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How Numbas can help during the COVID-19 crisis

Now that face-to-face teaching in many institutions has been cancelled in response to the coronavirus crisis, many lecturers are looking for ways to move their teaching and assessment online. 

We’ve put this page together as a reference to describe how Numbas could be used to help your students and to replace paper-based assessments. 

What Numbas is 

Numbas is a free, open-source e-assessment system for mathematical subjects. 

Key features include: 

There’s an editor at numbas.mathcentre.ac.uk where you can create your own questions or reuse existing questions. It’s quick to sign up and we have lots of documentation and tutorials to get you started. 

How it works 

  • Write questions using the Numbas editor. 
  • Collect questions into an exam. 
  • Share the exam with students. 
  • Students attempt the exam. They can pause or leave the exam at any point and return to it later.  
  • Scores are automatically sent back to your VLE’s grade book. 

Numbas exams run entirely on the student’s device, so the student’s experience is not affected by a spotty internet connection. Once the exam starts, the only communication with the server is to report scores back (even this is optional – if you don’t want to track students’ scores, Numbas can run entirely standalone). Other systems need constant communication back to the server to render mathematical notation or to handle marking and navigation. 

And if you’re using the Numbas LTI tool, instructors can: 

  • See statistics about the class’s performance. 
  • Review individual students’ attempts exactly as the students saw them. 
  • Download a full breakdown of students’ attempts in CSV format. 

What can I use it for?

Numbas was originally designed for use in our mathematics and statistics programmes.

However, Numbas has also been used for many other subjects, including engineering; chemistry; physics; business studies; psychology; sports science; accounting; and biomedical science.

Even non-mathematical subjects can benefit from Numbas by making use of its several multiple-choice question types.

Why should I use it? 

Automatic assessment gives students immediate feedback, allowing them to work at their own pace. 

Randomised questions are good both for practice and for exams where you don’t want students to be able to copy off each other. 

There’s a lot of free material available to use under a permissive Creative Commons licence. Use the Explore page or the search facility to find content. 

How do I get started? 

Follow the tutorials at docs.numbas.org.uk. They will show you how to browse the question database, write your question, and deliver an exam to your students. 

Once you’ve done that, there’s full documentation on every feature of the editor, as well as ‘how-to’ instructions for common tasks. A good next step is our document on effectively planning a Numbas question

Where can I get help? 

Post your questions to the numbas-users mailing list

We’re happy to answer questions emailed to numbas@ncl.ac.uk, but please understand we’re quite busy at the moment! 

Delivering Numbas tests to students 

There’s more detailed info in the Numbas documentation

For purely formative material, you can just share a link to a Numbas exam. Students can complete the test, but their scores won’t be saved anywhere. This is a good solution if you want to quickly provide a bank of revision material. 

To save scores, you need a virtual learning environment that supports either SCORM (Moodle and Blackboard do, among others) or LTI (pretty much everything). 

The table below shows which standards are supported by common VLEs. 

VLE SCORM LTI 
Blackboard Yes, but don’t rely on it for high-stakes Yes – admin must make connection 
Moodle Yes Yes – teacher can make connection 
Canvas No Yes – teacher can make connection 
Desire2learn Brightspace Yes Yes  – admin must make connection 
ILIAS Yes Yes, with a plugin 
Sakai Yes, with a plugin Yes – teacher can make connection 
Schoology Yes Yes – teacher can make connection 

For SCORM, no setup is required: you download the package from the Numbas editor and upload it to your VLE. 

For LTI, you might need your VLE administrator to set up a connection. The Numbas LTI software needs to run on your own server. There’s full documentation about what you need and how to set it up

Considerations for high-stakes assessment

If you’re thinking of using Numbas for a high-stakes assessment, consider the following:

Robustness

Do everything you can to avoid losing student data. If using your VLE’s built-in SCORM player, it is responsible for saving attempt data.

Blackboard’s SCORM player can not be relied upon. Consistent reports describe Blackboard failing to save data for around 10% of students’ attempts.

We have fixed several bugs in Moodle’s SCORM player, and are now quite confident that it is reliable.

The Numbas LTI tool has been heavily tested and has several features to ensure no data is lost:

  • Data is saved to the student’s local storage as well as the remote server. If the student’s device crashes, they can resume where they left off after restarting.
  • After finishing, the student is shown a large warning box until all data has been confirmed to be saved.
  • Students can be automatically emailed a receipt containing a code which the instructor can use to validate their score.

Additionally, you can instruct your students to click the “Print this results summary” button after they have finished the exam, and print to a PDF file. They could email this to you if there’s a discrepancy with the score saved in your VLE.

Security

Because Numbas exams run in the browser, it’s possible that students could use their browser’s developer tools to modify their scores. For high-stakes assessments, we have always recommended using a locked-down browser.

Safe Exam Browser is an open-source tool which provides a locked-down browser.

Validity

Think carefully about what questions you can ask. You might need to think creatively about how to assess questions which would normally be answered with long passages of text. These questions could be reconfigured as multiple-choice, or you might just need to ask different questions.

Training

We’re going to run online training sessions, open to all. These will be informal, with a flexible format.

At the moment, we’ve scheduled the following sessions:

  • 10:00 GMT, Wednesday March 25th.
  • 10:00 GMT, Wednesday April 1st.
  • 10:00 GMT, Wednesday April 8th.

We’ll begin by running through the Numbas

The sessions will run over Zoom. You’ll need to register in advance, using this link.

Why we invented Numbas

Bill Foster was director of the e-learning unit at Newcastle University until his retirement in 2016. In this post he tells the story of how Numbas came to be developed under his guidance.

Numbas is the latest in a long line of assessments systems: it is the spiritual successor at Newcastle to the i-assess assessment system which itself was based on the CALM system developed in the late 1980s.

In the following I will cover the implementation of CALM at Brunel University (1991/2), and at Newcastle University the implementation of i-assess (2006) followed by the development and implementation of Numbas (2012). 

Documentation

Numbas features full documentation which is always in line with the most recent version.

Numbas Documentation

Numbas Blog

We regularly update our blog with articles about new and future features, as well as other useful information.

Numbas Blog