Most questions which are actually exercises and considered homework on other sites are closed within a short span of time, but since this site requires people to show their work so that they are guided properly with it, they are not closed here. But it has been misused and some questions are asked and answered without any effort by only saying "I can't think of what to do" and many users who maybe are only concerned with reputation answer such questions with a full solution; therefore, reputation has been easy to gain by such questions, but sometimes those questions are really well presented. Does something need to be done?

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    $\begingroup$ What can be done? For example: downvote answers to such questions. At least answers posted before the OP has a chance to respond to hints. $\endgroup$
    – GEdgar
    Apr 30, 2015 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ I don't understant the problem in helping people with their homework questions. If they properly ask a question, what is the matter? I mean, they should also have the right to learn one day, not? If I'm able to help someone, then why shouldn't I do it? Moreover: why shouldn't I do it if the OP shows interest and commitment in what he asks? $\endgroup$
    – Bman72
    Apr 30, 2015 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Ale, I don't see anything wrong with helping people understand how to answer their homework. But I do see something wrong with encouraging people to copy the answer posted here (and submit it to their teacher) when it is obvious that they did not understand what it means. $\endgroup$
    – JRN
    May 1, 2015 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ @ADG Which "other sites"? $\endgroup$
    – user26857
    May 1, 2015 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ @JoelReyesNoche Please, define what you mean with "it is obvious that they did not understand". Personally I don't care about reputation. If I'm able to help someone, fine, I'll help him. If then this someone decides to just copy my answer without understanding it, it is not a problem of mine. I think that if you start to answer a question with the certainty that the asker will just copy/paste your answer, then you are pessimistic for nothing, because you will never be sure about it. Moreover, if some just copy/paste your answer, maybe, someone else with the same problem, won't. $\endgroup$
    – Bman72
    May 2, 2015 at 8:30
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure how a question asking if the site is too lenient with C&P homework is a duplicate of a question asking why we don't do enough to prevent C&P homework. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2015 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Ale, sometimes people provide hints to the questions and the poster of the question clearly states that they just want the final answer and not how it was obtained. I can understand if in this situation you would still give the answer, but I would not. Let us agree to disagree, then. $\endgroup$
    – JRN
    May 2, 2015 at 9:18

4 Answers 4


Whether or not a question is homework or not, is not a major concern of mine. It is typically quite difficult to determine, and in those cases where it is more or less obvious the question is normally lacking for other reasons, too (see below).

What is a concern of mine is the quality of questions. "Prove [something]." (and nothing else) is not a question let alone a precise one, and this fact is, contrary to what some will say, not irrelevant.

A list of several vaguely related problems is not a reasonable question-post for the site, and so on.

This site is doing extremely well as regards attracting new questions and producing many posts, it does not so well as regards attracting readers. This suggests to me that we should put more emphasis on increasing quality rather than quantity.

In brief, I think we should try hard, maybe harder than we do right now, to give high-quality answers to reasonably posed questions (and not throw-away answers to whatever shows up in the new-queue). This will help to solve the (perceived) 'homework problem' too.

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    $\begingroup$ That's a really interesting observation (enough to make me log in again!), Sorting the list of sites by questions per day, I see that most of the top sites have over 1000 times more visits than questions, sometimes an order of magnitude more. The ratio is less than 250 for MSE. Also, MSE has a relatively poor visits per day per user statistic too. $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Apr 30, 2015 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ How do you expect to attract readers with all the useless (useless in the sense of trying to find a proof of something, or simply for entertainment) walls of texts the standards now require from askers? Regardless of the merits of the present policy, attracting readers doesn't seem to be one of them. $\endgroup$
    – Git Gud
    Apr 30, 2015 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ @GitGud while I think I know where you are coming from, I strongly contest that the standards now require useless walls of text from the asker. Inclusion of text that might qualify as "useless wall of text" might sometimes be a consequence of trying to comply with some policy (sometimes also to work around it), however this is something altohether different than saying the current policy requires this. Yet, if you think some existing policy is detrimental to attracting readers you might want to raise the issue separately. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Apr 30, 2015 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ I have my own suspicions regarding "readers". Two key points. Many questions will be, by their nature, of interest mainly to the poster, because the questions revolve around the misconceptions or understanding gaps of the poster. And it is not very easy to find mathematics questions on a particular narrow topic by searching; the keywords are too vague. I can easily search for "how to implement a priority queue in java" for programming help; it is much harder to find "how to I construct a low r.e. set" because the question (if it exists) might not use any of that terminology. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2015 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ About the quid's concern ("it does not so well as regards attracting readers"): maybe this is due to the many possibilities of asking M.SE offers. If someone is stuck at some part of a proof, this is interesting only for him. If someone is asking for a proof verification, this is also interesting (more or less) for him. On the other side (and this is why I've asked twice), what is the comparison term we are using? Are there any other sites dedicated to undergraduate mathematics which are doing better? If yes, then I'm not aware of them. $\endgroup$
    – user26857
    May 1, 2015 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @user26857 my remark was based on, as Hurkly assumed correctly, the list of SE sites: Ordered by Q/day this site is second by a large margin, ordered by traffic the situation changes quite a bit and the list is only tenth or so. (Of course comparing different subjects is tricky but there are similar subjects and the effect is really large.) There are certainly other types of sites for varied math problems but I was not really comparing to them. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 1, 2015 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ @user26857 personally I find it often quite difficult to find clear presentations of standard facts on this site. I thus often link from here to Wikipedia or Mathworld. Now these are not really the same thing but still. A reason is what you say that many questions are extremly localized. But noone forces us to accept: "Here is a scan of my (half)done homework. Please check." Yet, this is a bit a broad subject; my point is mainly that there is no shortage of questions on this site and we could raise the bar easily. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 1, 2015 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ Well, everyone knows that Computer Science is more appealing than maths, so I think the statistics reflect a natural status. With respect to the "clear presentations of standard facts", I don't think the purpose of this site is (or should be) to become an encyclopedia like Wiki, and I always give a link when I feel the need instead of writing an elaborate theoretical answer. To conclude, I agree there are many things to improve on M.SE (among them the search function, for instance), but the site works well as it is in my humble opinion. $\endgroup$
    – user26857
    May 1, 2015 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Carl of course there are differences over subjects, but still the "culture" of this sites reinforces the issues. More verbal post are easier to search than pure formulas, but many (out of ignorance or conviction) answer (and ask) in essentially pure MJ formulas (and to top it of, full of inessential formating), which is not even a common way to present math in written form. I don't really agree math is all so different. If one the programming site the question would be: ' [some scan of an assignment] Please help!' and answer is HINT: [some half-finished code]. You'd not find anything. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 1, 2015 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Another issue is an aversion on this site against substantial edit. Of course if all the badly phrased questions must be left more or less as is things are tricky. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 1, 2015 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ @user26857 I do not think the site should become an encyclopedia either. However, there could still be more well-presented answers to standard questions, rather than each time giving five quick answers to yet another duplicate. Or answering hyper-specialized questions: I mean yesterday somebody asked how to divide two specific polynomials. They got answers, the computation for this one pair. Then they ask a second questions with two other specific polynomials. Do you think this is reasonable? $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 1, 2015 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ No, but this isn't the answerers' fault, and such questions should be quickly closed. $\endgroup$
    – user26857
    May 1, 2015 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ @user26857 yes, sure. This was my main point. There are plenty of questions; let us close the bad ones quickly. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 1, 2015 at 16:29

First of all..I don't do homework. I am 65 years old and do mathematics problems from my childhood textbooks for amusement, not because I have to. To me it has much the same appeal that sudoku has to others. However, sometimes I can get stuck on a problem and since I cannot (obviously) see a solution I ask it on here. Because of the level of the maths involved (up to 16+ basically, GCE "O" level) the questions are straightforward as are the answers. One either spots the principle behind the question or one does not.

55-60 years ago no class ever worked diligently through an entire text-book. Parts were simply skimmed over and only a small proportion of the exercises were ever completed. It is highly probable therefore that some principles of maths fell through the holes and therefore when an exercise is attempted that uses such a principle help is needed.

How do you distinguish between someone such as myself or a school-pupil trying to avoid work (if indeed that is what it is)? No-one ever learned anything by being told "work harder" but pupils are frequently told "go and look it up for yourself". On a site such as this, is that not precisely what they are doing? "Looking it up" meaning "asking for the solution". If you don't want to help, fine, don't help, but please do not complain because someone has asked for help.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting context, and you could include a version of it in your questions (in case you do not do so already). It does not have to be too long or word, it even should not be, but saying: "This is a problem from chapter on [some subject] in [some book], which I am working through out of general interest: [The problem]. I was able to do the problems before that one in this section, like [Problem you can do] but this one I find difficult because [some reason]." could add value to a post.. (Some will recommend to start with the problem and give the context later in post.) $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 1, 2015 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ @quid..I could do as you suggest but that would be to imply that someone has the authority to decide whose question shall or shall not be answered, is or is not deserving of an answer. Such is anathema to me. The mere existence of a question on here is sufficient justification for an answer (in my view, naturally). Helping someone who asks for help is (or should be) sufficient reward in itself. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2015 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ "someone has the authority to decide whose question shall or shall not be answered, is or is not deserving of an answer" But that is precisely the case. Once one gathers 3000 rep points, one can vote to put questions on hold and eventually closed (see here for details). These questions cannot be answered (well, in principle; there are loopholes, like answering in comments, or even editing the question to include the answer). So if this is truly anathema to you, math.SE might not be the website for you. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2015 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ The main point of including context is not to decide whose questions should be answered but to allow for more focused answers, and also to simplify the task for the user answering. In addition, for example including the book from where the problem originates will allow for better discoverability later on. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    May 1, 2015 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ @quid I can certainly understand that in some cases background context could be useful but definitely not in all . Over-complication is the curse of many an incorrect answer and there are plenty of times where a simple answer is required to a simple question. Knowing that the question comes from an out-of-print textbook originally published in 1939 isn't going to help anyone. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2015 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Najib If everyone thought along those lines I would agree with you. Fortunately not all do. Just to put things in perspective, over the last couple of years I have worked through some 3500 to 4000 exercises in the textbooks I have dating to the late 50s early 60s. Of these I have had trouble with just one Algebra problem and three Geometry ones. Of those 3 I have put two on here. The first I came up with an answer myself before I got a response and the second has just been answered in a straightforward manner. If someone is willing to answer that is good. If not it hardly matters, does it? $\endgroup$ May 1, 2015 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Sean Under the presumption that all questions here are asked out of curiosity by users such as yourself, the statement "The mere existence of a question on here is sufficient justification for an answer" is true. Sadly, the premise is blatantly false, as can be observed on a daily basis. So, to get back to "How do you distinguish between someone such as myself or a school-pupil trying to avoid work", the answer is: We attempt to do this by requiring a bit of context. Lastly, note the difference between "asking for help" and "asking for a solution". $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    May 1, 2015 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ @LordFarin I think we are poles apart..Best we simply agree to differ. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2015 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @SeanO'Donovan I see a chain of hypotheses and deductions in Lord_Farin's last comment. Do you disagree with each and every part of it, or only globally, I am curious? $\endgroup$
    – Did
    May 2, 2015 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Did My disagreement is at a fundamental level re child-rearing which is not a fitting subject for this board hence I do not wish to discuss it futher. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2015 at 9:21

I think that it is reasonable to require some effort from the asker. Users cannot be expected to churn out answers to test-paper-style questions for their own enjoyment without some motivation given by the asker. The asker should motivate (implicitly) as to why they feel that their question is important, by explaining their situation - what they have tried, what they know.

On the other hand, I find it time-consuming to write out my working in LaTeX. I often spend an hour typing up a question, and the cost of doing so is weighed up against the benefit. The benefit is a useful answer, but it sometimes takes a while for that to come so one has to be patient in those occurrences.

With regards to answering the question with a full solution, we should give good quality answers because we are building up a resource. I usually search for my question before asking it, and when there is a good answer I am able to stop there. I love reading clear, well-articulated answers as opposed to hints. But this does not mean we must not first give a hint - just that in the long-run those questions without proper answers are not worth much. I rely on answers on MSE for questions that I get stuck on, and find that it can complement my notes and textbook to have a well-laid out answer and I often print the question and answer out for later reference if I didn't immediately catch on what was being said.


One partial answer to the concern raised here is that when a poster shows what some may consider insufficient effort, one can calibrate a posted answer accordingly. Thus, for example, someone posts

When I tried to use integration by parts to do this problem, here in step 6 I didn't understand why [such-and-such detail is as it is] [etc.]

So you post an answer that explains that.

But another person posts

I can't think of any way to do this integral!!

Then instead of going into detail one posts an answer that says "Often when the function being integrated is the product of two functions of very different kinds, integration by parts can be used.", and omit details.

A good solution (which won't happen in the next few weeks...) is to eliminate grades in courses except as private communications from instructors to students.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree with the spirit of this answer. However, I feel that for the second example a comment (saying the same thing) would be more appropriate than an answer. This has the benefit of potentially engaging the OP, who maybe thought about integration by parts but couldn't work out what the two "parts" should be. $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Sep 7, 2020 at 9:38

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