Questionmark provides scalable, flexible solution for top research University


One of the top 10 research universities in the UK, the University of Southampton, has achieved consistently high scores for its teaching and learning activities, and has a global reputation for leading-edge research and innovation. 


Founded as the Hartley Institution in 1862, the University has nearly 20,000 students and 5,000 staff across several campuses in Southampton and Winchester. The University has more than 20 Academic Schools organised into three Faculties, and over 40 research centres and Institutes.

The search for a ‘best of breed’ assessment solution leads to Questionmark

Southampton was seeking additional assessment functionalities to handle larger scale assessments that were not available within their existing systems.


When looking for a system to work alongside Blackboard, Questionmark stood out as the obvious solution: “We were looking for a best of breed solution which would combine the ease of use of Blackboard with multi-functionality and flexibility – the ‘Swiss army knife’ nature of Questionmark meant that it fitted the bill best”, recalls Dr Bill Warburton who is the University’s CAA Officer. 


Questionmark also had the support of staff within the University who had knowledge of the software prior to it being installed and saw its potential: “The University’s Learning and Teaching Centre polled academics working here and came to the view that Questionmark was the heaviest duty assessment application available and would provide the best scalability and flexibility”, notes Bill.

Managed Learning Environment makes the most of Questionmark's flexibility

Following the success of the pilot programme, Blackboard and Questionmark are being combined into a managed learning environment (MLE), which integrates their student record system, VLE and assessment systems. “Student data is only entered into the system once and is then held in student record system. Assessments can then be delivered from Questionmark and the results can be fed into the record system without the need for error-prone manual transcription”, comments Bill.

Questionmark used for diagnostic and summative tests

Questionmark is now used throughout the University for diagnostic, formative and summative tests, with only two schools out of 22 not using the system at present. As the University has increased its use of Questionmark in recent years it has moved from a shared database server to a dedicated server. “We have no latency issues with the database as far as presenting exams is concerned”, comments Bill. 


The busiest application use is in the school of nursing, which uses Questionmark for their drug dosage calculation test.  Nurses have to demonstrate that they can calculate the correct dosage for patients using mental arithmetic.

Questionmark is also used by the School of Nursing and Midwifery to test applied knowledge. For example, some diagnostic skills are tested online using questions containing video clips of real (unidentifiable) patients. 


Bill says; “There are things you can do with Questionmark you really couldn’t do with any other commonly available application, for example, animations, plus drag and drop questions.  Feedback is highly configurable which is particularly valuable in Formative testing”.


In another example of how the software is used for declarative learning, Spanish BA students are put into appropriate sets after completing extensive ‘fill in the blank’ questions where they are required to produce the right inflections for prompted verbs.

Multiple reporting options

Southampton’s Managed Learning Environment also includes Questionmark's detailed, flexible reporting function, which has 11 pre-defined reports that allows the University to analyse and drill down on results. “We can generate many different kinds of reports from the system”, comments Bill. “For example, the score list report allows us to drill down into student reports for individual feedback. The item analysis report is used to give an indication of the difficulty of our tests and to help validate our tests internally and externally. Half of the reports generated here are for the survey report, and we will be putting a new version of this report into operation as soon as we can.” 

Questionmark's scalability allows usage to double in just one year

The University has made cost and time savings in assessments using Questionmark, particularly with students at the start of their University courses. “The system is particularly beneficial in terms of productivity where we have large undergraduate cohorts, such as in our school of management and school of nursing, which has over 600 in each”, observes Bill. “We are currently looking at running the drug dosage calculation test across the region in a one hour slot. The biggest test would have to be delivered to 200 respondents all in one go.” 


Usage continues to grow and the strength in the system’s scalability is proving invaluable: “We are continuing to scale up our usage of Questionmark across the University”, comments Bill. “The number of test takers has gone up from 3,000 last year to 5,000 this year and 24,000 tests were delivered between March 2006 and April 2007.” The University upgraded to version 4 of Questionmark 18 months ago and currently has 170 active authors.


Questionmark is now starting to be used in some postgraduate courses and the University also has future plans to use Questionmark in different language formats to assist the growing numbers of Chinese students admitted to courses there.