Guide for Lab Authors

This guide explains how to create autograded programming assignments (labs) for the Autolab system.

Writing Autograders

An autograder is a program that takes a student's work as input, and generates some quantitative evaluation of that work as output. The student's work consists of one or more source files written in an arbitrary programming language. The autograder processes these files and generates arbitrary text lines on stdout. The last text line on stdout must be a JSON string, called an autoresult, that assigns an autograded score to one or more problems, and optionally, generates the scoreboard entries for this submission.

The JSON autoresult is a "scores" hash that assigns a numerical score to one or more problems, and an optional "scoreboard" array that provides the scoreboard entries for this submission. For example,

{"scores": {"Prob1": 10, "Prob2": 5}}

assigns 10 points to "Prob1" and 5 points to "Prob2" for this submission. The names of the problems must exactly match the names of the problems for this lab on the Autolab web site. Not all problems need to be autograded. For example, there might be a problem for this assessment called "Style" that you grade manually after the due date.

If you used the Autolab web site to configure a scoreboard for this lab with three columns called "Prob1", "Prob2", and "Total", then the autoresult might be:

{"scores": {"Prob1": 10, "Prob2": 5}, "scoreboard": [10, 5, 15]}

By convention, an autograder accepts an optional -A command line argument that tells it to emit the JSON autoresult. So if you run the autograder outside of the context of Autolab, you can suppress the autoresult line by calling the autograder without the -A argument.

One of the nice properties of Autolab autograders is that they can be written and tested offline, without requiring any interaction with Autolab. Writing autograders is not easy, but the fact that they can be developed offline allows you to develop and test them in your own familiar computing environment.

Installing Autograded Labs

After you've written and tested the autograder, you then use the Autolab web site to create the autograded lab. Autolab supports creating new labs from scratch, or reusing labs from previous semesters. We'll describe each of these in turn.

Creating an Autograded Lab from Scratch

Step 1: Create the new lab.

Create a new lab by clicking the "Install Assessment" button and choosing "Option 1: Create a New Assessment from Scratch." For course <course> and lab <lab>, this will create a lab directory in the Autolab file hierarchy called courses/<course>/<lab>. This initial directory contains a couple of config files and a directory called <lab>/handin that will contain all of the student handin files. In general, you should never modify any of these.

Attention CMU Lab Authors

At CMU, the lab directory is called /afs/cs/academic/class/<course>/autolab/<lab>. For example: /afs/cs/academic/class/15213-f16/autolab/foo is the lab directory for the lab named foo for the Fall 2016 instance of 15-213. All lab-related files must go in this autolab directory to avoid permissions issues.

Step 2: Configure the lab for autograding.

Using the "Edit Assessment" page, turn on autograding for this lab by selecting "Add Autograder." You will be asked for the name of the image to be used for autograding this lab. The default image distributed with Autolab is an Ubuntu image called autograding_image. If your class needs different software, then you or your facilities staff will need to update the default image or create a new one.

Attention CMU Lab Authors

The default autograding image at CMU is called rhel.img and is a copy of the software on the CMU Andrew machines ( If you need custom software installed, please send mail to

If you want a scoreboard, you should select "Add Scoreboard," which will allow you to specify the number of columns and their names. The "Add Scoreboard" page contains a tutorial on how to do this.

You'll also need to define the names and point values for all the problems in this lab, including the autograded ones.

Each student submission is a single file, either a text source file or an archive file containing multiple files and directories. You'll need to specify the base name for the student submission files (e.g., mm.c, handin.tar).

Step 3: Add the required autograding files.

For an autograded lab, Autolab expects the following two autograding files in the lab directory:

  • autograde-Makefile: runs the autograder on a student submission.
  • autograde.tar: contains all of the files (except for the student handin file) that are needed for autograding.

Each time a student submits their work or an instructor requests a regrade, Autolab

  1. copies the student handin file, along with the two autograding files, to an empty directory on an autograding instance,
  2. renames the student handin file to base name (e.g., hello.c, handin.tar),
  3. renames autograde-Makefile to Makefile,
  4. executes the command make on the autograding instance, and finally
  5. captures the stdout generated by the autograder, and parses the resulting JSON autoresult to determine the autograded scores.

Importing an Autograded Lab from a Previous Semester

If you've created a lab for a course in a previous semester and have access to the lab directory (as we do at CMU via AFS), you can import the lab into your current course by

  1. copying the lab directory from the previous course to the current course,
  2. cleaning out the handin directory, then
  3. visiting the "Install Assessment" page and selecting "Option 2: Import an existing assessment from the file system." Autolab will give you a list of all of the directories that appear to be uninstalled labs, from which you can select your particular lab.

If you don't have access to the lab directory, another option is to import a lab from a tarball that was created by running "Export assessment" in an instance of a lab from a previous semester. Visit the "Install Assessment" page and select "Option 3: Import an existing assessment from tarball." This will upload the tarball, create a new lab directory by expanding the tarball, and then import the directory.

Example: Hello Lab

In this section we'll look at the simplest possible autograded lab we could imagine, called, appropriately enough, the Hello Lab (with tarball), which is stored in a lab directory called hello in the Autolab github repo. While it's trivial, it illustrates all of the aspects of developing an autograded lab, and provides a simple example that you can use for sanity testing on your Autolab installation.

In this lab, students are asked to write a version of the K&R "hello, world" program, called hello.c. The autograder simply checks that the submitted hello.c program compiles and runs with an exit status of zero. If so, the submission gets 100 points. Otherwise it gets 0 points.

Directory Structure

Autolab expects to find the autograde-Makefileand autograde.tar files in the hello lab directory, but otherwise places no constraints on the contents and organization of this directory. However, based on our experience, we strongly recommend a directory structure with the following form:


# Basic files created by the lab author
Makefile                Builds the lab from src/
autograde-Makefile      Makefile that runs the autograder 
src/                    Contains all src files and solutions         
test-autograder/        For testing autograder offline
writeup/                Lab writeup that students view from Autolab    

# Files created by running make
hello-handout/          The directory that is handed out to students, created
                        using files from src/. 
hello-handout.tar       Archive of hello-handout directory
autograde.tar           File that is copied to the autograding instance 
                        (along with autograde-Makefile and student handin file)

# Files created and managed by Autolab
handin/    All students handin files
hello.rb   Config file
hello.yml  Database properties that persist from semester to semester
log.txt    Log of autograded submissions

The key idea with this directory structure is to place all code for the lab in the src directory, including the autograding code and any starter code handed out to students in the handout directory (hello-handout.tar in this example). Keeping all hard state in the src directory helps limit inconsistencies.

The main makefile creates hello-handout by copying files from src, and then tars it up:


# Makefile to manage the example Hello Lab

# Get the name of the lab directory
LAB = $(notdir $(PWD))

all: handout handout-tarfile

    # Rebuild the handout directory that students download
    (rm -rf $(LAB)-handout; mkdir $(LAB)-handout)
    cp -p src/Makefile-handout $(LAB)-handout/Makefile
    cp -p src/README-handout $(LAB)-handout/README
    cp -p src/hello.c-handout $(LAB)-handout/hello.c 
    cp -p src/ $(LAB)-handout

handout-tarfile: handout
    # Build *-handout.tar and autograde.tar
    tar cvf $(LAB)-handout.tar $(LAB)-handout
    cp -p $(LAB)-handout.tar autograde.tar

    # Clean the entire lab directory tree.  Note that you can run
    # "make clean; make" at any time while the lab is live with no
    # adverse effects.
    rm -f *~ *.tar
    (cd src; make clean)
    (cd test-autograder; make clean)
    rm -rf $(LAB)-handout
    rm -f autograde.tar
# CAREFULL!!! This will delete all student records in the logfile and
# in the handin directory. Don't run this once the lab has started.
# Use it to clean the directory when you are starting a new version
# of the lab from scratch, or when you are debugging the lab prior
# to releasing it to the students.
    # Reset the lab from scratch.
    make clean
    rm -f log.txt
    rm -rf handin/*

Filenames are disambiguated by appending -handout, which is stripped when they are copied to the handout directory. For example, src/hello.c is the instructor's solution file, and src/hello.c-handout is the starter code that is given to the students in hello-handout/hello.c. And src/README is the README for the src directory and src/README-handout is the README that is handed out to students in hello-handout/README.

To build the lab, type make clean; make. You can do this as often as you like while the lab is live with no adverse effects. However, be careful to never type make cleanallfiles while the lab is live; this should only be done before the lab goes live; never during or after.

Source Directory

The hello/src/ directory contains all of the code files for the Hello Lab, including the files that are handed out to students:


# Autograder and solution files
Makefile                Makefile and ...
README                  ... README for this directory*              Autograder
hello.c                 Solution hello.c file

# Files that are handed out to students
Makefile-handout        Makefile and ...
README-handout          ... README handed out to students
hello.c-handout         Blank hello.c file handed out to students

Handout Directory

The hello/hello-handout/ directory contains the files that the students will use to work on the lab. It contains no hard state, and is populated entirely with files from hello/src:


For this lab, you should write a tiny C program, called "hello.c",
that prints "hello, world" to stdout and then indicates success by
exiting with a status of zero.

To test your work: 
$ make clean; make; ./hello

To run the same autograder that Autolab will use when you submit:
$ ./

README          This file
Makefile        Compiles hello.c       Autolab autograder
hello.c         Empty C file that you will edit

hello/hello-handout/Makefile contains the rules that compile the student source code:

# Student makefile for the Hello Lab
    gcc hello.c -o hello

    rm -rf *~ hello

To compile and run their code, students type:

$ make clean; make
$ ./hello


The autograder for the Hello Lab is a trivially simple bash script called that compiles and runs hello.c and verifies that it returns with an exit status of zero:



# - The simplest autograder we could think of. It checks
#   that students can write a C program that compiles, and then
#   executes with an exit status of zero.
#   Usage: ./

# Compile the code
echo "Compiling hello.c"
(make clean; make)
if [ ${status} -ne 0 ]; then
    echo "Failure: Unable to compile hello.c (return status = ${status})"
    echo "{\"scores\": {\"Correctness\": 0}}"

# Run the code
echo "Running ./hello"
if [ ${status} -eq 0 ]; then
    echo "Success: ./hello runs with an exit status of 0"
    echo "{\"scores\": {\"Correctness\": 100}}"
    echo "Failure: ./hello fails or returns nonzero exit status of ${status}"
    echo "{\"scores\": {\"Correctness\": 0}}"


For example:

$ ./
# Compiling hello.c
# rm -rf *~ hello
# gcc hello.c -o hello
# Running ./hello
# Hello, world
# Success: ./hello runs with an exit status of 0
# {"scores": {"Correctness": 100}}

Notice that the autograder expects the hello lab on the Autolab front-end to have been defined with a problem called "Correctness", with a maximum value of 100 points. If you forget to define the problems listed in the JSON autoresult, scores will still be logged, but they won't be posted to the database.

Required Autograding Files

Autolab requires two autograding files called autograde.tar, which contains all of the code required by the autograder, and autograde-Makefile, which runs the autograder on the autograding image when each submission is graded.

For the Hello Lab, autograde.tar is simply a copy of the hello-handout.tar file that is handed out to students. And here is the corresponding hello/autograde-makefile:

    tar xvf autograde.tar
    cp hello.c hello-handout
    (cd hello-handout; ./

    rm -rf *~ hello-handout

The makefile expands autograde.tar into hello-handout, copies hello.c (the submission file) into hello-handout, changes directory to hello-handout, builds the autograder, and then runs it.

Test Directory

For our labs, we like to setup a test directory (called test-autograder in this example), that allows us to test our autograde-Makefile and autograde-tar files by simulating Autolab's behavior on the autograding instance. The test-autograder directory has the following form:

$ cd test-autograder
$ ls -l
# total 3
# lrwxr-xr-x 1 droh users  21 Aug  4 16:43 Makefile -> ../autograde-Makefile
# lrwxr-xr-x 1 droh users  16 Aug  4 16:43 autograde.tar -> ../autograde.tar
# -rw-rw-r-- 1 droh users 113 Aug  4 16:44 hello.c

To simulate Autolab's behavior on an autograding instance:

$ cd test-autograder && make clean && make
# Running ./hello
# Hello, world
# Success: ./hello runs with an exit status of 0
# {"scores": {"Correctness": 100}}

Writeup directory

The hello/writeup contains the detailed lab writeup, either html or pdf file, that students can download from the Autolab front end.