Building online maths and stats assessments using Numbas

Christian Perfect, Newcastle University

What is Numbas?

Numbas is an open-source system developed by the e-Learning Unit of Newcastle University's School of Maths and Stats, based on many years of use, experience and research into e-assessment.

  • It's aimed at numerate disciplines.
  • Everything runs on the client - no backend server, even for maths.
  • It creates SCORM-compliant exams which run entirely in the browser, compatible with VLEs such as Blackboard and Moodle.

Current use

  • All first- and second-year maths modules at Newcastle have 4 Numbas tests. Approx 30,000 sessions expected this year
  • Diagnostic test with 300+ biomedicine students in September
  • Tests and exercises in use at Kingston, Leicester, Nottingham Trent, among others
  • Revision material on Newcastle/Birmingham's maths support site
  • Randomised printed worksheets at Keele.


  • Numbas follows the pedagogic design of CALM, CALMAT, SCHOLAR, and i-Assess.
  • i-Assess used for 6 years successfully, but needed more control and functionality.
  • Numbas was written completely from scratch, using web standards.
  • Open-sourced straight away.

Design goals

  • More maths functionality
  • Maximum accessibility
  • Substantially the same question design as CALM/i-Assess
  • Better user interface
  • Better reliability and scalability
  • Emphasis on creating rich formative e-assessment and learning materials
  • Lecturers more involved in design and implementation of questions

Client vs server

Requiring a server has a few drawbacks:

  • When it breaks, it breaks for everyone
  • Hard to use somewhere new - installation, resource
  • Communication of data slows user interaction.

Running on the client has many advantages:

  • Scales very well - sessions with many students possible
  • Easy to deploy
  • When it breaks, it only breaks for one student.

Methods of delivery

  • Stand-alone on personal Web space
  • DVD, USB key
  • VLE, e.g. Blackboard or Moodle

Compatible devices

Compatible with all devices

Formative vs summative use

  • Computer-aided assessment is great for formative assessment
  • Students can try randomised questions over and over until they're happy
  • Summative assessment poses problems:
    • How to prevent cheating?
    • Can you ask sufficiently challenging questions?

Open access

  • Compiled Numbas tests are SCORM packages: they're completely self-contained. Perfect for open access resources
  • To establish a community of authors and users producing quality open-access material.

The mathcentre editor

  • Open to everyone
  • Over 1,000 questions available to use
  • Collect ready-made questions into a custom test, or write your own

Survey of Stage 1 students

  • "There was a strong consensus that the CBAs were easy to use"
  • "There was a strong consensus that CBAs enhance the understanding of the course."
  • "The perception of CBAs being, on average, easier than written assignments is not surprising given the focus on 'seen' questions and the extensive practice mode."

View the report on the Numbas blog at



Twitter: @NclNumbas

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