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Update: November 2017

This is not a duplicate of A Consolidated Homework Policy . The latter states that its concern is the issue of: "how to consolidate and enforce our homework policy". My question is not interested in either consolidation nor enforcement; nor has it been interested in those issues for the last 3 years.


I realise that the issue of homework has been raised before. My reason for raising it again is the plethora of homework questions that are posed as "Questions" such as:

Here is my question. This is what I have done. I'm stuck. What do I do next?

Some examples:

Joint density of two functions of random variable

https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/750773/compare-two-estimators-by-using-the-their-expected-value-and-variances

Let $Y_1, Y_2,\ldots,Y_n$ denote a random sample from the uniform distrib... Help find finding $ \text{Var}\left[\hat{\theta}_{2}\right]$

https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/751727/how-to-find-e-hat-theta-frac-n-sum-i-1n-ln-y-i-1

Homework is plainly intended to be done by the student ... not 'contracted' out to anyone willing to do it for you on the internet. Sometimes, the same student poses question after question from the same assignment up here ... and what is then left for the student to do? To copy and paste???

And unfortunately, there are people here who are quite willing to do other people's homework for them, which (a) unfairly meddles with the university's ability to assess/mark the student, and (b) meddles with the ability of the student to learn to think for themselves. To the extent that this site has a structure that encourages and perpetuates such behaviour, math.SE is also responsible for such meddling.

None of this is new. What is new is the scale of the problem ... to the extent that this site appears to becoming abused as some sort of "Help Me With My Homework" repository, and many of the questions posed are not even of any genuine interest.

I would be interested if others have suggestions to circumvent same ... including thoughts on listing homework problems as unsuitable for this site.


Identification problems

Arthur Fischer asks:

"Exactly how are we to discern questions which come from assignments" ... from self-help assignments etc.

A similar issue has recently arisen in international banking with money transfers to Nigeria. It turns out that a large proportion of international transfers to Nigeria are from people who are being defrauded in various scams (from dating sites, phishing scams etc). Of course, some are legitimate transfers, and some are not ... and there is an identification problem. "How are we to tell?", say the banks, who have done very little to stop the abuse. And the solution that has been suggested is for Time Delays: the transfer is placed subject to a 7 day stop gap. So, in similar fashion, how about:

1. TIME DELAY

Homework-style questions could be marked with a time delay ... which means that answers only appear after say 7 days (a bit like the existing HOLD system). Thus, the person interested in a subject for self-help purposes still gets their answer (just with a short delay), but the student seeking to get someone else to do their assignment work done for them, or who is stuck on the tricky part of tomorrow's assignment etc ... will find it much more difficult to exploit the kindness of others, and sidestep the university's ability to assess the quality of the student's own work.

Policing is not our business

@BillDubuque says homework is antiquated, and policing is not our problem. This seems confused on several levels.
Nightclubs often argue: yup - people trade drugs here, but policing is not our problem. Similarly, ISPs often argue: sure, people use our services to host pirate sites, but policing is not our problem. Those views don't tend to hold up when contested in courts. Either way, it seems to fundamentally miss the point that it is not about policing necessarily for someone else's benefit (the university and/or the student) ... but a question of structuring the site to the site's own benefit, rather than being so open to abuse.

Because if the trend continues, and the ratio of interesting questions / homework questions continues to decline ... the smart interesting people will move somewhere else, and this site may end up like various other ask.com type sites filled with low quality questions and low quality answers.

Signal to noise ratio

@user7530 raises the issue of a declining signal to noise ratio. In particular, he notes:

"I've noticed that a larger proportion of non-elementary questions get 0 votes,0 comments, 0 answers than ever before"

On this very subject, have a look at this question which has just been PUT ON HOLD by 5 moderators/users who should know much better:

https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/758817/pdf-of-x-y-x-y-when-x-and-y-are-independent-normal

The question asked might look trivial ... but it is far from trivial, and indeed it is, I think, one of the few genuinely interesting questions posed to this site in this field in recent days. And yet these 5 moderators/users have placed it on hold, with the intention to delete it, while simultaneously leaving in place all the mediocre textbook rubbish that clutters up the place, while they delete the genuine gem of a question. What I suspect is happening here is that these particular moderators/users - presumably with the best of intentions - are simply being worn down by hundreds if not thousands of elementary homework questions, they see a question that appears elementary (when it is not) ... see a new user come along asking it, and immediately smack that person for not saying: 'I tried this or I tried that' ... when the latter is itself just more clutter. A most unpleasant outcome indeed.

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    $\begingroup$ Although I think I'm pretty strong in my opinions regarding unmotivated and homework questions, I think that well-asked questions involving the asker's efforts are a very good thing. Also, many people don't give full solutions for homework problems, but give a significant hint and perhaps discuss it with the OP. If a professor wants to prevent students from receiving outside help, that's a policy that should be set at the university or class level - not here. Regardless, I really don't see that the scale has changed much recently. $\endgroup$ – user61527 Apr 13 '14 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly how are we to discern questions which come from assignments which are to be handed in and make up a portion of a student's final grade, questions that have been assigned as "suggested problems" but answers to which will not affect a student's final grade in the least, questions from a text that go beyond those that are assigned as even "suggested problems", and questions someone asks while individually going through a text? $\endgroup$ – user642796 Apr 13 '14 at 6:28
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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't you say, wolfies, that in all three questions you site, OP has shown quite a bit of effort? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Apr 13 '14 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see anything wrong with helping a student with her homework. I do see something wrong with writing out a full answer needing only a cut'n'paste to be handed in. I'm more sympathetic to a student who has already made part of the journey herself, than with a student who hasn't even begun to think about the problem. I'm not sure I have answered your question. (I trust your question isn't homework from some math education class you're taking.) $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Apr 13 '14 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ My understanding is: the purpose of MSE is a repository of question/answer pairs so that other people with similar questions can find their answer. The answer here is never intended solely for the questioner. At the end, if a student cheat, get his/her homework done here without learning anything. He/she won't get away without a price. He/she will become less competitive and face the real punishment once they leave the ivory tower and into the real world. There is no free lunch and I won't feel sorry for their future. $\endgroup$ – achille hui Apr 13 '14 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ @achille: Even if they are "less competitive" overall, higher grades still give you a better chance of getting a foot in the door, at which point they automatically beat out anyone who is "more competitive" but failed to manage that first step. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 13 '14 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ @wolfies Here's a better analogy than nightclubs and drugs: math, chemistry, etc. can be used by terrorists to design weapons of mass destruction. Do you propose, similarly, that SE sites should censor discussion of any scientific knowledge that could possibly be used in such a destructive manner, or do you think that there are better ways to solve these problems, e.g. at the source? $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 13 '14 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @wolfies Exactly the same math, chemistry, physics etc is used for constructive and destructive purposes. For a simpler analogy, consider hammers or knives. Do you propose that stores should not sell them to anyone who "looks like" they might use them for nefarious purposes? Exactly the same math problems are studied by those doing homework and those self-studying. The problem is not with the dissemination of knowledge (MSE's purpose). Rather, it is with how that knowledge is later used. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 13 '14 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see this as a discussion in libertarian philosophy. It's just a question of creating an interesting and successful structure that keeps things genuine, purposeful and honest. If your question is: "Do I think it would be a good idea for people to have to wait 7 days before they can get a gun in a gun store" ... my answer is YES $\endgroup$ – wolfies Apr 13 '14 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ Waiting 7 days as a selflearner seems absurdly long to me. Many books use results of exercises in the main text. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Apr 13 '14 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: A filter that could separate "I want someone to do my homework for me" from other questions would, I expect, be an amazing triumph of artificial intelligence, not some routine "just implement it you SE guys" request (although admittedly, filtering away questions that do not contain '?' would get a decent portion, and likely with few false positives). And ignoring cheating doesn't solve the problem of there being cheating anyways. Why not look for a way to create a collection of "proofs from The Book" that doesn't involve following the path towards turning MSE into a homework factory? $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 13 '14 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ And is a collection of "proofs by the book" (what does that actually mean anyways?) actually desirable on MSE anyways? MSE is a Q&A site, not a textbook, and in the case of homework questions, people are coming here because seeing "proofs by the book" have not given them what they needed to be able to solve similar proofs on their own. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 13 '14 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is not "homework". We have no idea which problems are homework anyway. However, basic questions that show no effort are flawed regardless whether they are homework or not. If an asker doesn't take time to think through the issues are write a good question, there is little reason to think our answers will help. On the other hand, if the asker has a homework question, but they have worked on it and can say exactly where they are stuck, then they are in a perfect position to ask here and get help. The question/answer process is a conversation of sorts, not a quiz for answerers. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 13 '14 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: My dream of the site does not include me contributing to a homework factory. How do I do that with tagging and filtering? Note that simply ignoring "do my homework" questions is not enough: my participation in other questions will still help a factory prosper. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 14 '14 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: What could be done to retain what you want MSE to be, without requiring that everyone else find ways to work around what they don't want from MSE? What changes could you make to your behavior? What changes could we make to the things you want to change them so they don't bother others? I don't think I've ever heard you contribute anything along those lines; it's always how to change everyone else to accommodate what you want. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 14 '14 at 0:49
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It's a big problem. A while ago there was a big push to close all obvious homework questions, with no evidence of student effort, as "not enough context" but that drive seems to have dissipated.

I've noticed that a larger proportion of non-elementary questions get 0 votes, 0 comments, 0 answers than ever before (sometimes even for questions with large bounties!) and I can't help but think the question signal to noise ratio has something to do with it. It's true that the number of answers and votes on the site has declined across the board, but it's really the deeper questions that suffer the most (that the "do this homework for me" questions now receive 2 upvotes and 1 answer instead of 15 upvotes and 3 answers doesn't really bother the students much.) It's a shame, I think.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with you about the interesting questions. I myself don't care about pedagogical arguments, but I am finding it harder and harder to navigate this site as the clutter is becoming overwhelming. In conclusion I just come here less often. $\endgroup$ – user2055 Apr 19 '14 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ If people can't find the interesting, non-trivial, non-homework questions because there are too many lame questions, maybe this should be fixed in software (improving searching, tagging and suggesting) or by rebalancing the rep system. Not by creating unenforceable rules. $\endgroup$ – jwg Apr 22 '14 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding your first point: I didn't realize that there was some sort of deliberate push to close those questions, but I have, much to my regret, observed that seemingly fewer people now vote to close those questions. I wonder why that is. $\endgroup$ – Stefan Mesken Nov 16 '17 at 21:59
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There seem to be (at least) two main categories of user that answers questions here: (1) users who view MSE as a place to teach, and (2) users that view MSE as a quiz site/rep game. I'd wager that the overwhelming majority of answers are given by those in group (2) that neither care about, nor even realize that the arguments being waged on meta exist. The result of the SE platform design is "press button, receive answer" for askers, and "provide answer, receive reputation" for those that answer. Combine this gamification with the nature of both the subject and the modern student and you have a war against homework that was (imho) lost a long time ago. Had the site been steered in another direction before critical mass was hit (as physics.se), then perhaps things might have turned out differently but at this point stopping the homework is (imho) like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

It's tricky to decide whether "abuse" is a word that applies here as MSE is both a platform and its users. The platform is uncaring and its intended use is whatever the community decides it should be. Even if the community on meta could come to something remotely resembling an agreement on what direction MSE should take, I doubt a dent could be put in what happens on the main site...homework questions, being the low hanging fruit, have complete answers within seconds of posting. Sure, they can be put on hold after receiving answers, but again: toothpaste and tube.

Summary: I'm not sure that homework for reputation is (any longer) an abuse of the site, but rather an inevitable consequence of momentum, numbers, and design.

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    $\begingroup$ So what's the solution? Start a new stack exchange, "mathematics questions that are not homework, and also not research-level questions in areas of pure mathematics?" $\endgroup$ – user7530 Apr 16 '14 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ @user7530 The solution is much more powerful crowdsourced filtering, so you see only what interests you. But good luck convincing SE to implement that since they don't seem very responsive to feature requests. We could implement it on our own, as a front-end to the site. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 16 '14 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ +1. Not because I like what you have to say, but because I feel it's accurate. I came back to MSE once I realized that the community had finally settled upon being antagonistic towards these questions, but I've increasingly been feeling that MSE is simply a lost cause. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 16 '14 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl +1 to your +1. For the record, I have no issue with guidance being sought by, or guidance being given to students. I do that for a living. In my ideal world that would happen constantly here, and students would walk away from MSE with more knowledge than they came with. Unfortunately (to me) in most cases they simply walk away with a solution and nothing more and I choose not to participate in a meaningful way here because of that. $\endgroup$ – Scott H. Apr 16 '14 at 4:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Scott H.: one meaningful way to participate is to leave the bad questions to people seeking reputation, and only answer questions from time to time when the questions are particularly interesting. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 16 '14 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ There is also category (3), users who just come here for online discussion of mathematics, whether it be problem solving or (soft-questions) and (big-lists); who don't care about the reputation system; and also do not care about any issue connected to homework (except insofar as the agitas related to that subject creates irritating voting and commenting behavior on the main site, and politics on the meta site). Note that "don't care" does not imply any apathy or nihilism, just a disinterest in the two named subjects. $\endgroup$ – zyx Apr 17 '14 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ I'll add category (4): users who buy into the Stack Exchange model of a repository of knowledge with high signal/noise ratio. Repetitive, routine homework-like questions inflate the total size of database without any new knowledge being added to it. They decrease the signal/noise ration, and with it, the value of the site. $\endgroup$ – user127096 Apr 20 '14 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ What about category (5) users? They don't particularly care about reputation, but they find that they need a reasonably high reputation to use the site the way they want to. For instance, to make a small correction to an answer (which might be a mathematically important typo), they have to have 2,000. If they question this, they are told by the site's founder to suck it up and earn 2k. So they have to answer PSQs whether they think it is helpful or not. $\endgroup$ – jwg Apr 22 '14 at 8:57
  • $\begingroup$ What if the system were altered so that questions by new users cannot earn people rep points for their answers unless either the question or their answer get a certain number of upvotes? Basically, assume that new users are likely to be asking homework questions unless the community judges it to be otherwise, and take away the motivation for people to answer the questions as quickly as possible for the rep points. Of course, to earn rep points (and thus cease to be a "new user"), you have to either answer questions yourself, or ask interesting questions. Would this not solve the problem? $\endgroup$ – Glen O Apr 25 '14 at 13:11
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My perspective on this, as a fairly new user, is that you must assess your priorities. I'm a first year undergrad, and amongst my friends there are two different sorts of mathematicians: those who do the vast majority of the weekly homeworks themselves, and put in a decent amount of effort on all the questions, and those who do the bare minimum needed to stay afloat, often copying others homework and aiming to pass with a minimum level of time invested. Unfortunately, the first group is definitely the smaller of the two. On this site, the homework questions do tend to follow that same pattern: the well thought out questions are fewer than the bluntly stated ones. One of my friends showed me the profile of a student clearly from my year group who had been asking nearly all the assessed questions on MSE every week: no doubt he belonged to the second group.

How should we respond to these questions? A kneejerk reaction would be to down vote them, or remove them and leave these questions unanswered. Ultimately, this helps no one. The student who's looking for a quick answer will probably find one anyway, or just give up and nothing will be gained. Come the end of the year, they will fail their exam (regardless of whether an answer is given) and so the question is moot. The honest student who is genuinely stuck might have his question mislabelled as simply fishing for answers, and lose out on the opportunity to enrich his understanding.

Furthermore, what is easy for some is difficult for others, and a question that appears to be without attempt is often because the asker lacks the basic understanding of what is being asked of them. These are the questioners that need our help most, not least. I'd rather make sure we help those that genuinely need help, and if that means that we help those who are trying to "cheat" there way, then so be it. Maths is a largely examined subject in the long run anyway, so those who slide along doing the bare minimum will still be properly tested on their understanding anyway.

So what action should we take? The main issue is not that these questions get too much attention, but that other more challenging or more conceptual questions get too little. As answerers, that is where the focus should be. Supply quick answers to poor questions that are homework issues (if it pleases you to do so), and spend more time answering and upvoting the better questions.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that you can't just look at individual questions in isolation: you have to look at them as a whole, and what effect our reactions to them have. And you can't just look at one side of the issue either. The more obvious, serious drawbacks are that if "bluntly stated" questions are rewarded with solution manual entries, that will encourage more ill-intentioned people to participate. That will encourage well-intentioned people not to learn how to ask good questions. It will even convey the impression that one "learns" mathematics not by thinking about problems, but... $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 16 '14 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ ... simply reading others' solutions until it sinks in through osmosis. The bad questions will drown out the good questions, further discouraging those who wish to ask them from participating, especially so when they receive bad answers from the people who have trained to engage in the "blunt question - submittable solution" pattern. It will drive away those who wish to answer questions that get turned off by these practices. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 16 '14 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl You're ignoring other viewpoints, e.g. that some professors strongly encourage collaboration on homework since they believe it is one of the best ways to learn, e.g. see JDH on weasily half-answers. It seems clear that collaboration vs. competition is the way of the future not only for students but also for researchers, since the new globally connected world creates much more opportunity for crowdsourced solutions. Gone are the days when mathematicians worked in isolation, submitting secret packets to the Paris Academy to register priority. Hallelujah! $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 16 '14 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill Again, you are framing the issue as pro-collaboration vs. anti-collaboration which is a false dichotomy. Having someone else do your work is not collaboration. $\endgroup$ – Scott H. Apr 16 '14 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ @ScottH There is neither any "framing" nor any "false dichotomy". Rather, there is a large rich pedagogical spectrum between solving a problem in isolation and solving it without any effort expended. I have no clue what "again" refers to. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 16 '14 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill Ok, maybe false dichotomy was too strong, but you seem to be inferring that being against providing no questions asked full solutions to homework is equivalent to being anti-collaboration. I was referring to a previous exchange here $\endgroup$ – Scott H. Apr 16 '14 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ @ScottH The only inferences I see above are yours. I merely pointed out equally valid opposing viewpoints, as I often do because understanding the diverse viewpoints in the community is necessary step in devising a good compromise. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 16 '14 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill The inference being, as you mention above, that the viewpoints are opposing. Would you be so kind as to explain how pro-collaboration, and wanting askers to be active participants are opposing viewpoints? $\endgroup$ – Scott H. Apr 16 '14 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ The lack of any real "collaboration" in PSQ questions is exactly the issue - whether they are homework or not. Someone who has not put thought into the question, or is unwilling to say what has been attempted, is not collaborating in any genuine sense, and if I answer such questions I am not "collaborating" either. The best solution would be to quickly close questions in which the OP is not willing to collaborate. Unfortunately, the lure of higher rep sometimes seems to lure users to answer every question posed, regardless of the amount of effort the asker puts in. @Bill Dubuque $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 16 '14 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl Many (most?) users will collaborate if engaged in (Platonic) dialogue. Unfortunately, frequently that is no longer possible now that many users rapidly and aggressively close such questions before any dialogue can be established. I suspect that is the reason that we lost Brian. If this continues I fear we may also lose other prolific contributors who have complained about such. As for "rep", no doubt it motivates some users (e.g. FGITW/cherry pickers), but certainly not all, since many of the most prolific contributors were just as prolific in prior non-rep forums such as sci.math. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 17 '14 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: There are indeed many facets of the issue to consider (I don't think we're talking about "viewpoints") -- my point is that the facets I describe are among the ones that must be considered. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 17 '14 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque How does the closing prevent a socratic dialogue? Such a dialogue will take place in comments, which are not disabled on closed questions. I do see a partial problem that the closing will prevent the dialogue from resulting in a good answer being added by the OP (which I always find to be the outcome I hope for when starting such dialogues). $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 17 '14 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Tobias As any experienced SE reader knows, attempting to do anything nontrivial in comments is a painful exercise in futility due to the limitations of comments (by design). So painful that it has caused us to lose some of our best teachers. Continuing to force such will cause even greater losses to the site. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 17 '14 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque But where else would you have such a dialogue take place? $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 17 '14 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Tobias My impression is that those who attempt to do so use both comments and answers (and sometimes chats). Removing the ability to answer makes it much more difficult and much less effective given all of the limitations of comments. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 17 '14 at 19:03
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I think that I am one of the users who asks assessment type questions on stack exchange. I have never asked an assessed question on stack exchange but most of the questions that I do ask are from non assessed question sheets from my course.

I can understand the criticism of these type of questions where the user simply asks the question with no attempt at providing context or what they have attempted so far. I'm sure that the majority of people would rather not be helping people cheat on assessed work.

That being said I don't think that I can see any way to filter these questions out and one of the main reasons for that is that asking questions in this way seems to get answers. I have on many occasions written a question and attached what I have attempted to do only for this question to be ignored. I think this is to be anticipated, I think there are a lot of users who would much rather just answer a question with the proof/solution that they can do as opposed to sifting through all the rubbish that I have written in an attempt to find out where I have gone wrong. As a consequence of this I have taken to just posting the bare question a lot of the time in order to get responses.

I belive there was a meta post a couple of weeks ago about questions where people put too much working.

It is worth noting that I am not saying that ideally this is what I would do and if someone is willing to look through my attempted solution and point out my mistakes/misunderstanding and move me in the right direction then this will be much more helpful but I am happy to make the trade off for a slightly lower quality answer if I actually get one.

To my mind any attempt to "block" assesment questions would also catch these questions as well and I really don't see that as being helpful. It seems to me that there is a complaint that people showing a lack of effort do not deserve to be helped. Whilst I am not arguing with this statement it seems to me that the problem is a lot of the people who answer questions on math stack exchange don't agree, as these are precisely the type of questions that I feel have the best chance of being answered.

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What is the alternative to people finding volunteers to do their homework for them online? People paying private "tutors" to complete their homework for them. The site may in some cases be undermining homework as an evaluation tool, but it is at least egalitarian. I think that technology simply limits the accuracy of homework as a grading mechanism, and that universities will have to adjust to this no matter what this community does. It is better that this cheating is done in an open and free way than limiting it to hidden places where money changes hands.

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    $\begingroup$ Fine, but do that at "domyhomeworkforme.stackexchange.com", not "math.stackexchange.com". $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 17 '14 at 5:03
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    $\begingroup$ Universities provide tutors who are supposed to be there to answer appropriate questions (and not answer the inappropriate ones). That should be the first port of call. /// As for private tutors: I am aware of parents paying for private tutors for their kids at high school (that is usually of the form of general tuition, not answering homework assignments). I have yet to meet a university student who has hired a private tutor to do their assignments. $\endgroup$ – wolfies Apr 17 '14 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ Although the first sentence sounds like you are characterizing this site as a collection of "volunteers to do [people's] homework for them", I think the rest of this answer makes a couple of very interesting points, namely that 1) at least math.SE isn't just cheating for rich kids, and 2) we might well be fighting a losing battle in trying to keep homework solutions off the web. $\endgroup$ – Alex Becker Apr 17 '14 at 5:22
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    $\begingroup$ @wolfies While I do not agree with the conclusion that we should provide cheating for poor students, I do not agree with your representation of facts, either: "Universities provide tutors who are supposed to be there to answer appropriate questions". sounds very, very specific to particular countries whereas SE is open to the whole world. And "I have yet to meet a university student who has hired a private tutor to do their assignments. " is almost certainly wrong, read this article: chronicle.com/article/The-Shadow-Scholar/125329 $\endgroup$ – Phira Apr 17 '14 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Phira Thanks A LOT for the reference. Quote: "As long as it doesn't require me to do any math or video-documented animal husbandry, I will write anything." $\endgroup$ – Did Apr 17 '14 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ @wolfies, I worked with a number of undergraduate students in the NYC area as a math/computer science tutor, including a number of students from Columbia, Fordham, NYU, CUNY. Once I had two students from the exact same class, but coming to me from entirely different sources, from which we can conclude that, with high probability, many or most people in this class had a tutor. $\endgroup$ – osa Apr 20 '14 at 4:48
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Some possible solutions (might be raised by some users) in increasing order of strictness.

  1. Provide just hints for simpler questions and specially the ones where no effort has been shown. I get the point that easy for some is hard for others, but providing hints is a better way of teaching than providing answers. Also encouraging the questioner to answer after getting the hints would be a good idea (but this seems difficult to happen). If this is followed, there might be an issue of unanswered questions. In order to prevent that one might give the hints in the answer section. And if a question remains unanswered with an answer say with 10 or 5 upvotes, then a moderator should have the power to check it as answered.

  2. If it comes to this, how about ensuring a ratio - say 1:1 - between questions asked and answers accepted (or atleast have a few upvotes). Although it has its disadvantages, but this will ensure that the students looking for quick answers (new members) will (as in have to) take care of the easier problems, hence allowing the MSE users looking for good questions handle the intellectual stuff.

I guess, in present scenario, atleast the practice of hints needs to be adopted.

Frankly, I am no regular user, but I have had some wonderful discussions with some elite mathematicians, and so would like to maintain the good environment of MSE (for the clear selfish reason of having such conversations).

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  • $\begingroup$ 2. is not possible; this is miles away from anything that SE would even consider implementing. "Anyone can ask a question" is the first sentence they use to describe the network model. 1. is already done by some users, and creates issues of its own or turns out to be futile. For one thing, someone often posts a complete solution alongside the hint. For another, this practice is poorly compatible with SE model, where answers are supposed to answer the questions, and be evaluated based on their completeness among other things. $\endgroup$ – user127096 Apr 21 '14 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ Yup, 2 is a stretch. If completeness(having the answer right next to the question) is an issue, then there definitely will be silly questions (which don't show any effort) cropping up. I was dormant for around 8 months, and the proportion of homework questions has increased. So, some norm has to be set, either as a rule or as a practice. And again I know doing anything (positive) will be difficult. My main concern was that we should not give a reason for the $elite$ mathematicians here to leave - or visit less often. $\endgroup$ – user67773 Apr 21 '14 at 12:59
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I see two mitigators. (1) Students who use math.stackexchange to answer homework, without understanding the answers, will fail miserably when the exam comes. (2) Professors in particular topics should familiarize themselves with relevant stackexchanges (as well as google search results, etc.) and watch out (or have assistants watch out) for relevant questions and plagiarism of relevant answers.

(1) doesn't really need us to do anything. (2) could be helped by education of educators about math.stackexchange. Just my two cents.

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    $\begingroup$ The mitigators you mention address off-site concerns. They do not mitigate the prevalence of mundane questions on the site, which has negative effects unrelated to ethics or pedagogy. $\endgroup$ – user127096 Apr 20 '14 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ The link posted is about duplicate questions (and about how they come up again in usenet groups, but not in SEs due to enhanced tech.) So I don't see the relevance to 'mundane' questions that are not duplicates. $\endgroup$ – Carl G Apr 21 '14 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ They are duplicates. "Solve this integral [standard example from a calculus textbook / WebAssign etc.]" is a duplicate question, that is already answered by Khan Academy, solution manuals, textbook explanations, and assorted Youtube videos. Yet they get asked over and over, and answered over and over. The effect on the development of Math.SE user base is consistent with the prediction of that blog post. $\endgroup$ – user127096 Apr 21 '14 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ Okay well my answer is about homework questions. And the question is about homework questions. So I think it's important to separate the two issues in a discussion. And regarding duplicates, I hate them and completely agree with your link that dupes are bad and that the tools of SE should be used to combat them. $\endgroup$ – Carl G Apr 21 '14 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ My point is that the principal on-site issue with "homework" is its repetitiveness (which is where the "duplicate" theme comes from). As a user of the site, I am not concerned with what grades students somewhere get and what their professors do. I am concerned that when I load the question list, it's full of the same stuff that every homework-help message board is made of. In the words of Atwood, a site full of questions I don't want to read is not awesome. $\endgroup$ – user127096 Apr 21 '14 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ Okay. So fight the duplicative answers with the tools available to fight duplication. Or just outlaw all homework questions...is that what you are suggesting? $\endgroup$ – Carl G Apr 21 '14 at 16:30
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I have said it many times. It is a methodological mistake to assume that homework is an individual assignment. It is misunderstanding its role. It is not a new feature of homeworks acquired due to the easy access to information given by technology. It has always been that way, although not all teacher get educated well in this aspect. Do you want a task that can serve as an individual evaluation? Use exams.

Any teacher using homeworks as individual evaluation is just doing his job wrong. Don't blame the students. Homeworks are for teaching students. The student expends some time in it. Whatever time he judges is enough. The either solves the problem or sees the solution or hints. The purpose of the homework is achieved either way.

The policies that some are trying (ineffectively of course) in this website are giving the wrong idea on how to handle homework. If for some reason you still feel uncomfortable answering what you believe is a homework, just jump to the next question. I for my part will answer all question I am able to answer.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. The most difficult and rigorous math classes I had encouraged group efforts on the homework so long as (1) the student identified all other group members on the homework and (2) each student personally wrote its own homework. The students in these courses all realized that if they wanted to succeed come exams, they needed to internalize and understand as much as possible and that regurgitation on homework was a sure road to failure on the exam. $\endgroup$ – Carl G Apr 19 '14 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ "It is a methodological mistake to assume that homework is an individual assignment. It is misunderstanding its role" --- let's not confuse the intention with what actually happens. Homework can and often is intended as an individual assignment. Also, information technology did change the situation dramatically. Collaboration with a couple of friends is quantitatively and qualitatively different form the abundance of websites with hundreds of expert volunteers giving you the answers in no time. This is not to mention search engines. $\endgroup$ – osa Apr 20 '14 at 4:53
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    $\begingroup$ When I worked on homework in a group, our study group shared ideas. And when some people got the problem when the others were stuck, we would find out where others were stuck and suggest what to look at, or try and explain the bit they were missing. There was never an exchange that even barely resembled "Here's the question I haven't solved." "Here's the answer". $\endgroup$ – user14972 Apr 21 '14 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ @TobiasKildetoft and the alternative is to remove a useful teaching resource from anyone who appears to be a student? If teachers don't update their teaching methods to reflect technological reality, that is their fault. $\endgroup$ – Carl G Apr 21 '14 at 15:48

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