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Hi,

I have noticed recently the big debate going on here about homework questions. On our student support site, for each course that a student is enrolled in there is a forum specific to the course. In other words, on the forums students may ask questions about homework or anything related to the course. In fact in our university we are even encouraged to discuss problems among students but must write up the answers ourselves.

My question is, how is asking a question on the course forum different from asking a question here? I mean, everytime I've asked a homework question, I have specifically stated it with the homework tag and tried my honest best to attempt the questions given. I have never believe in being dumped a solution straight away (in fact on several posts I have explicitly stated that I do not want to be given a fish, but rather to be taught how to fish)

If indeed we are allowed to ask questions on homework on our course websites, so then we are allowed to ask questions here as well? The only reason why I ask questions here is because I believe that the people on this forum are far more capable in expertise and can point out errors and mistakes that one has made (not to mention the use of $\LaTeX$ here).

"Better to solve the right problem wrong than the wrong problem right"- Richard Hamming

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    $\begingroup$ People here seem to agree that anyone is allowed to ask homework questions. The debate is more focused on what are the most effective ways of helping such people. Some want to give them the fish, others want to teach them to fish, even if a fish is what they explicitly ask for. Having said that, there is a difference between this site and your course forum. There, your lecturer has a much easier time checking who is asking what and gets a better idea of the actual authorship of the solutions he reads. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Apr 21 '11 at 5:28
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I mean, everytime I've asked a homework question, I have specifically stated it with the homework tag and tried my honest best to attempt the questions given.

Many users don't do this. It is easier to get away with this here than on a forum such as you describe because of anonymity. In your setup, I am guessing like Alex Bartel suggests in the comments that your lecturer knows who is saying what. On math.SE, both the questioner and the answerer can be anonymous. This is a huge difference between math.SE and your forum.

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  • $\begingroup$ @Qiaochu Yuan @AlexBartel Well I mean the worse thing is this, I don't want to be accused of plagiarism but sometimes I post a homework question with a homework tag and even then people post complete solutions - I haven't asked for them and they should know very well not to give answers in full so then how can I be accused of plagiarism? That's the only question. Another reason why I don't post on my course forum is because the people there are simply too lazy to do what I've done here, namely write up in code everything that they have honestly hand on heart tried. $\endgroup$ – user5783 Apr 21 '11 at 6:40
  • $\begingroup$ I have even mentioned in certain questions the methods we were taught in lectures, and discuss the problems I'm having with those methods. I mean how much more clearly can I state if I'm discussing course material? $\endgroup$ – user5783 Apr 21 '11 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ @David It's simple: if you ask a homework question and are given a complete answer, then you have to acknowledge it in your write-up, otherwise you are plagiarising. Your intentions are irrelevant: you pose a homework question, so you can expect to get an answer. Even if you didn't ask about it at all but somebody tied you to a pole and forced you to read the complete solution, you have to acknowledge that the solution is not yours. Tbc. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Apr 21 '11 at 6:50
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    $\begingroup$ @David continued: The only way to avoid the situation you are describing, and a much better strategy in any case, is to identify conceptual difficulties you may have with the material and ask about those, while leaving the solving of exercises to yourself. Good homework is supposed to make you think and to have you stuck for some time. A hint can be sufficient to destroy this. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Apr 21 '11 at 6:50
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexBartel To give you an example, please look at this thread here: math.stackexchange.com/questions/33417/… I asked for help on specific conceptual difficulties about my solution e.g. are these assumptions in my attempted solution right, but some user wrote up everything in full. $\endgroup$ – user5783 Apr 21 '11 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Ben: I just wouldn't worry too much if I were you and I find Alex's position a bit on the extreme side. You show your own work in your questions, you show your own thoughts and even if given a complete solution, I don't believe that you would just copy it down without contributing anything yourself. From the way you ask it is clear that you want to learn and understand. Acknowledge the help if you think this is necessary, but I don't see how any instructor could possibly disagree with your behavior unless he specifically requested you to do the exercises without help from others. $\endgroup$ – t.b. Apr 21 '11 at 7:23
  • $\begingroup$ @TheoBuehler yeah I think you're right besides if anybody thinks I'm just a lazy bum looking for answers, they are welcome to look at all my posts and deduce that I am a one who sincerely tries to be a learner of mathematics. I think if every body in my course were to do as suggested lots of people would have to do it as I know of a lot of lazy bums who just asked for help without doing anything. $\endgroup$ – user5783 Apr 21 '11 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ I'd rather submit an incomplete solution with honor than a complete one with shame. $\endgroup$ – user5783 Apr 21 '11 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ @David: It is the responsibility of the questioner to communicate whatever constraints they may have. Otherwise the answerer is left guessing the missing contextual details. If it is a homework question and you desire only a small hint to get you past one stumbling block then be sure to clearly state this, and emphasize that you don't want any further help besides that. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 21 '11 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @David: in this entire discussion you have focused almost exclusively on your own behavior. This discussion is not about your behavior (and if it is, you should make that clearer in the original post). This discussion is about our policies, which serve the entire userbase, not just you. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 21 '11 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Ben: Just to make it clear: I simply wanted to encourage you and tell you that I don't see anything offensive or abusive in your actions here. However, I never intended my comment to be used in any argument whatsoever and I am in no position to tell your instructor what he should adopt as policies and rules, that's his judgment call and his alone. What I think of it doesn't matter. It is your responsibility to make sure that you don't break any rules, I am simply answering questions here. Whether that may result in any troubles on the one asking a question is none of my business. $\endgroup$ – t.b. Apr 21 '11 at 22:22
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There are two layers to your question (as posed from the question asker's perspective).

First layer is: what is the math.stackexchange community's attitude toward homework questions?

That has been very well summarised in our FAQ item on homework questions. In short, you can ask homework questions (as there's really no way to stop you from doing so), but we ask you to do the right thing by acknowledging it is a homework problem, showing your own work, being polite, etc.

Second layer is: what is your institution's policy about asking homework problems on a third party website? (as opposed to the course forum)

This has also been partially addressed in the FAQ item. The answer is: it has nothing whatsoever to do with math.stackexchange! (Obviously!) This is an issue you ought to sort out with your course instructor if you have doubts, ask your course instructor or your department administrator. Asking the question here on meta.math.stackexchange is entirely pointless. The opinions and ethical standards of random strangers on the internet, despite many of them having faculty positions in universities, has absolutely nothing to do with the policy of your particular institution. If your instructor sets an arbitrary rule like: "you may discuss and collaborate as much as you want with your classmates, but do not talk about the class in anyway with any outsiders", whatever we say here is moot. If you disagree with his stance you can try to appeal to the "higher ups" in your institution, you may even try to cite guidelines as described by Alex or Theo, but at the end of the day it remains an issue between you and your institution.

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  • $\begingroup$ @WillieWong But I think that TheoBuehler's position seems reasonable. Besides, the university should realise that these are positions taken from professional mathematicians, not some dodgy forum with lots of bogans on. $\endgroup$ – user5783 Apr 21 '11 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ @David To add to Willie's answer: whether you think that somebody's position is reasonable and whether you think that the univ. should or shouldn't realise the source of this position is as irrelevant as the position itself. What is relevant is what your lecturer says. Personally, I would not be swayed by the fact that some professional mathematician on the internet "allowed" my students to ask help for the homework I set if my policy was to not allow this. It's as if you cited a foreign law to explain your unlawful behaviour, adding that, after all, that foreign law comes from profl. lawyers. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Apr 21 '11 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ Let me specifically address the line "If indeed we are allowed to ask questions on homework on our course websites, so then we are allowed to ask questions here as well?" Morally and ethically I agree with Theo. And in fact I would encourage my students to use Math.SE. But the classroom is not a democracy. And your instructor may not take the same point of view as I do. So unless your instructor (the one who sets the rules) is a member of Math.SE, it is completely pointless from the practical viewpoint to ask your question here. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 21 '11 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ You wrote "Besides, the university should realise that these are positions taken from professional mathematicians." It is an awfully foolish thing, to make assumptions on other people's positions, when it is your own butt on the line. To take Alex's analogy further, this is why many lawyers in informal communications will state explicitly that what they said do not constitute legal advice (besides the fact that sometimes they are required by the bar to do so): one can make all sorts of grandiose claims and ideal visions when it is not one's client who's on trial. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 21 '11 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ Lastly, if your goal is to promote a debate on what universities should or shouldn't do, this is not the right forum. Meta.math.SE is for discussing things related to math.SE. If you want to stir up a debate, you'd be better off writing a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Ed or some similar publication. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 21 '11 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ @WillieWong Ok I understand what you mean when the classroom according to the lecturer is not a democrary, in fact there exists tutors that are very unreasonable. But at our university like I said we have been told by our lecturers that students are encouraged to discuss problems among students, that's why there's a forum set up $\endgroup$ – user5783 Apr 21 '11 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @WillieWong So say I use my course forum on the website; but what if it's not getting me anywhere? I mean I don't feel as if the people on my course forum know what it's like to discuss mathematical problems (Unlike here at math S.E. ) so what do I resort to then?? Besides, most lecturers aside from my physics lecturer go on the forums, so sometimes it's just among students arguing mad. I mean once we were asked to produce a 7 by 8 matrix with exactly 8 pivot columns. Such a matrix clearly does not exist but there were students arguing till the cows come home!! $\endgroup$ – user5783 Apr 21 '11 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ Again, you are confounding two distinct issues into one. The first issue is how best to learn. For that I'd say judicial uses of all available material, including this website, are generally good ideas. The second issue is homework policy, which, again, is an issue that can only be addressed by your lecturer or institution. Life is not so simple so as to allow you to have one right answer that solves every problem. The points you are raising are good ones, but here is not the place to raise them. Seriously, talk to your lecturer. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 21 '11 at 14:55

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