Often, users on this site ask very basic mathematical questions (in the order of what is the integral of a polynomial, or maybe a trigonometric equation which can be solved by looking up the appropriate addition formulas), as far as I see for two reasons:

  • They are really beginners at mathematics (a legitimate question, then)
  • They have homework which they want a cheap solution for (a question that should either be closed or the user prompted for more work)

Often, what happens is that a user then posts a full and detailed solution to the question right away, when really, the OP should just be given a hint (in the first case) or asked if he did any work yet (in the second case). Of course, the OP then accepts this quick and easy answer and is done.

I believe that everybody is worse of in this case.

  1. If the OP is lazy, then he learned that this site is the best method for avoiding work. He will continue to use the site for low quality questions that decrease overall site quality.
  2. If the OP is a beginner, he learned nothing. If he only recieved a hint, he would then have to work for his answer and he would remember it. This way, he just read the answer and "understood" it, only to forget it a day later. He also made one more step towards being the lazy poster from my first point.

I know that the answer was given in good faith, but I honestly think that it did more harm than good. Do you think that these kinds of complete answers to basic questions should be discouraged? If so, how (I think downvoting is too strong a message...)?

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    $\begingroup$ This has been discussed a gazillion times on meta. I do not think that downvoting is too strong a message though, but perhaps you should comment and then downvote after a period of time has passed? $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jul 29 '14 at 10:43
  • $\begingroup$ @user1729 I found no topic that would match my question, if I made a duplicate, I am very sorry. I want to act consistently with the community, that's why I asked the question... But I think that downvoting is too harsh, since the answer is not wrong... $\endgroup$ – 5xum Jul 29 '14 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ I feel that duplicates are less of an issue on meta, because people's opinions change over time, as does the actual community itself. I will see if I can find anything relevant... $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jul 29 '14 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ Due to the fact that textbooks may fall short in exposition for some, they may need to see examples, whether calculations or proofs, especially when either being introduced to the field or self-taught. Arguably, the hardest part is getting the flavour of how to solve problems, whether it be in algebra or topology, for example. Of course, over-dependence should be monitored or controlled to prevent abuse. Perhaps we should adopt a point deduction model for low-reputation users? $\endgroup$ – Chris K Jul 29 '14 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisK The argument I will reply with is: "This is not the place to obtain full written solutions, because we (the community) cannot differentiate between genuine, struggling students who are trying hard and would benefit from such help and those who simply want to get their assessed homework done." Of course, individual users should make their own judgements in each individual case (about whether the OP is genuine or out to cheat). But I believe that a judgement should be made (rather than just ignoring the issue)! Also, some users would benefit from full solutions, others would not. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jul 30 '14 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ (I recently had a real-life "encounter" with a student because I refused to give them the answer to a question. I did not - and still do not - believe that simply giving them the answer would have helped them at all. But with other students, it is genuinely helpful to give them a complete solution! Differentiating between the two, in real life and on the internet, is a genuinely difficult task! Cont... $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jul 30 '14 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ ...inued. However, again it is not enough to simply pretend that there are not these two groups of students (and indeed, these two types of questions, because the question itself may benefit from a full answer or, may be better with a hint): in each individual case, a judgement should be made.) $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jul 30 '14 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ @user1729, I tend to agree that two "classes" of students do in fact exist. But I've answered questions where no hint would ever help as they lack the most basic of skills to proceed. In my opinion, there are two policy choices: providing at most a few solutions per day as a learning tool or effectively eliminating (or redirecting) "homework" questions on this site. If, as you say, we can't differentiate online, then it may be difficult if not impossible to make a judgement. Regardless, that is where we started. $\endgroup$ – Chris K Jul 30 '14 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ I think the clearest message would be if their teacher calls them up in front of the whole class and it becomes clear they don't know what the hell they're talking about. "So, the, um, variable is constant, um, wait a minute, I have to look at my phone for something totally unrelated..." $\endgroup$ – Robert Soupe Aug 6 '14 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertSoupe Am I a bad person for wishing this kind of thing happened to these lazy posters? $\endgroup$ – 5xum Aug 6 '14 at 5:48
  • $\begingroup$ @5xum You're not a bad person. You're not a saint either. And another thing, as I try to put myself in the shoes of a lazy schoolkid: an excessively long and detailed answer is almost as bad as an excessively terse answer like "Hint: check the parity." The latter practically tells me nothing, the former requires too much parsing on my part to extract what I really want at the moment. $\endgroup$ – Robert Soupe Aug 7 '14 at 2:42

I honestly think that it did more harm than good.

If you see something that does more harm than good, and you have 10K reputation, you can do something about it. Just not immediately; the site does not work that way. It takes a while for a question to get closed. The typical delay is on the order of one hour, which is more than enough for robo-answerers to post their robo-answers, of the same kind that Wolfram Alpha Premium would give.

But you can do something about it later.

  1. Click review on top of the screen (on the main site, not here)
  2. Click Tools on the left of the screen
  3. Select Delete on the right


This brings up the list of questions and answers that are ready to go. A satisfying experience is clicking this button


and seeing the background of the post immediately turn to red. Target hit and destroyed.

enter image description here

Seeing one's answer go to the wastebasket can be a somewhat sobering experience, with the potential to affect future behavior.

If you feel like writing a comment for the answerer(s), sure... just don't engage in a meta-style back-and-forth debate on the main site.

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    $\begingroup$ IDDQD IDKFA IDCLIP $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jul 29 '14 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ This works decently, but usually only for older questions - the ones that have already had the time to accumulate delete votes. For a faster response, I've had decent success with leaving a comment explaining why I consider the full answer to be harmful - frequently, the new user / robo-answerer isn't even aware that this is an issue. $\endgroup$ – user61527 Jul 29 '14 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ You're right, that is satisfying. $\endgroup$ – Antonio Vargas Jul 29 '14 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ @AntonioVargas The worst feeling is clicking delete, expecting the red screen, only to have a popup tell me I've already voted to delete it.... $\endgroup$ – user61527 Jul 29 '14 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @T.Bongers If you hover over delete button for a second, it will show that you already voted. But it's stupid that we have to open the question to see that, as there is no indication on the Tools page. I'll look for a feature request on Meta, or will write one myself. ... Ah, here it is: Show users which posts they've already voted to close or delete on the mod tools page. $\endgroup$ – user147263 Jul 29 '14 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf are you trying to game the system? :-) $\endgroup$ – quid Jul 29 '14 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ @quid: If "Game of Life" is an automata capable of emulating Turing machines, and therefore ultimately capable of processing information and doing all sort of crazy things. If "Game of Life" is the servers of SE, then the whole system is a game. How do you game a system which is a game, quid? $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jul 29 '14 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila ahem $\endgroup$ – user147263 Jul 29 '14 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila Take the red pill. It's time to wake up. $\endgroup$ – user61527 Jul 29 '14 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ @T.Bongers: I suppose it is. After all, winter is coming. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jul 29 '14 at 21:59

This might be a stupid idea, but is it possible to maybe add tags, or somehow further divide posts by their intended audience? I.e. divide questions up into undergraduate, postgraduate, research, high school etc...?

That might then make it easier to filter through posts and figure what level response is required??

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    $\begingroup$ There has been some discussion on this in the past, see this and this. There are tiny examples where this has been implemented, namely for the tags set-theory and elementary-set-theory, and number-theory and elementary-number-theory (see this answer). It's arguable whether this has been effective. $\endgroup$ – Antonio Vargas Jul 31 '14 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry I missed those! I think they were from before my time... Maybe if instead of tags it was necessary to have it as an option when you post a question it might be more effective? $\endgroup$ – Stephen Nand-Lal Jul 31 '14 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ The only way to find the appropriate level of response is to read the question; and unfortunately, even that is not always enough. The structure of education systems vary. And within each, students aren't neatly stratified: there are middle school students who think better than undergraduates, and postgraduate students who struggle with things they should have learned as undergrads, and "researchers" who don't have a clue about the thing they supposedly research... $\endgroup$ – user147263 Jul 31 '14 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ or MSE can post another challenge on kaggle and let machine learning rule the day? some of these type of tags you mentioned could be inferred. $\endgroup$ – Chinny84 Aug 1 '14 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps we need a homework tag ;) $\endgroup$ – Henry Aug 4 '14 at 6:30

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