I feel that this topic is important enough to deserve its own page, rather than having bits and pieces be scattered across many answers and comments.

It is inevitable that many students will come to math.stackexchange to ask homework questions. We need to agree on a single policy to handle such questions.

  • What types of homework questions should and should not be allowed?
  • What type of answers should be given?
  • Which are more appropriate to leave as a comment on the question?
  • What about people who decided to pick up a copy of x book on their own, and are asking problems from the textbook?
  • To what extent is it the responsibility of the community to handle cheating? What even counts as cheating?

For reference, the StackOverflow homework policy is available here.


I will answer the points in order:

1) I think it would be unreasonable to pick a particular difficulty of class and say that everything under that level is off-limits. It seems too arbitrary. I think a good benchmark for whether or not a question is appropriate should be gauged by the amount of effort the person has put into asking the question. If asking a question requires the person to put REAL work into asking, this will deter many people from just dumping their HW on here. For instance, a college algebra student doesn't know how to factor a cubic. If that student says "I have tried rational coefficients, and I got blah blah, I tried guessing a root to reduce down to a quadratic with long division but couldn't find a root blah blah. I also did blah blah" Then clearly the student has put some thought into the problem. This is what I would consider the absolute minimum required to help them. By encouraging them to think for themselves and ask robust questions, we will deter the kind of questions we don't want, and encourage those we do.

2) I think the answer should be very dependent on the style of question asked. If it is clear the question is not HW, answer in great detail. If there is a chance that it is HW, attempt to troubleshoot the issue they are having. Identify where they are going wrong/failing to see the idea and address that. Again, make them work a little for their info. If they really care about the answer, this will be worth it to them.

3) If it is impossible to address the question without a complete solution, or the solution is so trivial that it fits in a comment box, then why not just comment? The reputation for answering these questions shouldn't motivate you that much. Everyone should be their own judge if they "deserve" rep for an answer. Links to answers should always be comments, save the case when the question was a reference-request.

4) If they are doing self-study, they should be more than capable to make their question convey that they have put some effort in. Additionally, if they are motivated to do this self-study, they will be motivated to make their question better and get more interesting answers.

5) See 1)

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    $\begingroup$ I wish I could up vote this 100 times in a row. $\endgroup$ – Tom Stephens Jul 21 '10 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ Same here. This is exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned the distinction between "level" and "quality". $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 21 '10 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with this 100%. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 22 '10 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ Coming here for answers to homework without putting any work into the homework is clear abuse of the system. These are nice measures to prevent that from happening. +1 $\endgroup$ – Justin L. Jul 22 '10 at 1:49

Questions that are clearly homework (tagged homework, asker refers to it as homework in the question) should not receive an answer that could be copied verbatim and submitted as a solution. If this happens, flag the question and answer for moderator attention. Downvoting the answer should also help to discourage such behavior.
If a question looks suspiciously like homework but is not tagged, comment on the question, asking for elaboration before posting a detailed answer.
If the asker claims the question is not homework ("it was on a past exam," "I am studying this on my own," etc), trust the asker. Policing cheating is outside the scope of this site, and such students will find other ways to cheat anyways.
If the question is trivial (could be solved by typing it into wolfram, etc), close it and leave a comment explaining why (could be link to faq).

  • $\begingroup$ I think that this jives with my post +1 $\endgroup$ – BBischof Jul 21 '10 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ @BBischof: I was typing it at the same time. Feel free to merge it (I think answers should detail specific user actions: flag these, don't flag these, etc) into your own answer and I can delete this one. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 21 '10 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't mean it that way, I think it is ok as a second answer. My post is a bit more sweeping, so some may disagree with some of my points, but not this. I would hate to limit the viewpoints. And "neener neener neener, I type faster..." $\endgroup$ – BBischof Jul 21 '10 at 23:15

Excellent answers by @BBischof & @Kaestur. Two proposed measures for how to deal with answers to homework questions, building on Kaestur's suggestion, that emphasise options other than calling in the moderators.

  1. Encourage answerers, with complaints and downvotes, to remove inappropriate, non-troubleshooting detail from their answers;
  2. Allow third-party edits of such answers to do this, in spite of the general injucntion to respect the intent of answererers over their answers;
  3. I think these measures are enough, but there is the option of deleting questions and answers open to 10k users as well as moderators.

It's important to be firm here, since nothing encourages bad homework questions so much as there being a history of them receiving "an answer that could be copied verbatim and submitted as a solution." Community justice is also good, rather than relying on moderators. We might also benefit from having a special close reason for unadvertised homework questions.


I like a point "Ask about specific problems with your existing implementation. If you can't do that yet, try some more of your own work first or searching for more general help." from the StackOverflow discussion. I believe that what we're doing now is more like (in StackOverflow terms) "writing code (= solution) for the asker".

Probably an equivalent for StackOverflow policy would be answering questions about problems with solutions of homework problem (something like "I did such-and-such but resulting answer is clearly wrong even for n=1. Where is my mistake?") but question just asking for the solution of some standard homework problems (like, say, "Can anyone show the set of polynomials of degree 2 does not behave as a vector space?") should, I believe, be immediately closed.


I think that homework should be banned. That's not to say that people can't ask questions based on homework for a key step (even this is not banned on MO). The point here is that we don't want people asking us questions directly off of the homework sheet.

  • $\begingroup$ @Harry: It is not always easy to tell $\endgroup$ – Casebash Jul 24 '10 at 7:04
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    $\begingroup$ You're wrong, absolutely wrong. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Harry/97832123: Why is he wrong? Consider my 4th bullet point. What's the difference between someone taking real analysis and someone who picked up a copy of little Rudin for fun? $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ @978/Harry: Believe it or not, some people take classes because they are interested in learning the material, and those people can still get stuck and ask for help. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Kaestur: Anyone who is interested in the material can give enough background on the problem and make it not look like a homework problem. If you copy a problem from your homework and just ask for the answer, then you're doing it wrong and are clearly not motivated enough to at least give it a shot. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ @978/Harry: If you read the other responses here, nobody has said we should do people's homework for them before they show us that they have already made an earnest effort. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Kaestur: We shouldn't be doing people's homework regardless. We can explain specific points, but we should not be in the position where we're doing other people's homework. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 20:48

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