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Microsoft Word is the standard product for documents in my department as far as the administration is concerned. Final exams go through a work-flow that involves department secretaries creating a standard cover page, professors providing "content", and the final product is approved by the department chair. In 2001, this was OK. Now, after having used online course systems such as Moodle with question banks, I find it really frustrating.

Word has been inadequate (for my exam preparation) for years. Here are some of the reasons:

  • There's no template (.dot or .dotx) file that contains the formatting information for that which is a university exam, including styles for short-answer questions, multiple-choice, essay, etc. Secretaries just send me last semester's exam, with the updated cover page, and I'm asked to update the content of my exam. I once attempted to define numbered questions in Word styles, but the Word styles have become polluted over the semesters (especially when other instructors are involved, who may or may not use Word styles properly). It's a nightmare to try to strip out the junk (especially since the cover page has some formatting styles that get introduced). Sadly, most secretaries use Word as a kind of hi-tech typewriter, and there's no separation of content from presentation. A template idea means nothing (which is a human problem).
  • Although there is auto-numbering for questions/pages/etc., I haven't found a way to automatically number the various question types, e.g., essay questions, multiple-choice questions along with the answers to questions, keeping them all on the same page, etc. Again, the result winds up being some hacked-up typewritten solution where one must manually re-start numbering at the proper place, etc. Moving or adding a question or answer is disruptive. I'm sure there's a clean way to do this, but I've never had the time to grok it or found the .dot/.dotx file that made it easy in Word. Customizing lists is a nightmare in Word (it has to be done with care or the numbering is all wrong). Surely someone has solved this problem for exams!
  • Exams are manually graded, so it's very useful to have grader zones to keep track of points when marking. The solution is to make a Word table on the cover page (or the last page) and update it for each question and its value. Again, it's a failure (to me) that in 2015 we must update these tables manually when the points/question or order of questions change. We're basically using Word as a typewriter despite the power of Microsoft. I tried in the past (2005?) to use Word variables for the point-values in questions, but short of writing a macro in VB, I wasn't able to generate a grading table automatically.

So, along comes a graduate teaching assistant who points me to the exam class in LaTeX. Awesome! It solves all of the above problems! Except, it's a LaTeX environment, and that's going to cause problems with the non-technical part of our exam workflow. Getting the secretaries (or technicians) to 1) install the proper LaTeX environment on their machines or 2) to learn to use typesetting language is going to be a barrier for several reasons. What's more, I'm pretty sure I'll get stuck maintaining the cover page for the entire university in LaTeX if I convinced them to go down that road (the post-doc who created the LaTeX style for a PhD thesis here got stuck with supporting it).

Even the more use-friendly LyX is too much, because of the complex installation in Windows. The Exam layout for LyX is far from easy to use (there are a lot of embedded LaTeX commands still necessary).

Screenshot of LyX exam style

But the exam class in LaTeX is awesome -- here are just a couple of examples:

different styles of questions

Exam class gradetable option

I started using Word in 1984 with 5 1/4" floppies, before a mouse was needed (it was optional). I remember thinking how cool the idea of paragraph styles was... They have existed since then. But where is the Word equivalent of the Exam class from LaTeX? Did it die when Framemaker was bought by Adobe in the 1990s?

OpenOffice has a couple of templates, but they're specific for styles of questions (e.g., Multiple-choice template, Essay template).

What powerful exam template do you use that's secretary-friendly?

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    Word processing programs just do not have a document class concept. The best way to make them work like LaTeX is to turn them into LaTeX. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 6 '15 at 22:04
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    As far as I know, my department doesn't provide secretarial help for preparing exams (except possibly in huge multi-section courses, but probably not even there). I prepare my own exams in LaTeX, without even the benefit of template (except for copying last semester's exam and deleting all the content). It works for me; maybe it would work for you. – Andreas Blass Jul 7 '15 at 0:07
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    Final exams go through a work-flow that involves department secretaries creating a standard cover page, professors providing "content", and the final product is approved by the department chair. — [shudder] – JeffE Jul 7 '15 at 3:16
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    Can you generate the whole thing into a PDF, in LyX or LaTaX and then get the sectary to give feedback as a PDF comment then update it? Then they only need a pdf view like adobe or foxit – Lyndon White Jul 7 '15 at 6:30
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    I think "[crappy situation]...despite the power of Microsoft" must be a typo for "...because of the power of Microsoft". – potentially dense Jul 7 '15 at 9:55
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So, you want LaTeX without having to write LaTeX. The solution? Write a LaTeX code generator!

You don't seem to have many different kinds of questions, so your user can input them through a form, similar to how Google Docs works. Then, compile. Last time I tried, MikTeX was pretty straightforward to install on Windows, and it will automatically download necessary packages as needed. Another alternative is to offer it as a webserver.

  • Isn't LyX a LaTeX code generator? Anyway, I like the idea, but it's still only half-baked. There are more and more online LaTeX environments being made available. – Fuhrmanator Jul 7 '15 at 3:25
  • LyX generates LaTeX code, but it is a lot more powerful/general that what Davidmh is suggesting. – Lyndon White Jul 7 '15 at 6:15
  • @Fuhrmanator you need only three or four kinds of templates. The backend is just a few lines of code. To your user you don't expose a full LaTeX environment, but just an interface that lets you choose type of question (free text, multiple choice...), and a box for the text. – Davidmh Jul 7 '15 at 9:29
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For LyX, I created my own, improved exam.layout (available on GitHub) that uses LaTeX's exam class and it's working well (although LyX does have its quirks).

It's documented in exam_layout_doc.lyx and a sample is included as sample_exam.lyx.

Here's an example from the cover page (based on the Exam Class samples in its documentation):

enter image description here

... and some questions:

enter image description here

Not all Exam Class features are supported, but a lot of things are doable from LyX with my layout file.

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