Writing programming exercises

Main questions:

How to create a programming exercise and its grading.


YAML files, shell scripts, Docker containers for grading

What you are supposed to do?

Read the documentation.





This section is an introduction to creating programming exercises in A+.

Writing a base code and unit tests

We will use the "Hello Python" exercise on this course as an example. The files related to this exercise are in directory exercises/hello_python.

Defining the exercise in an RST file

The file programming_exercises/hello_world.rst is a sample page which contains two programming exercises: the classic "Hello world!" program for Python and Scala programming languages. Let's look at the "Hello Python!" exercise. It requires two lines:

.. submit:: python 10
  :config: exercises/hello_python/config.yaml

The exercise is included with the submit Sphinx directive, which is from the A+ RST tools package. That directive places exercise submission forms. The number 10 is the maximum score that the student will get from this exercise. The exercise has a configuration file exercises/hello_python/config.yaml which is defined with the :config: option. As was mentioned in the Docker chapter, the definition of this directive is in the file a-plus-rst-tools/directives/submit.py, but you don't need to understand the contents of that file.


This file has the exercise configuration for Mooc-grader. The following is a copy of exercises/hello_python/config.yaml.

title: Hello Python!
description: A simple grading example with Python code
instructions: |
        In this exercise you must implement a function <var>hello</var>
        that returns a string "<samp>Hello Python!</samp>".
view_type: access.types.stdasync.acceptFiles
  - field: file1
    name: functions.py

  image: apluslms/grade-python:3.9-4.4-4.0
  mount: exercises/hello_python
  cmd: /exercise/run.sh

Explanation of the settings:

  • title

    The title of the exercise. The RST file having a reference to the exercise may override this when using the "aplus-submit" directive.

  • description

    This is not actually shown anywhere.

  • instructions

    The HTML code for the instructions for the student.

  • view_type

    value "access.types.stdasync.acceptFiles" defines that the student must submit one or more files to complete the exercise.

  • files

    This defines each file that the student can submit. Each file might have different name at student's computer, but they are renamed by the "name" field.

  • container

    This specifies the Docker container which is used for grading.

    image is the container image. The value apluslms/grade-python:3.9-4.4-4.0 means that the container is grade-python made by organisation apluslms. The container has Python version 3.9 and python-grader-utils 4.4 installed and it is based on version 4.0 of the "grading-base" container. For full documentation, see the repositories for grading-base, grade-python and python-grader-utils.

    mount is the relative path of the directory which will be mounted to the directory /exercise inside the container (read only). This directory should contain the files required to run the grader program. (The student's submission files will be mounted separately by the platform to the path /submission/user.) If Python graderutils are used (covered later in this page), the mount directory would contain, for example, the files config.yaml, run.sh, test_config.yaml and various Python files (model solution, unit tests).

    cmd describes what command is run inside the container. run.sh is the actual grading script. The command may include parameters and it is not required to be a shell script named run.sh.

The documentation of grading-base is a good starting point for understanding the grading system.


This is the shell script which is run inside the grading container.


# The uploaded user files are always in /submission/user
# and named identically to config.yaml regardless of the uploaded file names.
# The directory /submission/user is also the default working directory
# in the container.

# The mount directory from config.yaml is in /exercise.
# Append the required support files to test user solution.

# Add the working directory to the PYTHONPATH so that the grader
# can import the student's submission. The grader program is started
# under the path /exercise since there is no need to copy it to
# the working directory.
export PYTHONPATH=/submission/user

# "capture" etc description in https://github.com/apluslms/grading-base
capture python3 /exercise/grader_tests.py

# Python unit tests write output both to standard output stream and to
# standard error output stream. The command 'err-to-out' appends the contents
# of the error stream to the output stream so that the student can see all the
# output the tests have created.

Note! run.sh must have executing rights. That is, if you create the file from scratch, you must do the following:

  1. Open the terminal.

  2. cd to the directory of the exercise.

  3. chmod a+x run.sh


Python-grader-utils (just "Graderutils") is a Python library for test suite management, file validation and test feedback formatting. It is used with Python programming exercises. The source code and documentation is here: https://github.com/apluslms/python-grader-utils

By default, Graderutils uses the configuration file test_config.yaml in the exercise directory. A simple test_config.yaml looks like this:

  - module: local_tests
    display_name: Local tests
  - module: grader_tests
    display_name: Grader tests

  display_name: Input validation
    - type: python_syntax
      display_name: "The submitted file has correct Python syntax"
      file: primes.py
    - type: python_import
      display_name: "The submitted file is a Python module that can be imported and defines the function is_prime"
      file: primes.py
        is_prime: function

testmethod_timeout: 5

test_groups defines which Python unit test files are executed.

module is the name of the Python file (without .py).

display_name is the title for the test group.

testmethod_timeout defines the maximum amount of time in seconds for how long each test method is allowed to run before it is timed out by Graderutils.

Typically there is file tests.py which is given to the student. It has some very basic unit tests. Typically some points are given for passing these tests. Another file is typically grader_tests.py which has the secret, more complex and thorough unit tests. Most of the exercise points are obtained by passing these grader tests.

validation instructs Graderutils to make a syntax analysis tests of the submitted files before the unit tests are executed.

In the example above, Graderutils checks two items according to the validation settings:

  1. Read the contents of file, attempt to parse the contents using ast.parse and catch all exceptions. Show exceptions with the error template if there are any.

  2. Attempt to import the file as a Python module and catch all exceptions during import. Also check that a function called "is_prime" is defined. Show exceptions with the error template if there are any.

With Graderutils, it is possible to forbid some Python syntax or libraries in some particular exercise, for example, deny using the default sort function of Python in an exercise where the student must implement their own sorting method.

Debugging Python exercise graders

General instructions

If one needs to find out why a grader for some particular Python exercise does not work, here are general tips.

  • Add exec >> /feedback/err as the second line of run.sh. This should print some error messages.

  • Add echo to run.sh. Then log into A+ as root and inspect the exercise submission. You should see all the error messages.

  • Add ls -l to run.sh to show the contents of the grading directory inside the grading container.

If all these fail, one can run a shell inside the grading container.

Error messages and probable causes

A+ "No grader feedback available for this submission."

Probable cause: the run.sh file of this exercise does not have execution rights.

  1. Open the terminal.

  2. cd to the directory of the exercise.

  3. chmod a+x run.sh

A+: "Something went wrong with the grader tests..."

Probable causes:

  • config.yaml is misconfigured: it cannot find some unit test module

  • config.yaml cannot render feedback_template

  • error on some Python file in the /submission/user directory (syntax error, exception, or trying to import some library or function which does not exist anymore).

If that does not help, debug the exercise grader inside the grading container.

Posting submission...