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In the last three weeks, there has been at least three questions here of the type, "Explain to me how..." or "Help me to understand..." These questions appear to be coming from genuine and sincere, intermediate to advanced level high school or early college students.

Examples: Can someone explain Newton's method to me? and Taking Calculus in a few days and I still don't know how to factorize quadratics

On the one hand, I applaud these students' efforts to continue seeking to learn, and pursuing as many avenues as possible in this quest. On the other hand, I doubt whether Math.SE should be one of those avenues. Further, I would have expected such questions to be voted to close as off topic or not constructive, but instead they have several up-votes and one is even on the SE hot questions list.

Optimistically, I would hope that these students have resources such as:

  1. The textbook
  2. The teacher/ professor
  3. Additional resources provided by the teacher/ school
  4. Peers in the class that study or review together
  5. On-line resources the students finds on their own (i.e. Khan Academy)

If the student has not already exhausted those resources before posting here, I think we need to first of all tell the student to do so. Not just encourage, demand. If the student has, then what makes anyone think this community is going to succeed in helping the student's comprehension, via a brief static response, where all these others have not?

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  • $\begingroup$ Since you had ``private tutor'' in your question's title, here's my idea: I believe that a few users could ask the OP to communicate with him/her by email, if the user would wish to do so. $\endgroup$ – user122283 Sep 10 '14 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ Why should MSE be the last place people should come at? Personally I prefer 100x someone who asks a question like that and seems to actively want to understand rather than the thousandth iteration of "I've tried nothing and I'm all out of ideas, please do my homework, it's due in five hours". $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Sep 10 '14 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ The phrase "private tutor" seems to me a misapprehension. If a user asks a good question, even something fairly basic like "How does Newton's method work?", there's a high likelihood others will find a good answer helpful as well. This sort of content is what makes SE sites highly sought out and "respected" by search engines. $\endgroup$ – hardmath Sep 10 '14 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ When posted yesterday, this went to +4, now it is at +1. I accept that the prevailing opinion disagrees with mine, but would anyone care to comment on why this is a poor question, or not worthy of discussion? $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Sep 11 '14 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Downvotes express disagreement on meta, not the fact that your question is not worthy of discussion or poor. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Sep 11 '14 at 13:04
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I would have expected such questions to be voted to close as off topic or not constructive,

The more relevant reason is

too broad
There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.

So, if the question amounts to: "I'd like someone to teach me how to solve equations numerically", then that should be closed as too broad. Needs to be more concrete to make a good Stack Exchange question.

(Remark: this is an abstract example; I do not claim that Newton's method question falls into this category.)

But the "factoring quadratics" question is not too broad. It isolates an issue that can be (and was) answered in a few paragraphs:

Can someone explain to me simply how I would step by step factorize something like $4x^2+16x−19$?


The availability of other resources does not necessarily mean there can't be a Stack Exchange question on this same topic. It's a different format. When I need an answer to "how to split a string in Java" or "how to insert backslash in TeX text mode", I don't want to view a 15-minute video tutorial with 2-minute advertisement before it. I want a Stack Exchange post as the top Google result for the query.


These questions appear to be coming from genuine and sincere, intermediate to advanced level high school or early college students.

They could be coming from my neighbor's dog for all I care. Answers are meant to be useful for everyone who has the same question, not only for the person who happened to ask it. Written once, read by many -- including many anonymous visitors, about whose status we know nothing.

what makes anyone think this community is going to succeed in helping the student's comprehension

I don't think of this at all; the asker's success in whatever they are trying to achieve is their own business. I am not their academic coach.

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    $\begingroup$ While the title "Can someone explain Newton's method to me?" might indicate an overly broad Question, I'd certainly read the body of the Question out of interest, and provided the poster had some context to inform me, I'd probably attempt an Answer (at the least I'd check to see if the specifics matched a previously answered Question, aka Duplicate). $\endgroup$ – hardmath Sep 10 '14 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ This response clearly answers my biggest concerns and helps me understand the apparently prevailing opinion. Could you possibly address this portion of my question: "..what makes anyone think this community is going to succeed in helping the student's comprehension, via a brief static response, where all these others have not?" $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Sep 11 '14 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck Added to the end of the answer. $\endgroup$ – user147263 Sep 11 '14 at 12:27
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If the question is concrete enough, I don't see a problem. Namely, if you can answer in detail within a reasonable bound of an answer (say four-five paragraphs, for a well written explanation), then this is perfectly legitimate.

But if you're asked to explain the needed background as well, then it's probably too much.

For example, I wouldn't mind explaining why the axiom of choice is needed for such and such construction by forcing, but this means that I am not going to explain forcing in details as well. (I mean, personally, I might, if I have the time and energy for it, but not generally.)

To sum up, in case where a reasonable explanation can be given within the bound of an answer, it's fine and maybe even a good question to refer other users to, later on. If the explanation itself is necessarily going to have to cover other background information, then maybe this is a bit too much. (Sometimes something is on the border between these two cases, then citing and referring to explanations elsewhere is a legitimate course of action.)

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  • $\begingroup$ After reading xkcd.com/1418 I am now looking forward to your in depth explanation of horsing. $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 10 '14 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ Tobias: I already wrote about horsing. Unfortunately the terms "generic" and so on are immutable by this transformation, so it might not make a lot of sense (or be as humorous as air horses over Kurdistan). $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Sep 10 '14 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, but (what if?) the question was not "Why does such and such require axiom of choice?" but rather "please explain what the axiom of choice means?" Maybe not the best example, but there is a similar apples-to-oranges comparison in there somewhere. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Sep 10 '14 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck: Well, we had that question already. It got a lot of votes and the answers got a lot of votes too. I wasn't quite happy with it, because it felt that the OP (at the time) was looking too much for "non mathematical analogies", but ultimately I'm at peace with that result. And since then I think we had at least one or two more of these. So yes, I think that "what is the axiom of choice" is a reasonable question, that can be answered within the confines of a few paragraphs, explains in general outlines the idea and why it's important or useful. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Sep 10 '14 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ @TobiasKildetoft, new book by that guy, rollingstone.com/culture/features/… $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Sep 10 '14 at 22:34

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