escape function that escapes all double quote and backslash characters with an added backslash.

Note that any output written to stderr is interpreted by CodeRunner as a runtime error, which aborts the test sequence, so the student sees the error output only on the first test case.

The full Python3_pylint question type is a bit more complex than the above. It is given in full in the section on template parameters.

Some other more complex examples that we've used include:

  1. A Matlab question in which the template code (also Matlab) breaks down the student's code into functions, checking the length of each to make sure it's not too long, before proceeding with marking.

  2. A Python question where the student's code is actually a compiler for a simple language. The template code runs the student's compiler, passes its output through an assembler that generates a JVM class file, then runs that class with the JVM to check its correctness.

  3. A Python question where the students submission isn't code at all, but is a textual description of a Finite State Automaton for a given transition diagram; the template code evaluates the correctness of the supplied automaton.

6.1 Twig Escapers

As explained above, the Twig syntax {{ STUDENT_ANSWER | e('py') }} results in the student's submission being filtered by a Python escape function that escapes all all double quote and backslash characters with an added backslash. The python escaper e('py') is just one of the available escapers. Others are:

  1. e('java'). This prefixes single and double quote characters with a backslash and replaces newlines, returns, formfeeds, backspaces and tabs with their usual escaped form (\n, \r etc).

  2. e('c'). This is an alias for e('java').

  3. e('matlab'). This escapes single quotes, percents and newline characters. It must be used in the context of Matlab's sprintf, e.g.

    student_answer = sprintf('{{ STUDENT_ANSWER | e('matlab')}}');
  4. e('js'), e('html') for use in JavaScript and html respectively. These are Twig built-ins. See the Twig documentation for details.

7 Template parameters

It is sometimes necessary to make quite small changes to a template over many different questions. For example, you might want to use the pylint question type given above but change the maximum allowable length of a function in different questions. Customising the template for each such question has the disadvantage that your derived questions no longer inherit from the original prototype, so that if you wish to alter the prototype you will also need to find and modify all the derived questions, too.

In such cases a better approach may be to use template parameters.

If the +Show more link on the CodeRunner question type panel in the question authoring form is clicked, some extra controls appear. One of these is Template parameters. This can be set to a JSON-encoded record containing definitions of variables that can be used by the template engine to perform local per-question customisation of the template. The template parameters are passed to the template engine as the object QUESTION.parameters.

A more complete version of the Python3_pylint question type, which allows customisation of the pylint options via template parameters and also allows for an optional insertion of a module docstring for "write a function" questions is then:

import subprocess
import os
import sys

def code_ok(prog_to_test):
{% if QUESTION.parameters.isfunction %}
    prog_to_test = "'''Dummy module docstring'''\n" + prog_to_test
{% endif %}
        source = open('', 'w')
        env = os.environ.copy()
        env['HOME'] = os.getcwd()
        pylint_opts = []
{% for option in QUESTION.parameters.pylintoptions %}
{% endfor %}
        cmd = ['pylint', ''] + pylint_opts
        result = subprocess.check_output(cmd, 
            universal_newlines=True, stderr=subprocess.STDOUT, env=env)
    except Exception as e:
        result = e.output

    if result.strip():
        print("pylint doesn't approve of your program", file=sys.stderr)
        print(result, file=sys.stderr)
        print("Submission rejected", file=sys.stderr)
        return False
        return True

__student_answer__ = """{{ STUDENT_ANSWER | e('py') }}"""
if code_ok(__student_answer__):
    __student_answer__ += '\n' + """{{ TEST.testcode | e('py') }}"""

The {% if and {% for are Twig control structures that conditionally insert extra data from the template parameters field of the author editing panel.

8 Grading with templates

Using just the template mechanism described above it is possible to write almost arbitrarily complex questions. Grading of student submissions can, however, be problematic in some situations. For example, you may need to ask a question where many different valid program outputs are possible, and the correctness can only be assessed by a special testing program. Or you may wish to subject a student's code to a very large number of tests and award a mark according to how many of the test cases it can handle. The usual exact-match grader cannot handle these situations. For such cases one of the two template grading options can be used.

8.1 Per-test-case template grading

When the 'Per-test-case template grader' is selected as the grader the per-test-case template changes its role to that of a grader for a particular test case. The combinator template is not used and the per-test-case template is applied to each test case in turn. The output of the run is not passed to the grader but is taken as the grading result for the corresponding row of the result table. The output from the template-generated program must now be a JSON-encoded object (such as a dictionary, in Python) containing at least a 'fraction' field, which is multiplied by TEST.mark to decide how many marks the test case is awarded. It should usually also contain a 'got' field, which is the value displayed in the 'Got' column of the results table. The other columns of the results table (testcode, stdin, expected) can also be defined by the custom grader and will be used instead of the values from the test case. As an example, if the output of the program is the string

{"fraction":0.5, "got": "Half the answers were right!"}

half marks would be given for that particular test case and the 'Got' column would display the text "Half the answers were right!".

For even more flexibility the result_columns field in the question editing form can be used to customise the display of the test case in the result table. That field allows the author to define an arbitrary number of arbitrarily named result-table columns and to specify using printf style formatting how the attributes of the grading output object should be formatted into those columns. For more details see the section on result-table customisation.

Writing a grading template that executes the student's code is, however, rather difficult as the generated program needs to be robust against errors in the submitted code.

8.2 Combinator-template grading

The ultimate in grading flexibility is achieved by use of the "Combinator template grading" option. In this mode the per-test template is not used. The combinator template is passed to the Twig template engine and the output program is executed in the usual way. Its output must now be a JSON-encoded object with two mandatory attributes: a fraction in the range 0 - 1, which specifies the fractional mark awarded to the question, and a feedbackhtml that fully defines the specific feedback to be presented to the student in place of the normal results table. It might still be a table, but any other HTML-supported output is possible such as paragraphs of text, canvases or SVG graphics. The result_columns field from the question editing form is ignored in this mode.

Combinator-template grading is intended for use where a result table is just not appropriate, e.g. if the question does not involve programming at all. As an extreme example, imagine a question that asks the student to submit an English essay on some topic and an AI grading program is used to mark and to generate a report on the quality of the essay for feedback to the student. [Would that such AI existed!]

The combinator-template grader has available to it the full list of all test cases and their attributes (testcode, stdin, expected, mark, display etc) for use in any way the question author sees fit. It is highly likely that many of them will be disregarded or alternatively have some meaning completely unlike their normal meaning in a programming environment. It is also possible that a question using a combinator template grader will not make use of test cases at all.

9 An advanced grading-template example

As an example of the use of a per-test-case template grader consider the following question:

"What single line of code can be inserted into the underlined blank space in the code below to make the function behave as specified? Your answer should be just the missing line of code, not the whole function. It doesn't matter if you indent your code or not in the answer box. For full marks your answer must be a single line of code. However, half marks will be awarded if you provide more than one line of code but it works correctly.

    def nums_in_range(nums, lo, hi):
        '''Given a non-empty list of numbers nums and two numbers
           lo and hi return True if and only if the minimum of the
           numbers in nums is greater than lo and the maximum of
           the numbers in nums is less than hi.'''

The grader for this question, which needs to check both the number of lines of code submitted and the correctness, awarding marks and appropriate feedback accordingly, might be the following:

    import re
    __student_answer__ = """{{ STUDENT_ANSWER | e('py') }}"""
    if __student_answer__.strip().startswith('def'):
        raise Exception("You seem to have pasted the whole function " +
                        "definition. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!")
    if'print *\(.*\)', __student_answer__):
        mark = 0
        got = "BAD CODE: your function should not print anything"
        # Split the code into lines. Indent if necessary.
        __lines__ = __student_answer__.split('\n')
        __lines__ = ['    ' + line +
                '\n' for line in __lines__ if line.strip() != '']
        code = 'def nums_in_range(nums, lo, hi):\n' + ''.join(__lines__)
        num_lines = len(__lines__)

        result = {{TEST.testcode}}
        if result == {{TEST.expected}}:
            if num_lines  1:
                mark = 0.5
                got = repr(result) + r"\n(but more than 1 line of code)"
                mark = 1
                got = repr(result)
            mark = 0
            if num_lines  1:
                got = repr(result) + r"\n(and more than one line of code)"
                got = repr(result)

    print('{"fraction":' + str(mark) + ',"got":"' + got + '"}')

If the student submits one line of code that behaves correctly their grading table looks normal, e.g. right answer image

If they submit multiple lines of code that behave correctly, their result table might instead be: wrong answer image

In both the above examples the result table has been customised to show the mark column. Result table customisation is covered in the next section.

Note that the "Got" column contains a customised message in addition to their output and the customised message varies according to whether their answer was right or wrong. Note too that the template performs various other checks on their code, such as whether it contains any print statements or whether they have pasted an entire function definition.

Obviously, writing questions using custom graders is much harder than using the normal built-in equality based grader. It is usually possible to ask the question in a different way that avoids the need for a custom grader. In the above example, the student could have been asked to submit their entire function twice, once to a question that evaluated its correctness and a second time to one that evaluated its correctness and its length. No custom grader is then required. That is somewhat clumsy from the student perspective but is much easier for the author.

10 Customising the result table

The output from the standard graders is a list of so-called TestResult objects, each with the following fields (which include the actual test case data):

testcode      // The test that was run (trimmed, snipped)
iscorrect     // True iff test passed fully (100%)
expected      // Expected output (trimmed, snipped)
mark          // The max mark awardable for this test
awarded       // The mark actually awarded.
got           // What the student's code gave (trimmed, snipped)
stdin         // The standard input data (trimmed, snipped)
extra         // Extra data for use by some templates

A field called result_columns in the question authoring form can be used to control which of these fields are used, how the columns are headed and how the data from the field is formatted into the result table.

By default the result table displays the testcode, stdin, expected and got columns, provided the columns are not empty. Empty columns are dropped from the table. You can change the default, and/or the column headers by entering a value for result_columns (leave blank for the default behaviour). If supplied, the result_columns field must be a JSON-encoded list of column specifiers.

Each column specifier is itself a list, typically with just two or three elements. The first element is the column header, the second element is the field from the TestResult object being displayed in the column (one of those values listed above) and the optional third element is an sprintf format string used to display the field. Custom-grader templates may add their own fields, which can also be selected for display. It is also possible to combine multiple fields into a column by adding extra fields to the specifier: these must precede the sprintf format specifier, which then becomes mandatory. For example, to display a Mark Fraction column in the form 0.74 out of 1.00, a column format specifier of ["Mark Fraction", "awarded", "mark", "%.2f out of %.2f"] could be used. As a further special case, a format of %h means that the test result field should be taken as ready-to-output HTML and should not be subject to further processing; this is usually useful only with custom-grader templates that generate HTML output, such as SVG graphics, but we have also used it in questions where the output from the student's program was HTML.

The default value of result_columns is [["Test", "testcode"], ["Input", "stdin"], ["Expected", "expected"], ["Got", "got"]].

11 User-defined question types

NOTE: User-defined question types are very powerful but are not for the faint of heart. There are some known pitfalls, so please read the following very carefully.

As explained earlier, each question type is defined by a prototype question, which is just another question in the database from which new questions can inherit. When customising a question, if you open the Advanced customisation panel you'll find the option to save your current question as a prototype. You will have to enter a name for the new question type you're creating. It is strongly recommended that you also change the name of your question to reflect the fact that it's a prototype, in order to make it easier to find. The convention is to start the question name with the string PROTOTYPE_, followed by the type name. For example, PROTOTYPE_python3_OOP. Having a separate PROTOTYPES category for prototype questions is also strongly recommended. Obviously the question type name you use should be unique, at least within the context of the course in which the prototype question is being used.

CodeRunner searches for prototype questions just in the current course context. The search includes parent contexts, typically visible only to an administrator, such as the system context; the built-in prototypes all reside in that system context. Thus if a teacher in one course creates a new question type, it will immediately appear in the question type list for all authors editing questions within that course but it will not be visible to authors in other courses. If you wish to make a new question type available globally you should ask a Moodle administrator to move the question to the system context, such as a LOCAL_PROTOTYPES category.

When you create a question of a particular type, including user-defined types, all the so-called "customisable" fields are inherited from the prototype. This means changes to the prototype will affect all the "children" questions. However, as soon as you customise a child question you copy all the prototype fields and lose that inheritance.

To reduce the UI confusion, customisable fields are subdivided into the basic ones (per-test-template, grader, result-table column selectors etc) and "advanced" ones. The latter include the language, sandbox, timeout, memory limit and the "make this question a prototype" feature. The combinator template is also considered to be an advanced feature.

WARNING #1: if you define your own question type you'd better make sure when you export your question bank that you include the prototype, or all of its children will die on being imported anywhere else! Similarly, if you delete a prototype question that's actually in use, all the children will break, giving runtime errors. To recover from such screw ups you will need to create a new prototype of the right name (preferably by importing the original correct prototype). To repeat: user-defined question types are not for the faint of heart. Caveat emptor.

WARNING #2: although you can define test cases in a question prototype these have no relevance and are silently ignored.

12 APPENDIX: How programming quizzes should work

Historical notes and a diatribe on the use of Adaptive Mode questions ...

The original pycode was inspired by CodingBat, a site where students submit Python or Java code that implements a simple function or method, e.g. a function that returns twice the square of its parameter plus 1. The student code is executed with a series of tests cases and results are displayed immediately after submission in a simple tabular form showing each test case, expected answer and actual answer. Rows where the answer computed by the student's code is correct receive a large green tick; incorrect rows receive a large red cross. The code is deemed correct only if all tests are ticked. If code is incorrect, students can simply correct it and resubmit.

CodingBat proves extraordinarily effective as a student training site. Even experienced programmers receive pleasure from the column of green ticks and all students are highly motivated to fix their code and retry if it fails one or more tests. Some key attributes of this success, to be incorporated into pycode, were:

  1. Instant feedback. The student pastes their code into the site, clicks submit, and almost immediately receives back their results.

  2. All-or-nothing correctness. If the student's code fails any test, it is wrong. Essentially (thinking in a quiz context) it earns zero marks. Code has to pass all tests to be deemed mark-worthy.

  3. Simplicity. The question statement should be simple. The solution should also be reasonably simple. The display of results is simple and the student knows immediately what test cases failed. There are no complex regular-expression failures for the students to puzzle over nor uncertainties over what the test data was.

  4. Rewarding green ticks. As noted above, the colour and display of a correct results table is highly satisfying and a strong motivation to succeed.

The first two of these requirements are particularly critical. While they can be accommodated within Moodle by using an adaptive quiz behaviour in conjunction with an all-or-nothing marking scheme, they are not how many people view a Moodle quiz. Quizzes are commonly marked only after submission of all questions, and there is usually a perception that part marks will be awarded for "partially correct" answers. However, awarding marks to a piece of code according to how many test cases it passes can give almost meaningless results. For example, a function that always just returns 0, or the empty list or equivalent, will usually pass several of the tests, but surely it shouldn't be given any marks? Seriously flawed code, for example a string tokenizing function that works only with alphabetic data, may get well over half marks if the question-setter was not expecting such flaws.

Accordingly, a key assumption underlying CodeRunner is that quizzes will always run in Moodle's adaptive mode, which displays results after each question is submitted, and allows resubmission for a penalty. The mark obtained in a programming-style quiz is thus determined by how many of the problems the student can solve in the given time, and how many submissions the student needs to make on each question.