The maths
e-assessment experience

Christian Lawson-Perfect, Newcastle University. @NclNumbas

Christian Lawson-Perfect

  • e-learning officer, School of Mathematics and Statistics, Newcastle University
  • Born and raised in Newcastle
  • Recently double-barrelled
  • Lead developer of Numbas

The landscape

  • Islands of use
  • Commercial systems bundled with textbooks
  • Or systems developed by the only person using them
  • Or without support from higher-ups

This talk is about how to do
e-assessment well

We need to share what we're doing — and make a song and dance about successes

Good news from Newcastle

Numbas was used in 48 modules in the 2015/16 academic year

by 2,000 students, who completed a total of 40,800 attempts.

Core team of 3 developers, with lecturers writing some material.

Maths has special needs

  • Just displaying maths is hard
  • Randomly generating maths questions is harder
  • Marking maths questions is hardest of all


User experience is really important.

An e-assessment system should be clear and intuitive.

Marking must do what it says, and say what it does

An example picked at random from mathcentre

im a massive pedant

Little details in i-assess

Little details in Numbas

Always explain what's happening.

Confirm before doing something irreversible.

Show validity warnings before the student submits.

Some questions showing more UX considerations

This applies to
question design too

Two questions

Good questions:

  • Tell the student what you want them to do.
  • Tell them how to enter their answer, including any restrictions.
  • Put things in the right order and make important information easy to find again.
  • Make sure graphics are readable.
  • Explain how the mark was calculated.
  • Are written in full sentences.


You typically have much less control over the larger environment your e-assessment runs in.


Student should be able to:

  • See their score or status
  • Review their session

The authoring experience is also important

  • I prefer WYSIWYG to coding
  • There should be a low barrier to entry
  • The interface should link things together - "where is this variable defined?"
  • Organising material is hard!

My favourite Numbas editor features

  • Variable preview
  • “How often is this condition met?”
  • “Used by” and “Depends on” lists
  • Instant LaTeX preview on top of WYSIWYG editor

Here at Newcastle

We improved student opinion and use of e-assessment


  • Improving the user experience of our system.
  • Changing the way we make assessment available.

In 2006, we introduced CBAs to practise key skills in Stage 1.

Students saw a test for one week in practice mode, then get one attempt the following week in assessed mode.

As it was a success, use edged up the syllabus to stages 2 and 3.

In our new curriculum, students have access to a large bank of practice questions throughout the year.

Assessed tests are picked from the practice bank, so students should try everything.

Usage of practice material increased, particularly before exams.

Formative assessment

I'm not interested in summative assessment.

Because of the way e-assessment works, it's good for formative use.


  • Practice tests all over the place during courses
  • A la carte tests through maths support service.

When marks don't matter, you can do more interesting things.

It's not just a question to finish any more.

A question is no longer a straight line, leading to a score and feedback.

Instead retry, and play with the system.

A question which begins by asking the student for some numbers

Visualisations can help understanding

JSXGraph and GeoGebra

CindyJS is amazing

It's a short step from what we're doing to games




Euclid: The Game

Primary school maths e-assessment is interesting.





My to-do list

  • What UI changes are needed for primary/non-HE use?
  • Change the "exam" format to something freer.
  • An interface/language for defining custom marking schemes