There have been a steady number of questions being asked in the spirit of:

Hi, I'm yada yada. Here's a short version of my life story and why I can't math. I currently only understand such and such. I want to fix that, what should I do and where should I start?

Most of these are asked by new users who don't seem to understand the functionality of the search bar, or don't realize that this type of question is not at all uncommon. As a result, when they do pop up, they often either get ignored, answered half-heartedly, or closed as a duplicate of one of the many other. Although the specifics change (such as the question asker's current level of mathematical background), the overall theme and suggestions usually do not.

I am posting here now in order to raise the issue up for discussion as to how to handle similar cases. Should we have a specifically endorsed answer that we commonly link to for duplicates? Should we take the time to tailor responses each time one like this appears? Should these types of questions be closed as off-topic?

I am interested to hear other people's opinions as to what if anything should be done, and reasoning why.

Some examples of questions in this category: here, here, here, here, here, here, and surely more.

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    $\begingroup$ Almost all of these are in the self-learning tag. 9.6% of self-learning questions are closed, it might be worth clarifying what sorts of questions in this tag are allowed... $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2015 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ Because I have done a fair bit of advising, I prefer not to attempt to answer such questions. But I have seen a number of answers that despite the limited amount of information available, are thoughtful and supportive. Overall, I think that offering such support is a useful function of this site. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2015 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ A recent post that seems related. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Mar 18, 2015 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ I think advice on "how to be good at math" is very valuable, and something that many people are naturally very interested in. If we want to figure out how to optimize our approach to learning math or thinking about math, then of course we will want to hear how other people do it and see if they have a more efficient or more effective approach that we can learn from. I've learned a lot personally from these discussions. However, I don't see a problem with closing such questions as duplicates, if they really are duplicates. $\endgroup$
    – littleO
    Mar 27, 2015 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ @littleO Advice on how to file one's taxes is also very valuable and many people are interested in it, but that doesn't make these questions on-topic here. There's also the problem that the SE format isn't very well-suited to this sort of question -- the explicit goal is to have clear, focused questions with one answer that you can point to and say "this is the correct answer". Not really the case here. See also this related discussion on academic advising. $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2015 at 9:01

3 Answers 3


I think that these questions should be accepted, even if they may not be entirely valid. It is true that many of them are formulaic, include some "life story" aspect, and sometimes may even be called non-questions.

However, I think that it is, in some sense, our duty to answer them: such a question could be a great threshold for a person. They wonder about mathematics and pursuing it, and finally they muster the courage to ask how to break into this rich and marvellous field. How that question is received is of key pedagogical importance: a welcoming encouragement as opposed to closed as duplicate could make the difference between knowing and not knowing mathematics.

When someone asks me such a question, I see myself as a gate-keeper: they want to enter mathematics, but they're not sure how or if they're capable of it. That's why they ask to be shown the way in. Thus, I do everything I can to help them through the gate, into mathematics, as opposed to risking them staying outside, forever.

But this is just my personal "moral" position: I think mathematics is good, so I try to encourage the learning of it, so especially when I am asked how to learn mathematics, I will try to be encouraging!

I also note that I'm not convinced that these questions really pose a threat to M.SE by flooding the site with a large number of questions of questionable relevance. I don't see them very often, and based on some quick searches, I'm not sure if they come in at a frequency higher than one every few days or so.

Thus, given their relative rarity and the importance of being constructive and encouraging people to study mathematics, I think that these questions should certainly be on-topic for the site.

Finally, I note that referring someone who asked such a question to the answer of a duplicate is likely to be unconstructive. When someone comes here with such a question, it is a deeply personal matter to them, so they expect (and need) a personal response -- the response to someone else's identical question might be perfectly valid and on-topic for the user, but the personal response (even if it is a canned one) really matters.

I think that currently, the volume of these questions is not so great that it would be necessary to take a different approach.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this comment, I don't know why people down-voted it so badly :( $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Mar 21, 2015 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ Irony at its greatest, a dude named Newb with quite a bit of rep, who gets severely down voted on a question about actual newb's questions. $\endgroup$
    – tox123
    Mar 22, 2015 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Neil upvotes and downvotes don't count for reputation on the meta site. As such, they're used as "agree/disagree" counters here. At the time of checking, there are 8 up 10 down, which means that among the population of people sufficiently opinionated to vote, the agree:disagree ratio is about 4:5. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2015 at 8:46

This is indeed an interesting type of question. It is manifest that in this day and age, people will try to get advice on all kinds of decisions regarding their academic journey.

It is also clear that Maths.SE harbours a nice collection of experienced teachers and academic professionals who are able to give this advice.

However, these facts do not automatically lead to the conclusion that such questions are on-topic.

Most answerers will fare on unspecified earlier experience and personal preference. Usually, the advice given by one user will be more or less the same, whatever the context of the OP. Not to mention the vast regional differences in the academic world, which are unlikely to be weighed in properly. Therefore, I think it is better that people actually ask e.g. their study advisor, higher-year students or others in their physical vicinity who can more accurately assess the context and hence give a better advice.

Regardless of the discussion whether or not proper advice on these topics can be given on the internet, I also contend that the Maths.SE set-up does not suit itself very well to this type of question. Upvoting is erratic at best, and is very much influenced by the prominence and popularity of the user posting the answer. Also, the reputation of an answerer bears a risk of awarding unwarranted authority over the matter, as it is based on answering actual mathematical questions. A great mathematician is not always a great career advisor.

This type of question could perhaps be on topic for Academia or Maths Educators, but I think we should restrict focus for Maths.SE. Maths questions are our business, and we should steer clear of the real-life decisions surrounding it.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree this is really the domain of academia.stackexchange, as a member of Math Educators, their primary focus is on how to better teach mathematics, and although they are very relaxed and open to posts that deviate from the central topic it probably would be still off topic there as well $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2015 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ Note that this is NOT in the domain of academia.stackexchange. The latter is really about academia (meaning academic careers and graduate or above) and not about how to prepare for college or life. Also, specific situations as the ones here are strongly discouraged. See the scope: academia.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic $\endgroup$
    – Martin
    Mar 19, 2015 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ I think we just need to accept that asking strangers on the internet for personalized guidance on life-changing decisions is often not a good idea, and that the SE model isn't adapted for this type of question. There doesn't need to be another SE site where the question is on-topic for us to deem the question off-topic. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2015 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi: Although I do agree with you in general about asking strangers, I suspect that listening to certain members of Math SE or Academia SE may actually be better than asking non-strangers in our own environment! At least this is what I gather from reading some of their answers to such questions. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Mar 22, 2015 at 5:52
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi: That said, whether it is off-topic is a different matter, but I was just saying that I don't think the advice here would be that bad even if it is a life-changing decision. We all have to assess advice we get anyway regardless of the source. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Mar 22, 2015 at 5:54

Is it really fair to deny users (such as me) to know where or how we should go about learning something?

If I go from a personal point of view here, then Math.SE is my only resource (apart from horrible answers on google) where I can learn about maths. You're all the experts!

And apart from being annoying by not understanding xxx in your answer (and then needing 10+ comments to clarify it), I also look up to you all!

I know that if I ask a question here about where or how I should learn something, I will be getting a professional answer by the professionals who know what they're doing, and not some sort of half-baked answer on google.

Unless you want people to be trying to find these answers from peoples' personal opinions on google, then you need to allow such questions, be the experts, and show people the way.

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    $\begingroup$ A professional's answer is still a "personal opinion". Being a professional does not make one an oracle of sorts. As I see it, Maths.SE is simply not designed for this (see my answer). However, I understand where you're coming from. I would suggest chat as a viable place where you can discuss these things colloquially. $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    Mar 30, 2015 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Lord_Farin Yes, but there are also people who can downvote that or explain why it's incorrect. An online document is the opinion of a single person. I'll also add that as a new user, I had no idea about the chat. $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2015 at 15:52

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