Personalized exercises

General description

Personalized exercises contain some parts that are not the same for every student. This is useful for preventing plagiarism: the students cannot simply copy their answers or solutions from their peers.

Usually, the structure of the exercise is the same for everyone, but, for example, some input data is different in each instance of the exercise. The instances are usually randomly generated. Each student is assigned one instance and multiple students may be assigned the same instance. The instance assigned to the student remains the same even after refreshing the exercise page.

A personalized exercise defines a generator program that generates N instances to the exercise. The instances are generated before the start of the course. The mooc-grader CLI command python manage.py pregenerate_exercises runs the generator programs and saves the instance files in the correct directory under the mooc-grader. In theory, the instance files could also be created by some other way in the correct location. The CLI command has some arguments to modify its behaviour: they are printed with the --help argument. The run-mooc-grader container (used in local testing and development) should automatically call the generators if there are any personalized exercises in the course.

An instance contains some files that the grader program can use while grading (the implementation of the exercise may decide freely how those instance files are used). The instance files may also be used to add content to the exercise description shown to the student. A student is connected to one instance (the choice feels random but is based on their user IDs). It is also possible to force the instance to change for the student, e.g., after every five submissions (“you get five attempts before you must start over”). That kind of regeneration of the instance is disabled by default.

Example exercises

Here we have two very simple example personalized exercises. Their graders work in containers and the exercises define generator programs that create random instances.

A+ presents the exercise submission form here.

A+ presents the exercise submission form here.

Detailed description of the “Personalized number” exercise

Configuration

The config.yaml file in the personalized_number directory contains the configuration of the exercise for A+ and mooc-grader, as usual. In addition to basic programming exercises, it has the following section, which defines the personalization.

personalized: True
generated_files:
  - file: number
    key: number
    content_in_template: True
    url_in_template: True
    allow_download: True
generator:
  cmd: [ "python3", "generator.py" ]
  cwd: exercises/personalized_number/
max_submissions_before_regeneration: 3

The obvious personalized keyword tells A+ and mooc-grader that personalized exercise instances must be pregenerated and each user is then assigned an instance of the exercise.

The generated_files section define a list of generated files for a personalized exercise. Each list item defines the following settings:

  • file: filename of the generated file
  • key: key for accessing the file in HTML templates
  • url_in_template: if true, the exercise instructions shown to the student includes a HTML link to download the generated file
  • content_in_template: if true, template variable includes the content of the generated file
  • allow_download: if true, the student can download the generated file

The generator section has settings for the generator program that creates one new instance of the exercise. At least cmd must be set. The generator command cmd will be run from course_key dir (that is, course_key is the cwd).

cmd is the command that is used to run the generator in the shell. Note that it is given as a Python list where each word is its own item. Example: ["generator_script.sh"] will run generator_script.sh from course_key dir. Example: ["python3", "script_dir/generator.py"] will run generator.py from course_key/script_dir but keep course_key as cwd. Mooc-grader appends the instance directory path to the argument list and the generator is expected to write files into the directory. The file names should be listed under generated_files setting so that mooc-grader is aware of them.

For A+ administrators, the Django command used to pregenerate exercises is python manage.py pregenerate_exercises course_key <exercise_key>. (The --help option prints all possible arguments).

cwd: if set, this sets the current working directory for the generator program. Since the default cwd is course_key, this applies to directories in course_key. Example: cwd: "script_dir" will change the cwd to course_key/script_dir and only after that run cmd.

max_submissions_before_regeneration defines how many times the student may submit before the personalized exercise is regenerated (the exercise instance is changed to another one). If unset, the exercise is never regenerated.

Exercise instance generation

When you run the A+ manual with the usual docker-up.sh script, and there is no temporary data in the _data directory, mooc-grader will create the instances for all personalized exercises. Mooc-grader will call the generator script for each exercise and each instance separately. (Reference: mooc-grader source: access/management/commands/pregenerate_exercises.py , util/personalized.py .)

The directory for the personalized exercises inside the apluslms/run-mooc-grader container is /local/grader/ex-meta/default/pregenerated, where default is the name of the course. Each personalized exercise has its own subdirectory named by module_page_key, where module is the subdirectory for the RST file (here “programming_exercises”), page is the RST file which refers to the exercise (here “04_personalized_exercises”); and key is the unique identifier for the exercise (here “personalized_number” or “personalized_python”). The pregenerated instances for each exercise are inside these directories. For example, the directory /local/grader/ex-meta/default/pregenerated/programming_exercises_04_personalized_exercises_personalized_number/ has subdirectories 0, 1, …, 9, one for each ten instances, and each of those instance directories contains a text file named number, which has the personalized data for the instance.

When creating instances for the “Personalized number” exercise, mooc-grader will call the generator.py script of the exercise first with command line argument which tells the directory to store the first instance:

python3 generator.py /local/grader/ex-meta/default/pregenerated/programming_exercises_04_personalized_exercises_personalized_number/0

The script generator.py starts and stores the path string /local/grader/ ... /0 to its variable instance_dir. It creates a directory with that path, if it does not exist. Then it generates a pseudorandom integer between 1 and 50, writes it to a text file named number inside the directory at instance_dir and terminates.

Next mooc-grader will call generator.py again, but this time with command line argument /local/grader/ex-meta/default/pregenerated/programming_exercises_04_personalized_exercises_personalized_number/1. This procedure is repeated for all the ten exercise instances.

Finally, the directory structure for the “Personalized number” exercise inside the mooc-grader container looks like this:

/local/grader/ex-meta/default/pregenerated/
└── m02_programming_exercises_04_personalized_exercises_personalized_number
    ├── 0
    |   └── number
    ├── 1
    |   └── number
    ├── 2
    |   └── number
    ├── 3
    |   └── number
    ├── 4
    |   └── number
    ├── 5
    |   └── number
    ├── 6
    |   └── number
    ├── 7
    |   └── number
    ├── 8
    |   └── number
    └── 9
        └── number

The role of the exercise generator and supported software

The generator program is meant for creating exercise instances from pseudorandom data or selecting subsets of some larger exercise dataset for each exercise instance. Because the generator is run inside the mooc-grader container, not a programming exercise grader container (such as apluslms/grade-python), there are limitations on what software can be used on the generator side.

The apluslms/run-mooc-grader container has the following software:

  • minimal Debian <https://www.debian.org>_ (“slim” version) - shells: bash, dash, sh
  • GCC, G++ (GNU C and C++ compilers)
  • libc6-dev (GNU C Library: Development Libraries and Header Files)
  • make (GNU utility for compilation)
  • gettext
  • jq
  • Python 3 and its standard library
  • some Python tools as Debian packages

You will likely want to write your exercise generator in Python. Using a shell such as bash is also possible. In theory, writing a generator in C or C++ should also be possible, but the generator program should be either precompiled, or then a shell script should compile the generator just once.

For more information, see Dockerfiles of apluslms/run-mooc-grader and apluslms/service-base containers.

Grading the exercise

The directory structure inside the apluslms/grade-python container looks essentially like this in the beginning:

/
├── exercise
|   ├── check_number.py
|   ├── config.yaml
|   ├── generator.py
|   ├── run.sh
|   └── template.html
├── submission
|   └── user
|       └── solution
└── personalized_exercise
    └── number

As you can see, the directory structure is very similar to the nonpersonalized Python programming exercise. The student’s answer is at /submission/user/solution. The directory /submission/user is also the starting directory for the run.sh script for the exercise. Also, inside that container, the personalized data for the exercise instance assigned to the student is initially at /personalized_exercise. The contents of this directory is identical to the directory /local/grader/ex-meta/default/pregenerated/programming_exercises_04_personalized_exercises_personalized_number/X in the mooc-grader container, where X is the number of the instance.

Next, inside the grade-python container, the script run.sh copies the file /personalized_exercise/number to /submission/user. Then run.sh starts the actual Python-based grading script check_number.py inside commands capture and pre. capture will store the text output from check_number and finally send it to mooc-grader and A+. pre wraps the text output inside HTML <pre> tags.

The grading script check_number.py starts with current working directory as /submission/user. It reads both the files number and solutions, and compares their contents. Next check_number prints feedback to the standard output:

Original number was: X
Your solution was: Y

This is the feedback text that is shown to the student in A+ after the grading is completed. Here X and Y are the actual contents of files number and solution parsed as integer values.

Finally, check_number prints two lines:

TotalPoints: A
MaxPoints: B

These lines are not shown as feedback for the student, but they are the exercise score which is stored by A+ for this student and this submission. A is a nonnegative integer: the score that the grading script gave for the solution. B is a positive integer: the maximum score that the grading script can give for the exercise. Note that B can be different that what is set in the max_points part of the config.yaml file of the exercise; A+ will rescale the points if necessary.

Detailed description of the “Personalized Python” exercise

This exercise is very similar to the “Personalized number” exercise. Instead of randomly chosen integer, the file names in the exercise directory has list of names, and one of the names is chosen randomly for each exercise instance. Similarly, each instance has a directory, numbered from 0 to 9, and each of these directories has a text file named name, which contains a randomly chosen name. Therefore the exercise instance directory inside the mooc-grader container has the following structure:

/local/grader/ex-meta/default/pregenerated/
└── programming_exercises_04_personalized_exercises_personalized_python
    ├── 0
    |   └── name
    ├── 1
    |   └── name
    ├── 2
    |   └── name
    ├── 3
    |   └── name
    ├── 4
    |   └── name
    ├── 5
    |   └── name
    ├── 6
    |   └── name
    ├── 7
    |   └── name
    ├── 8
    |   └── name
    └── 9
        └── name

Note that config.yaml has very similar personalized section to the “Personalized number” exercise, but here the student’s input is a file, not a text field, and therefore there is a files section instead of a fields section.

The grading script check.py imports the solution.py submitted by the student. run.sh modifies the PYTHONPATH environment variable for easy import. The output from the grading script is very similar to the one in the “Personalized number” exercise.

Posting submission...