MathObjects-based Answer Checkers

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MathObjects-based Answer Checkers

The MathObject library is designed to be used in two ways. First, you can use it within your perl code when writing problems as a means of making it easier to handle formulas, and in particular, to be able to use a single object to produce numeric values, TeX output, and answer strings from a single formula entry. This avoids having to type a function three different ways (which makes maintaining a problem much harder). Since MathObjects also includes vector and complex arthimetic, it is easier to work with these types of values as well.

Secondly using MathObjects improves the processing of student input. This is accomplished through special answer checkers that are part of the MathObjects package (rather than the traditional WeBWorK answer checkers). Each of these checkers has error checking customized to the type of input expected from the student and can provide helpful feedback if the syntax of the student's entry is incorrect.

Checkers are available for each of the types of values that the parser can produce (numbers, complex numbers, infinities, points, vectors, intervals, sets, unions, formulas, lists of numbers, lists of points, lists of intervals, lists of formulas returning numbers, lists of formulas returning points, and so on).

To use one of these checkers, simply call the cmp method of the object that represents the correct answer. For example:

    $n = Real(sqrt(2));

will produce an answer checker that matches the square root of two. Similarly,


matches the vector <1,2,3> (or any computation that produces it, e.g., i+2j+3k, or <4,4,4>-<3,2,1>), while


matches the given interval. Other examples include:

    ANS(Union("(-inf,$a) U ($a,inf)")->cmp);

and so on.

Formulas are handled in the same way:

    $a = random(-5,5,1); $b = random(-5,5,1); $x = random(-5,5,1);
    $f = Formula("x^2 + $a x + $b")->reduce;
    $x = Formula('x');
    $v = Formula("<t,t^2,t^3>"); $t = random(-5,5,1);

and so on.

Lists of items can be checked as easily:

    ANS(Compute("(-inf,2),(4,5)")->cmp); # easy way to get list of intervals
    ANS(Formula("x, x+1, x^2-1")->cmp);

and so on. The last example may seem strange, as you could have used ANS(String('NONE')->cmp), but there is a reason for using this type of construction. You might be asking for one or more numbers (or points, or whatever) or the word NONE if there are no numbers (or points). If you used String('NONE')->cmp, the student would get an error message about a type mismatch if he entered a list of numbers, but with List('NONE')->cmp, he will get appropriate error messages for the wrong entries in the list.

In the case of a list of points where the answer is NONE, you should tell MathObject what the expected type of answer is, so that appropriate messages can be given. E.g.,


would give appropriate messages for points rather than numbers (the default type).

It is often appropriate to use the list checker in this way even when the correct answer is a single value, if the student might type a list of answers.

On the other hand, using the list checker has its disadvantages. For example, if you use


and the student enters (-inf,3), she will get a message indicating that the type of interval is incorrect, while that would not be the case if


were used. (This is because the student doesn't know how many intervals there are, so saying that the type of interval is wrong would inform her that there is only one.)

The rule of thumb is: the individual checkers can give more detailed information about what is wrong with the student's answer; the list checker allows a wider range of answers to be given without giving away how many answers there are. If the student knows there's only one, use the individual checker; if there may or may not be more than one, use the list checker.

Note that you can form lists of formulas as well. The following all produce the same answer checker:

    ANS(Formula("x+1,x-1")->cmp); # easier
    $f = Formula("x+1"); $g = Formula("x-1");
    $x = Formula('x');

See the files in pg/doc/MathObjects/problems for more examples of using the parser's answer checkers.

Controlling the Details of the Answer Checkers

The action of the answer checkers can be modified by passing flags to the cmp() method. For example:


will prevent the answer checker from reporting errors due to the student entering the wrong type of answer (say a vector rather than a number).

Flags common to all answer checkers

There are a number of flags common to all the checkers:

showTypeWarnings => 1 or 0

Show/don't show messages about student answers not being of the right type. (default: 1)

showEqualErrors => 1 or 0

Show/don't show messages produced by trying to compare the professor and student values for equality, e.g., conversion errors between types. (default: 1)

ignoreStrings => 1 or 0

Show/don't show type mismatch errors produced by strings (so that NONE will not cause a type mismatch in a checker looking for a list of numbers, for example). (default: 1)

studentsMustReduceUnions => 1 or 0

Controls whether or not students answers are allowed to include overlapping, redundant, or uncombined intervals. (default: 1)

showUnionReduceWarnings => 1 or 0

Do/don't show warnings for unreduced unions. This includes warnings about overlapping sets, uncombined intervals (like (0,1] U [1,infinity]), and repeated elements in sets. (default: 1)

In addition to these, the individual MathObject types have their own flags:

Flags for Real()->cmp

ignoreInfinity => 1 or 0

Do/don't report type mismatches if the student enters an infinity. (default: 1)

Flags for String()->cmp

typeMatch => value

Specifies the type of object that the student should be allowed to enter (in addition the string). (default: 'Value::Real')

Flags for Point()->cmp

showDimensionHints => 1 or 0

Show/don't show messages about the wrong number of coordinates. (default: 1)

showCoordinateHints => 1 or 0

Show/don't show message about which coordinates are right. (default: 1)

Flags for Vector()->cmp

showDimensionHints => 1 or 0

Show/don't show messages about the wrong number of coordinates. (default: 1)

showCoordinateHints => 1 or 0

Show/don't show message about which coordinates are right. (default: 1)

promotePoints => 1 or 0

Do/don't allow the student to enter a point rather than a vector. (default: 1)

parallel => 1 or 0

Mark the answer as correct if it is parallel to the professor's answer. Note that a value of 1 forces showCoordinateHints to be 0. (default: 0)

sameDirection => 1 or 0

During a parallel check, mark the answer as correct only if it is in the same (not the opposite) direction as the professor's answer. (default: 0)

Flags for Matrix()->cmp

showDimensionHints => 1 or 0

Show/don't show messages about the wrong number of coordinates. (default: 1)

The default for showEqualErrors is set to 0 for Matrices, since these errors usually are dimension errors, and that is handled separately (and after the equality check).

Flags for Interval()->cmp

showEndpointHints => 1 or 0

Do/don't show messages about which endpoints are correct. (default: 1)

showEndTypeHints => 1 or 0

Do/don't show messages about whether the open/closed status of the end-points are correct (only shown when the end-points themselves are correct). (default: 1)

requireParenMatch => 1 or 0

Do/don't require that the open/closed status of the end-points be correct. (default: 1)

Flags for Set()->cmp, Union()->cmp, and List()->cmp

All the flags from the Real()->cmp, plus:

showHints => 1 or 0

Do/don't show messages about which entries are incorrect. (default: $showPartialCorrectAnswers)

showLengthHints => 1 or 0

Do/don't show messages about having the correct number of entries (only shown when all the student answers are correct but there are more needed, or all the correct answsers are among the ones given, but some extras were given). (default: $showPartialCorrectAnswers)

partialCredit => 1 or 0

Do/don't give partial credit for when some answers are right, but not all. (default: $showPartialCorrectAnswers)

ordered => 1 or 0

Give credit only if the student answers are in the same order as the professor's answers. (default: 0)

entry_type => 'a (name)'

The string to use in error messages about type mismatches. (default: dynamically determined from list)

list_type => 'a (name)'

The string to use in error messages about numbers of entries in the list. (default: dynamically determined from list)

extra => $object

A MathObject to use for comparison to student-provided entries that do not match any of the correct answers in the list. Use in particular when the correct answer is a list of a single String (like NONE), and the expected type of elements in the list are complicated and need special syntax checking (e.g., for size of vectors).

typeMatch => value

Specifies the type of object that the student should be allowed to enter in the list (determines what constitutes a type mismatch error). (default: dynamically determined from list)

requireParenMatch => 1 or 0

Do/don't require the parentheses in the student's answer to match those in the professor's answer exactly. (default: 1)

removeParens => 1 or 0

Do/don't remove the parentheses from the professor's list as part of the correct answer string. This is so that if you use List() to create the list (which doesn't allow you to control the parens directly), you can still get a list with no parentheses. (default: 0 for List() and 1 for Formula())

implicitList => 1 or 0

Force/don't force single entry answers to be lists (even if they are already lists). This way, if you are asking for a list of lists, and the student enters a single list, it will be turned into a list of a single list, and will be checked properly against the correct answer. (default: 1)

Flags for Formula()->cmp

The flags for Formulas are dependent on the type of the result of the formula; the flags are taken from the class of the result as described above. In addition, Formulas take the following flags:

upToConstant => 1 or 0

For real-valued formulas, this controls whether the student's answer only needs to match the correct answer up to addition of a constant. (default: 0)

showDomainErrors => 1 or 0

If the test points for the function comparison reveals that the student answer is defined on a different domain from the correct answer (e.g., the student's answer is not defined at one of the test points), then this value determines whether or not a message is issued alerting the student to that fact. (default: 1)

The Context and Answer Checkers

Some things, like whether trig functions are allowed in the answer, are controlled through the Context() rather than the answer checker itself. For example,


would remove those three functions from use. One would need to remove cot, sec, csc, arcsin, asin, etc., to do this properly. Categories of functions can be removed all at once, e.g.


would disable all trig functions, while


would allow only the sqrt function to be used in student answers. The available categories are the following:

Note that some functions can be obtained via operators (e.g., abs(x) can be obtained via |x| and sqrt(x) can be obtained by x^(1/2), so you might need to remove more than just the named functions to limit these operations).

Which arithmetic operations are available is controlled through Context()->operations. For example,


would disable the ability for students to enter powers. Note that multiplication and division have several forms (in order to make a non-standard precedence that allows things like sin(2x) to be entered as sin 2x). So if you want to disable them you need to include all of them. E.g.,

    Context()->operations->undefine('*',' *','* ');
    Context()->operations->undefine('/',' /','/ ','//');

would be required in order to make multiplication and division unavailable.

Finally, absolute values are treated as a specialized form of parenthesis, so to remove them, use


The pg/macros directory contains a number of predefined contexts that limit the operations that can be performed in a student answer. For example, the file defines contexts in which students can enter numbers, but no operations, so they would have to reduce their answer to a single number by hand. There are limited contexts for complex numbers, points, and vectors, and there are also specialized contexts for entering polynomials, or where powers are restricted in various ways.

Tolerances and Limits

The tolerances used in comparing numbers are part of the Context as well. You can set these via:

      tolerance    => .0001,       # the relative or absolute tolerance
      tolType      => 'relative',  # or 'absolute'
      zeroLevel    => 1E-14,       # when to use zeroLevelTol
      zeroLevelTol => 1E-12,       # smaller than this matches zero
                                   #  when one of the two is less
                                   #  than zeroLevel
      limits       => [-2,2],      # limits for variables in formulas
      num_points   => 5,           # the number of test points

Note that for testing formulas, you can override these values by setting these fields of the formula itself:

    $f = Formula("sqrt(x-10)");
    $f->{limits} = [10,12];
    $f = Formula("log(xy)");
    $f->{limits} = [[.1,2],[.1,2]]; # x and y limits

You can also specify the test points explicitly:

    $f = Formula("sqrt(x-10)");
    $f->{test_at} = [[11],[11.5],[12]];  # use these plus random ones
    $f = Formula("log(xy)");
    $f->{test_points} = [[.1,.1],[.1,.5],[.1,.75],
                         [.5,.1],[.5,.5],[.5,.75]];  # test only at these

You can specify the value at the same time you create the object, as in

    $f = Formula("sqrt(x-1)")->with(limits=>[10,12]);

It is also possible to set the limits of variables in the context itself,

    Context()->variables->set(x => {limits => [10,12]});

or when a variable is created in the Context,

    Context()->variables->add(t => ['Real',limits=>[1,2]]);

or even when the answer checker is specified,


Custom Answer Checkers

While the built-in answer checkers do a good job of testing a student response for agreement with a given correct answer, sometimes an answer may require a more sophisticated or customized check. For example, you might ask a student to provide a solution to a given implicit equation for which there are infinitely many solutions and would like to count any of them as correct. You can do this by providing your own answer checker as a parameter to a MathObject answer checker. This lets you get the advantage of the MathObject parsing, syntax checking, type checking, and error messages, while still giving you the control of deciding when the student's answer is correct.

You do this by providing a checker subroutine, as in the following example:

    $a = random(2,10,1);
    $x = random(-5,5,1);
    $y = $a - $x;
    Find a point \((x,y)\) that is a solution to \(x+y=$a\).
    \((x,y)\) = \{ans_rule(15)\}
      showCoordinateHints => 0,                # doesn't make sense to give these
      checker => sub {
        my ($correct,$student,$ansHash) = @_;  # get correct and student MathObjects
        my ($sx,$sy) = $student->value;        # get coordinates of student answer
        return ($sx + $sy == $a ? 1 : 0);      # return 1 of correct, 0 otherwise

The subroutine that is given as the value of the checker parameter is called when the student has typed an answer that parses properly and is compatible with a point, so you don't have to worry about type-checking the student answer yourself, and are guaranteed to have a MathObject to work with.

Note that your answer checker is tied to a given MathObject, so the type checking and error messages are appropriate for that type of object. Also, this is what will be shown as the correct answer if the student requests answers after the due date, so you should be sure that you provide an actual correct answer, even if you don't use $correct within your checker.

Your checker subroutiune is passed three items, the correct answer (as a MathObject), the student's answer (as a MathObject), and a reference to the AnswerHash that is being used to process this answer. In the example above, $correct will be the Point($x,$y) that was used to create the original MathObject for the answer checker, and $student will be the point that the student typed.

The answer hash ($ansHash), holds additional data about the answer checker and the student's answer. That data includes all the flags passed to the answer checker; e.g., in the example above, $ansHash->{showCoordinateHints} will be 0, while $ansHash->{showTypeWarnings} will be 1 (the default). Other fields that are useful include


The correct answer string


Whether the "Preview" button was pressed or not (you might want to limit error messages when this is true).


The unmodified string originally typed by the student. It has not been processed in any way.


The Formula obtained from parsing the student answer. If it is a constant value, then $student is the result of evaluating this formula (i.e., it will be a Real or Point or some other MathObject rather than a Formula); if it is not constant, then $student will be this Formula.


The value passed to $student.


The value passed to $correct.

The return value of your checker should be a value between 0 and 1 that indicates how much credit the student's answer should receive. Use 1 for full credit, .5 for 50% credit, and so on.

Error messages can be generated via the Value->Error() function. For example,

    Value->Error("Your value should be positive") if $student <= 0;

Note that this function will cause the checker to return with an error condition, so there is no need to return a score in this case.

List-based Answer Checkers

The built-in answer checkers for the List, Union, and Set classes are a bit more complicated than those for the other classes, because the order of elements in the List (or Intervals in a Union, or elements of a Set) usually doesn't matter. If you provide a checker routine for one of these types of MathObjects, it does not refer to the list as a whole, but to the individual elements in the list. Management of the list and determining how many elements are matched, what the partial credit should be, and what error messages to produce is all handled by the main list answer checker. You only provide a routine that determines when a student answer matches a correct answer. Your checker will be called repeatedly on the various combinations of student and correct answers to determine if the student list matches the correct list (regardless of order).

When the checker is called from the list checker, it has two additional paramters:

    checker => sub {
      my ($correct,$student,$ansHash,$nth,$value) = @_;

Here $nth is a word indicating which student answer is being tested (e.g., for the third element in the student's list, $nth will be " third" (note the leading space). This can be used in error messages, for example, to help the student identify where an error occurred. The $value is the name of the type of object that is in the list, e.g., "point". So you could use "Your$nth $value is not correct" as an error message in order to get something like "Your third point is incorrect" as the output.

As usual, you can use Value->Error() to generate an error message. The list checker will trap it and put it int he message area preceded by "There is a problem with your nth answer:" (where "nth" is replaced by the proper word for the answer that produced the error message. If you want to produce a message that doesn't include this prefix, use

    return 0;

where "message" is the error message you want to produce.

If you want to act on the List (or Union or Set) as a whole, then you need to use the list_checker parameter instead. This specifies a subtroutine that will handle checking of the entire list, overriding the default list checking. That means you will be responsible for dealing with the possibly different order of the student answers from the correct answer, providing error messages about individual entries in the list, and so on.

The list_checker gets called with four parameters: a reference to an array containing the list of correct answers, a reference to an array of the student answers, a reference to the AnswerHash, and a string containing the name of the type of elements expected (for use in error messages). So a list checker looks like

    list_checker => sub {
      my ($correct,$student,$ansHash,$value) = @_;

You can refer to the individual entries in $correct or $student as $correct->[$i] or $student->[$i], where $i is an integer representing the position within the list (the first entry is numbered 0 not 1).

Note that in a list_checker for a List object, you will have to do type checking yourself to check if the types of the entries are correct, since a list can consist of any type of elements.

The list_checker should return an array consisting of the nuber of student entries that are correct followed by any error messages that should be displayed (each on a separate line in the messages section).

Here is an example of a list checker:

    Three distinct points \((x,y)\) that satisfy the equation \(x+y=5\) are:
    ANS(List("(0,5),(1,4),(2,3)")->cmp(list_checker => sub {
      my ($correct,$student,$ansHash,$value) = @_;
      my $n = scalar(@$student);  # number of student answers
      my $score = 0;              # number of correct student answers
      my @errors = ();            # stores error messages
      my $i, $j;                  # loop counters
      #  Loop though the student answers
      for ($i = 0; $i < $n; $i++) {
        my $ith = Value::List->NameForNumber($i+1);
        my $p = $student->[$i];   # i-th student answer
        #  Check that the student's answer is a point
        if ($p->type ne "Point") {
           push(@errors,"Your $ith entry is not a point");
        #  Check that the point hasn't been given before
        for ($j = 0, $used = 0; $j < $i; $j++) {
          if ($student->[$j]->type eq "Point" && $student->[$j] == $p) {
            push(@errors,"Your $ith point is the same as a previous one") unless $ansHash->{isPreview};
            $used = 1; last;
        #  If not already used, check that it satisfies the equation
        #    and increase the score if so.
        if (!$used) {
          my ($a,$b) = $p->value;
          if ($a + $b == 5) {$score++} else {
            push(@errors,"Your $ith point is not correct") unless $ansHash->{isPreview}
      #  Check that there are the right number of answers
      if (!$ansHash->{isPreview}) {
        push(@errors,"You need to provide more points") if $i < 3;
        push(@errors,"You have given too many points") if $score > 3 && $i != $score;
      return ($score,@errors);

As you can see, list checkers are more complicated than checkers for the other types of data. But for certain situations like the one above, they can be indispensible.

Set and Union Answer Checkers

Since Sets and Unions are unordered lists of Reals or Intervals, they act a lot like lists. If you provide a checker for one of these, it works like the List checker: it is applied to the individual entries in the Set or the individual intervals in a Union. You may want to write a checker that works with the entire Set or Union at once, however. In that case, you need to use a list_checker in which you obtain the full Set or Union from $ansHash. For example:

    Find a union of disjoint intervals that properly contains
    the numbers 0 and 5:
    ANS(Union("(-1,1) U (4,infinity)")->cmp(list_checker => sub {
      my ($correct,$student,$ansHash) = @_;
      my $U = $ansHash->{student_value}; # complete student answer as MathObject
      if ($U->type ne "Union") {return (0,"Your answer should be a union of intervals")}
      my $n = scalar(@$student); # number of intervals
      my $S = Set(0,5);
      return ($U->contains($S) && $U != $S ? $n : 0);  # number of intervals correct

Note that the return value is the score followed by any error messages, and that the score is the number of intervals in the student's answer that are correct, which is why this checker returns $n$ when the answer is correct.

More error checking might be desired, here. For example, since a Union can be of Intervals or Sets, we might want to check that all the student's entries in the Union are actually intervals (the current version allows Sets). Note thta because the studentsMustReduceUnions parameter is 1 by default, we don't have to check for disjoint intervals. On the other hand, that flag also requires intervals to be merged into one if they could be, e.g., (0,1] U (1,2). We might want to work harder to allow that, since it is a disjoint union. We could also give more error messages to help the student work through a wrong answer. For example, we could check which point isn't covered and report that.