Online But In-Class Examinations (with an R Example)

About a year-and-a-half ago, some students and I wrote OMSI, Online Measurement of Student Insight, an online software tool to improve examinations for students and save instructors lots of time and drudgery currently spent on administering exams. It is written in a mixture of Python and R. (Python because it was easier to find students for the project, R because it built upon a earlier system I had developed entirely in R.)

I will describe it below, but I wish to say at the outset: I NEED TESTERS! I’ve used it successfully in several classes of my own so far, but it would be great to get feedback from others. Code contribution would be great too.

From the project README file:

Students come to the classroom at the regular class time, just as with a traditional pencil-and-paper exam. However, they use their laptop computers to take the exam, using OMSI. The latter downloads the exam questions, and enables the students to upload their answers.

This benefits students. Again from the README:

  • With essay questions, you have a chance to edit your answers, producing more coherent, readable prose. No cross-outs, arrows, words squeezed in above a line, no points off for unreadable handwriting. 🙂
  • With coding questions, you can compile and run your code, giving you a chance to make corrections if your code doesn’t work.

In both of these aspects, OMSI gives you a better opportunity to demonstrate your insight into the course material, compared to the traditional exam format.

It is a great saver of time and effort for instructors, as the README says:

OMSI will make your life easier. 🙂

OMSI facilitates exam administration and grading. It has two components:

  • Exam administration. This manages the actual process of the students taking the exam. You get electronic copies of the students’ exams, eliminating the need for collecting and carrying out out a large number of papers, and making work sharing much easier among multiple graders. As noted in “Benefits for students” above, OMSI enables the student to turn in a better product, and this benefits the instructor as well: Better exam performance by students is both more gratifying to the instructor and also makes for easier, less frustrating grading.
  • Exam grading. OMSI does NOT take the place of instructor judgment in assigning points to exam problems. But it does make things much easier, by automating much of the drudgery. For instance, OMSI automatically records grades assigned by the instructor, and automatically notifies students of their grades via e-mail. Gone are the days in which the instructor must alphabetize the papers, enter the grades by hand, carry an armload (or boxload) of papers to give back to students in class, retaining the stragglers not picked up by the students, and so on.

Here is an R example showing sample exam questions. At the server, the instructor would place the following file:

QUESTION -ext .R -run "Rscript omsi_answer1.R"

Write R code that prints out the mean of R's 
built-in Niles dataset, starting with 
observation 51 (year 1921).
                                                                                QUESTION -ext .R -run "Rscript omsi_answer2.R"
Write an R function with call form g(nreps) 
that will use simulation to find the approximate value of E(|X - Y|) for 
independent N(0,1) variables X and Y.  
Here nreps is the number of 
replications.  Make sure to include 
a call print(g(10000)) in 
your answer, which will be run by

QUESTION -ext .R -run "Rscript omsi_answer3.R"                                   

Suppose X ~ U(0,1). Write an R function with 
call form g(t) which finds the density of X^2 
at t, for t in (0,1).  Make sure to include
a call print(g(0.8)) in your answer, which 
will be run by OMSI.


Suppose an article in a scientific journal states, "The treatment and nontreatment 
means were 52.15 and 52.09, with a p-value 
of 0.02.  So there is only a 2% chance that the treatment has no effect."  Comment on the propriety of that statement.

At the client side, the student would see this:


After the student enters an answer and hits Save and Run, the student’s code would be run in a pop-up window, displaying the result. When the student hits Submit, the answer is uploaded to the instructor’s server. There is a separate directory at the server for each student, and the answer files are stored there.

Again, the autograder does NOT evaluate student answers; the instructor does this. But the autograder greatly facilitates the process. The basic idea is that the software will display on the screen, for each student and each exam problem, the student’s answer.  In the case of coding questions, the software will also run the code and display the result.  In each case, the instructor then inputs the number of points he/she wishes to assign.

The package is easy to install and use, from both the student and instructor point of view. See the README for details.



A Python-Like walk() Function for R

A really nice function available in Python is walk(), which recursively descends a directory tree, calling a user-supplied function in each directory within the tree. It might be used, say, to count the number of files, or maybe to remove all small files and so on. I had students in my undergraduate class write such a function in R for homework, and thought it may be interesting to present it here.

Among other things, readers who are not familiar with recursive function calls will learn about those here. I must add that all readers, even those with such background, will find this post to be rather subtle and requiring extra patience, but I believe you will find it worthwhile.

Let’s start with an example, in which we count the number of files with a given name:

countinst <- function(startdir,flname) {

checkname <- function(drname,filelist,arg) {
   if (arg$flname %in% filelist) 
      arg$tot <- arg$tot + 1

Say we try all this in a directory containing a subdirectory mydir that consists of a file x, and two subdirectories, d1 and d2. The latter in turn consists of another file named x. We then make the call countinst(‘mydir’,’x’).  As can be seen above, that call will in turn make the call


The walk() function, which I will present below, will start in mydir, and will call the user-specified function checkname() at every directory it encounters in the tree rooted at mydir, in this case mydir, d1 and d2.

At each such directory, walk() will pass to the user-specified function, in this case checkname(), first the current directory name, then a character vector reporting the names of all files (including directories) in that directory.  In mydir, for instance, this vector will be c(‘d1′,’d2′,’x’).  In addition, walk() will pass to checkname() an argument, formally named arg above, which will serve as a vehicle for accumulating running totals, in this case the total number of files of the given name.

So, let’s look at walk() itself:

walk <- function(currdir,f,arg) {
   # "leave trail of bread crumbs"
   savetop <- getwd()
   fls <- list.files()
   arg <- f(currdir,fls,arg)
   # subdirectories of this directory
   dirs <- list.dirs(recursive=FALSE)
   for (d in dirs) arg <- walk(d,f,arg)
   setwd(savetop) # go back to calling directory

The comments are hopefully self-explanatory, but the key point is that within walk(), there is another call to walk()! This is recursion.

Note how arg accumulates, as needed in this application. If on the other hand we wanted, say, simply to remove all files named ‘x’, we would just put in a dummy variable for arg. And though we didn’t need drname here, in some applications it would be useful.

For compute-intensive tasks, recursion is not very efficient in R, but it can be quite handy in certain settings.

If you would like to conveniently try the above example, here is some test code:

test <- function() {


Discrete Event Simulation in R (and, Why R Is Different)

I was pleased to see the announcement yesterday of simmer 3.61. a discrete-event simulation (DES) package for R. I’ve long had an interest in DES, and as I will explain below, implementing DES in R brings up interesting issues about R that transcend the field of DES. I had been planning to discuss them in the context of my own DES package for R, and the above announcement will make a good springboard for that.

First, what is DES? It is simulation of stochastic processes with discrete state space. Consider for instance the classic M/M/1 queue: exponential interarrival and service times, with a single server. The state space can be defined as the queue length, which is integer-valued and thus “discrete.” This contrasts to, say, simulating a weather system, where state such as temperature is continuous.

The key component of such a simulator, no matter which programmer world view the software takes (see below) is the event list.  At any simulated time t, the event list records all the events that are supposed to happen after time t. In the M/M/1 queue example, for instance, at time 168.0, there might be a service completion scheduled for time 169.1, and an arrival at 182.2.

The main loop of a DES program then consists of:

  • Remove the earliest event e in the event list; e will be represented as some kind of data structure, including event time, event type and so on.
  • Update the current simulated time to the time in e.
  • Simulate the execution of e.

The looping continues until the user-specified maximum simulation time is exceeded.

The M/M/1 case is simple (not to mention having a closed-form theoretical solution), but in complex systems the event list can be quite large, say thousands of events. In such cases, good performance means executing the first of the above three bulleted items efficiently. Classically, there has been much research on this (including theoretical models using renewal theory and the like). But what about doing this in R?

The simmer package handles this by…NOT doing it in R. 🙂 If one needs the performance, this is the obvious route to take. (This is not quite true in a certain sense, also explained below.)

I developed my DES package entirely in R, mainly because I aimed it only as proof-of-concept. It’s been around for a few years, first on my own Web page then more recently on GitHub. I did it for use by my students, and because it seemed that periodically there have been questions on r-help along the lines of “Is there a DES package available for R?”

Most algorithms for handling event lists use some kind of priority queue, implemented a a binary tree. Since R lacks pointers, it is not easy to develop such thing, much less do it efficiently. So I just chose to implement the event list in DES as straight R vector, maintained in sorted order. But when a new event is inserted, a time-consuming operation ensues, due to the need to keep the event list in ascending order. Originally, I implemented this as binary search.

Later I realized that this was anti-R. I knew it would be slow, of course, but didn’t think much about alternatives. Then later it occurred to me:

  • Just add new events at the tail end.
  • Don’t keep the event list in sorted order.
  • In first bullet above in the event loop, simply find the earliest event by calling R’s which.min().

True, which.min() does an inefficient linear search. But it does it at C (not sea) level! Unless the event list is larger than any one I know of in practice, this will be a win.

Now, what about my pure-R DES package vs. simmer, which does its core operations in C++? The simmer package ought to be faster, right? Actually, yes, but one must first understand that they actually are not comparable, as follows.

There are two main programming paradigms (“world views”) in DES. Let’s illustrate that with M/M/1:

  • Event-oriented: Here the code explictly recognizes how one event triggers others. For a job arrival in M/M/1, the code to react to that arrival will see whether to add the job to the server queue, vs. starting it now if the queue is empty, and that same code will schedule the next job arrival.
  • Process-oriented. Here each entity more or less “minds its own business,” with fewer lines of code that explicitly show interactions between entities. In M/M/1 we might have an arrival process function and a server process function. The latter function might watch the queue continually to see when it becomes nonempty, and the former function might add the newly-arriving job to the queue, but NOT start service for the job in the case of an empty queue, as would be the case for the event-oriented approach.

The pros and cons are: The event-oriented approach is much easier to implement, but arguably less clear. The process-oriented approach requires threading of some kind (not necessarily the “classical” kind), but most people, including me, consider it clearer and more elegant.

The simmer package is process-oriented, and in fact is modeled on SimPy, a popular DES library written in Python. I’m a big fan of SimPy, which is another reason why I like simmer.

HOWEVER, the process-oriented approach, ceteris paribus, tends to be slow. This is due to various reasons related to the threading, but at any rate, the event-oriented approach, for all its inelegance, does tend to excel somewhat in this regard.

My DES package is event-oriented. So, I was curious which package would be faster, the pure-R event-oriented code or the R-calls-C++ process-oriented code. So I did a small experiment. (Disclaimer: Not claimed to generalize.) Both packages include M/M/1 examples, so I ran them for various values of the mean interarrival and service rates. I won’t enumerate the results here, but generally the C++/process-oriented runs were about 25-50% faster than the R/event-oriented ones.

There may be many issues here. For instance, DES’ deletion of an event involves code like

 simlist$evnts <- simlist$evnts[-i,,drop=F]

This may involve reallocating memory for the entire matrix.

I will leave all this as an exercise for the reader. 🙂