Revision as of 08:18, 5 February 2006 by Gustav Delius (talk | contribs) (Terminology: clarified 'answers')

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The quiz module is a complex module with its own modular structure to allow question type plug-ins. The module has grown organically and in spite of a lot of rewriting for Moodle 1.5 the code is not very simple to understand.

On this page I am planning to give an overview of how the module works. --Gustav Delius 07:12, 28 January 2006 (WST)

Changes for Moodle 1.5: adaptive questions

During the first half of 2005 the quiz module code has undergone a considerable rewrite to allow for adaptive questions in which a question session can consist of several sequential student responses. The question can adapt itself to the student answers. For example in response to certain answers the question could provide feedback or hints and then ask the student to answer again or give the student a simpler or related question.

Unfortunately many changes had to be made to the question type methods. This has however resulted in improved efficiency and has made the writing of question types easier. It also allows question types with more powerful features and has fixed some bugs / annoying behaviour.

For details see:

Of course there were countless other changes to the quiz module going from Moodle 1.4 to 1.5, especially to the teacher interface. However in spite of the fact that these changes are a lot more visible they were much less drastic from the point of view of the code.

Changes for Moodle 1.6: separating questions from quizzes

The quiz module is not the only activity module in Moodle that uses questions. The lesson does too and potentially questions could be useful in many modules. Therefore we have started to rewrite some of the quiz module functions and move them from locallib.php to questionlib.php so that eventually they could be moved into a central library and be used by other modules.

The details of the changes are explained on the page Separating questions from quizzes.

Objects and data structures

Key to understanding how the quiz module works is to understand the different kinds of object work together. There most important ones are:

  • Quizzes
  • Questions
  • Attempts
  • States

Quizzes and Questions are data created by the teacher when setting up and editing a quiz. Attempts and States are data created by the student when interacting with a quiz.

Moodle allows students to make several attempts at a quiz. Data about such an attempt is stored in an attempt object. This holds for example how the quiz was randomized for this attempt and the ordering of the questions and answers. So attempts are indexed by 1) user, 2) quiz

Moodle allows students to interact repeatedly with a single question. So for example the student might initially just save an answer, later mark it, then correct it if it was marked incorrect. Each time the student interacts with a particular question inside a particular attempt at a quiz a new state is created. So states are indexed by 1) user, 2) attempt, 3) question.

Database structure

All this data needs to be kept in Moodle's database. How this is achieved is explained on a separate page about the Quiz database structure, which also contains a useful diagram.

Runtime objects

In most scripts the quiz module deals with the same objects. In some cases these are not identical to the records from the database, but they have some fields that are added at runtime. The objects concerned are questions and states; both are described below. Also the options object, purely a runtime object, is described. Many functions that are used to process these objects make use of the additional fields and it is therefore necessary to use the correct functions for creating these objects. The structure of these objects is explained in detail on a separate page about the Quiz runtime objects.

The main script of the quiz module is attempt.php which will have to deal with all these objects. Studying the explanation of attempt.php is therefore a good way to start to study the quiz module code.


In order to describe and understand the quiz module, it is necessary to understand the terminology that is used to describe its aspects. Below some important terms are listed and explained and in some cases linked to more detailed documentation.

adaptive question (adaptive item)
Adaptive questions are questions that walk the user through a directed graph of question states depending on the user's responses. E.g. a complicated mathematical question that is answered incorrectly, but is likely to be incorrect because of a common mistake, could provide the user with a hint towards this mistake, apply a penalty and allow a second attempt at this question. In the QTI specifications an adaptive question is referred to as an adaptive item
Quizzes can be run in adaptive mode, which provides buttons to mark each question individually.
The term 'answer' is used exclusively for the teacher-defined answers of a question. When talking about the quiz module it is easy to get confused between these teacher-defined answers and the answers that the students actually give. We have therefore adopted the convention to refer to the student-supplied answers as 'responses' and to reserve the term 'answers' to apply to teacher-defined answers. In question types that rely on teacher-supplied answers these are used in the grading process by comparing them with the student responses. Of course not all question types use teacher-defined answers but use some more intelligent way to process the student responses.
The term attempt is used in the sense of "Attempt at the quiz". Depending on the quiz settings, a student may be allowed several attempts at a quiz. An attempt is finished when the student clicks on the corresponding button on the attempt page. Students do not have to complete an attempt in one visit. They can navigate away from the quiz page and return later to continue the same attempt.
Within one and the same quiz attempt a student may make several attempts at answering a particular question, at least if the questiontype allows it and the quiz is set up in adaptive mode. These will always be referred to as "attempts at a question", never just as "attempts".
The $stateobject (and the
table) has a field
, which indicates the event that led to the creation of the state. The field can take the value of any of the following constants (defined in locallib.php):
  • EVENTOPEN: The attempt has just been opened and this is the initial state of a question, i.e. the user has seen the question did not interact with it yet.
  • EVENTSAVE: The responses are just being saved, either because the student requested this explicitly or because the student navigated to another quiz page.
  • EVENTVALIDATE: The student requested a validation of the responses. (This is not supported by all questiontypes.)
  • EVENTGRADE: The responses are being graded but the question session is not closed. This is generally the case for adaptive questions.
  • EVENTCLOSE: The responses are being graded and the question session is closed. Usually this happens because the whole attempt closes, either because the student requests it or because the time is up or because we are beyond the due date.
  • EVENTDUPLICATEGRADE: This is a strange one. It indicates that the responses would have been graded had they not been found to be identical to previous responses.
When new responses are being processed by the function
, then this function is being passed the event type in
while the responses are in
A question in the context of the quiz module is the set of definitions (question name, question text, possible answers, feedback, etc.) that constitute a reusable assessment item. In the terminology of the QTI specification what we refer to as a question is more appropriately called an item.
A question itself is a static entity. All data related to interactions with a particular question (in a particular attempt on a particular quiz) is stored in its corresponding states.
There are several questiontypes built into the quiz module, however, due to the plugin architecture of the quiz module, it is possible to define custom questiontypes. Existing questiontypes include true/false, multiple choice, short answer, numerical and calculated questions.
This term is reserved to refer to the students' responses to a question. The term 'answers' that one might also be tempted to use for this is already used to refer to the teacher-defined answers, see above. This term is always used in plural, although for some questiontypes there is only one possible response. In the runtime
object there is a field
, which holds an array of a student's responses to a question. See also: Quiz response storage
Question states are saved in the table
. States always "belong" to a question within a particular attempt and are therefore also user specific. The first state in a question's life cycle during an attempt records the fact that the user has seen the question. This state is never modified, however, it can be superseded by a new state, which represents a user interaction. Different user interactions are defined by the events, a set of constants, one for each possible type of user interaction.
A question session is the complete history of question states that the question is taken through. Usually only the most recent state and the last graded state are of interest though.

Penalty mechanism

What it is for

When the quiz is run in adaptive mode the student can interact with a question repeatedly. So in particular the student can try again when he gets a wrong answer. Clearly the final mark for the question must reflect the fact that the student did not get it right originally. Therefore a penalty is subtracted from the final mark.

How the penalty is determined

First of all penalties are relevant only if a quiz is run in adaptive mode. Only in this case can a student have a second attempt and therefore only in this mode can there be any occasion to subtract a penalty.

Even in adaptive mode the penalty mechanism is only used when it is selected in the quiz options. If "Apply penalties" is set to "No" then the final mark for the question is the mark for the last graded response.

Each question has a 'penalty' field (which should really be called 'penaltyfactor') which is a number between 0 and 1. The penalty for a wrong response is calculated as the product ($quiz->penalty * $quiz->grade), i.e., as the product of the penaltyfactor with the maximum achievable grade for the question. This product is stored in $state->penalty. So $quiz->penalty is the fraction of the maximum grade that is subtracted as a penalty for each wrong response.

The $quiz->penalty field has a default value of 0.1, both in the database and in mod/quiz/defaults.php. This default can of course be overwritten by the admin on the quiz configuration page. This admin-selected default is (as usual for admin defaults) stored in $CFG->quiz_penalty. The teacher can choose a different penalty factor for each individual question when adding or editing a question.

Now if a student makes repeated wrong attempts (or partially correct attempts) the penalties for all these attempts are added up in $state->sumpenalties. The mark for the question is then calculated as the mark for the last graded response minus the sum of the penalties.

One curious fact about $state->sumpenalties is that, for efficiency reasons, it is not stored in the quiz_states table but instead in the 'sumpenalty' field of the quiz_newest_states table. That way it only has to be stored once per attempt rather than once per response.

Where it is done in the code

The function quiz_apply_penalty_and_timelimit() subtracts the penalty in $state->sumpenalty from the raw grade in $state->raw_grade to obtain $state->grade for the response. However it is ensured that the grade of a new attempt at the question never falls below the previously achieved grade. This function also increases $state->sumpenalty by the amount in $state->penalty. The assumption is that $state->penalty has just been set appropriately by the code calling this function, e.g., quiz_process_responses.

Time limit

A quiz can have a time limit. This is stored in minutes in $quiz->timelimit. So before using this in time calculations it always has to be multiplied by 60 to turn it into seconds like all other timestamps in moodle and php. If $quiz->timelimit is zero it means there is no timelimit.

If a student asks to start an attempt on view.php for a quiz with a timelimit then he is shown a javascript message alerting him to the timelimit and is asked to confirm.

For quizzes with timelimit attempt.php shows a javascript timer that counts down and automatically submits and closes the attempt when the time is up.

Confusingly there are two javascript timers in the quiz module. jsclock.php provides a countdown in the title bar that counts down to the quiz closing time if this is less than a day away. This has nothing to do with the timelimit. jstimer.php provides the countdown timer that implements the timelimit. It in turn uses timer.js.

The time a response was submitted by the student is recorded by attempt.php right at the top of the page and is then passed on to quiz_process_responses in $action->timestamp. This puts it into $state->timestamp. Finally, after the responses have been graded, the function quiz_apply_penalty_and_timelimit() checks that the responses are within the timelimit to within 5% and if not it sets the grade to zero (or the previously obtained grade, if that is higher).


Quiz attempts can be paginated, i.e., spread over several pages. The student can navigate between the pages using the standard Moodle paging bar. When the student navigates to a different quiz page the answers on the current page are automatically submitted for saving (but not grading).

To do this automatic submission the paging bar needs some javascript. It is therefore not produced with Moodle's standard print_paging_bar() function from weblib.php but with quiz_print_navigation_panel() which is defined in mod/quiz/locallib.php and produces something that looks the same.

The teacher has complete control via the edit interface on edit.php over where the page breaks should occur. He can repaginate the quiz with any chosen number of questions per page. He can also move the page-breaks up and down using the arrows.

Internally page breaks are stored in the $quiz->questions field (which now should really be called $quiz->layout). This field contains a comma separated list of questionids and pagebreaks where the pagebreaks are represented by the id 0. For example 23,12,0,11, 0 means that the two questions with ids 23 and 12 are on the first page and the question with id 11 is on the second page. The last page break is invisible and Moodle sometimes puts it there itself for its own convenience.

Because the quiz has an option $quiz->shufflequestions to shuffle questions the layout that the student sees in a particular attempt does not necessarily have to be the same as that stored in $quiz->questions. Therefore each attempt has its own $attemp->layout field. If $quiz->shufflequestions is false then this just contains a copy of $quiz->questions but if it is true then during the creation of a new attempt by quiz_create_attempt() the function quiz_repaginate() is used to produce a layout with $quiz->questionsperpage number of questions per page that are randomly ordered.

Both attempt.php and review.php use the $attempt->layout field to determine what questions to show on a particular page. That way we can guarantee that the student will, for a particular attempt, always see the questions in the same order and with the same pagination, both while attempting and during review. Also a teacher when reviewing a student's attempt sees the pages the same way they were shown to the student. However the teacher is also given the option to see all questions on one page.

There are some functions in locallib.php dedicated to handling the layout fields: quiz_questions_on_page(), quiz_questions_in_quiz(), quiz_number_of_pages(), quiz_first_questionnumber(), quiz_repaginate(). They are very short functions. The function quiz_first_questionnumber() that determines the number of the first question on a particular page makes use of the $question->length field. To allow this calculation to be fast is the main reason why that field is in the question table even though it could also be determined easily from the question type.

Question versioning

Note: Question versioning is currently disabled until it is re-developed to fix all reported issues.

When questions that were already attempted by a student are edited, it can be important to keep a copy of the question as it was before editing in order to reconstruct the quiz as it was seen by the student. To provide this functionality a question versioning mechanism was implemented.

The first goal, namely keeping around old questions, is easily achieved. They are just not deleted any more. However, this is not enough; it is also necessary to store which questions are versions of others. To achieve this goal, there is an additional table, which stores the versioning information: quiz_question_versions.

When a question is replaced for which there are already student attempts then all the attempt data gets associated to the new version of the question and is re-graded. This requires the question ids in the quiz_attempts, quiz_states and quiz_newest_states tables to be replaced by the new id. However we do also want to be able to reconstruct the quiz the way the student saw it when he gave his answers. For that purpose the id of the original question is always preserved in the 'originalquestion' field of the quiz_states table.

If all old versions of questions are kept around this could horribly clutter the editing interface. Therefore a field called hidden was added to the quiz_questions table and all old versions of edited questions are automatically hidden. When this flag is set to 1 the question is not displayed in the list of available questions, unless the user chooses to show them.

While the mechanism above should work as described, there is some additional complexity in order to minimise the number of versions created. If a question is created and has not been attempted by a student yet (this excludes teacher previews of the individual question and the quiz!), the database record will be reused (i.e. overwritten) and no new version will be created. This is especially important when the question is created and the first 2 or 3 mistakes are only noticed during preview.

On the editing screen for questions an additional set of options was introduced (see image). Replacement Options It shows which quizzes use the edited question and how many students have attempted it in a particular quiz. Based on this information it is then possible to choose in which quizzes the new version of the question should be used and in which ones the old one should remain.

By default the 'replace' checkbox for all quizzes that don't have any students' attempts are checked and in addition, if the question is edited out of a quiz context (i.e. not in the category question list), the 'replace' option is checked for that quiz as well.


The changes to the database structure are limited to an added field (hidden) in the quiz_questions table and an additional table called quiz_question_versions. However, dealing with the quiz_questions table has become slightly more complicated.

The hidden field in the quiz_questions table has no implications for the core functionality. It is only used to determine, as the name implies, whether the question is shown in the category list or not.

The table quiz_question_versions stores information about the actual change. This information includes the ids of the old question and the new question, the id of the user who did the change and a timestamp. Quite importantly, the id of the quiz, in which the question was replaced is also stored. This means that the versions table provides a history of the different states the quiz went through until it was edited to be at the current state. The information allows to recreate a quiz as it was at any point in time (from a data perspective - this possibility is not used extensively by the code).

Adjustments to the Data

When a question is replaced by a newer version, database records are updated in the order shown below (compare with question.php):

  • First a new record is inserted into the quiz_question_versions table for each affected quiz (i.e. each quiz in which the question was replaced).
  • Then, for each affected quiz, the comma separated list of question ids in the question field is updated by replacing the old question id with the new one.
  • In the quiz_question_instances table the record that links the old question to the quiz is also updated to point to the new question.
  • In all attempts belonging to the old question the comma-separated list of question ids in the layout field are changed by replacing the old id by the new one.
  • All states belonging to the old question are made to belong to the new version by changing the id in the 'question' field. However if we are replacing the original question then the id of this original version is stored in the originalquestion field.
  • We have to change the questionid field in quiz_newest_states.
  • Finally we have to do any question-type specific changes. For example question types that store student responses by storing the id of the answer in the quiz_answers table will have to recode these ids in all the states to point to the corresponding answers in the new version. This is handled by the function replace_question_in_attempts() in the question type class.

Affected Code and Functionality

Note: This section should still be considered under construction until the question mark behind bug #3311 is taken off.

In the file review.php and potentially also in the file attempt.php, if a question is edited during a student's attempt, the data from quiz_question_versions needs to be taken into account. If a student has attempted a quiz and a question was changed afterwards (i.e. a new version of that question was created), the question id of the old version remains in the comma separated list inside the attempt->layout field. However, since the records in the quiz_question_instances table get updated, we need to go forward in the question history, by looping through entries from the quiz_question_versions table, to find out the id of the question version that is currently used in the quiz.

Suggestion: With a fairly simple change to the convention of what is stored in the quiz_question_versions table we could get rid of the requirement of looping through all the versions. If in the newquestion field we store the id of the question that is currently used in the quiz, it would be possible to get the complete history for a question quite simply by selecting by quiz id and newquestion.

It should be fairly simple to write an upgrade script for this change. Additionally, another set_field would need to be added to question.php to change the newquestion field to the new question id. The benefits would be a much simpler handling of the question history, resulting in more efficient code than the current fix for bug #3311 in review.php.

The place where all the versioning actually takes place is question.php. Here the changes described in Adjustments to the Data are carried out.

Obviously the backup and restore scripts also take quiz_question_versions into account, however, they don't need to be concerned with the ways the data is used.

Future plans

Proposed new features

The features below are in no particular order:

  • New quiz statistics pages?: These pages should be built by using functions defined by the individual question types.
  • Manual grade override: Teachers should be able to override the automatically calculated grades and should be able to make comments.
  • Off-line questions: The answers to these are handed in off-line in the conventional way (e.g., on paper) and teachers enter marks on Moodle.
  • Batch printing of quiz sheets: We want to be able to hand out question sheets to students so they can start working on the questions before going to the computer.
  • Question preview from question edit page: so the teacher can try the question already before saving the changes.
  • Show table of questions on view.php: gives teachers and students a bit of an overview of the quiz.
  • Extending deadlines for individual students: for example when a student misses a deadline for good reasons.
  • Filtering questions by quiz and by search: More ways to restrict which questions are shown on the quiz editing page.
  • Re-open quizzes for revision: After the due date has passed the quiz could allow practice attempts.


The following developments have already been completed:

  • Quiz results overview: suggestions for additional information and features on the overview page.
  • Editing questions: This is about editing questions after students have already attempted them. There needs to be a mechanism to keep the old versions of the question around for auditing purposes.
  • Reforming the quiz edit page: Changes on the quiz edit page should be saved straightaway, not only after Save button is pressed.
  • Copying questions: The teacher can create a new question using a previous one as template.
  • Moving questions: The teacher can now move selected questions to a different category.
  • Automatic re-marking after question editing: if a teacher corrects a question that students have already attempted the teacher should be able to request a remark.
  • Teacher preview: Teachers should have preview buttons for previewing a quiz.
  • What students should see during review: The proposal is to replace the current options for this with an array of tickboxes.