I've studied Computer Science and my first contact with the StackExchenge's sites was StackOverflow. Later I realize that there are a lot of other useful sites on this platform and currently I'm an active user of Mathematics Stack Exchange.

Recently, I've been reading this question http://meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/20401/is-the-site-being-too-lenient-in-helping-people-with-homework?cb=1, and that was the main reason I (finally) take the help tour of the site. This is an extract from the tour:

Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields.

So, what comes to my mind is:

  • Why is so important for the site if the question is part of the user homework?
  • or even if the user actually tried to solve the question?

From my experience in StackOverflow that was a big issue there, mainly because (in SO) usually the people ask for her/his work to be done. Nobody wants to do the work of another person, and that in fact is not constructive at all in the computer world (and surely nowhere).

But, as the previous snippet states, Mathematics Stack Exchange is for people studying math, and the quality of the site (In my humble opinion) is measured by how well the questions, and even more the answers!, help in the fulfillment of that goal: studying math.

What I'm saying is that it is better if the questions is not contaminated with spurious intents of answering, because what you actually want is to compare if you have a similar problem, in order to continue your studies. I mean, this site is not a homework police nor is for teaching the students to study, it is for the people who actually wants to study math to found knowledge and useful posts.

Again if I compare with SO, there are useful the intents of answering a question, because (more often than what could be desired) in programming the solution comes from empirical or testing approaches. But in mathematics it is not the case (in most cases).

Another example that comes to my mind is: If I have a problem with my homework, I could ask a friend or teacher to help me solve it or I could find the solution in a book. So, can I say that the book have a poor quality because I found the solution to my problem there, regarding if it was homework or not? Of course not!

So as I look to this site as the (possible) future most complete book in mathematics (again my opinion), why we should care from where the questions come from? or what was done previous to the post? What I think is important is if the question is a good one from the mathematics point of view.

By the way, I'm not talking about context in the questions, because context could enlarge the scope of a question and that is a good fact, but sometimes the policy of adding context (mostly for users that only wants to know a solution to their problem) makes the really good part of the question more obscure or difficult to reach, and hides the true value of the answers for future users searching for knowledge.

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    $\begingroup$ It is not that important per se if a question is homework or not. Some time ago the homework tag was deleted. $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 30 '15 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ One reason some of us care about where questions come from is that occasionally they come from ongoing competitions, entrance examinations, and such where we do not wish to help cheaters. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 1 '15 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson I totally agree with you that we do not want to help cheaters, but I think it is not our job to know if one particular user is using this site for cheating or homework, we should care about the question, its quality and mathematical value. The problem of cheating must be handled by the contest organizers. $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 1 '15 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ @xndrme These arguments have been going on since the dawn of the site. There is a wide spectrum of viewpoints on these matters, as one would expect on such a large, diverse forum. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 1 '15 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque Yes I now realize that, and this question had helped me to deepen my understanding of this community, which was my main goal anyways. $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 1 '15 at 1:41
  • $\begingroup$ The sex columnist Dan Savage has been asked a few times if some of the questions he receives are fake. He replied that to him almost all of them are essentially hypothetical, regardless of whether the question is "true" or fake. $\endgroup$ – Robert Soupe May 14 '15 at 4:00
  • $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of A Consolidated Homework Policy $\endgroup$ – user223391 Nov 16 '17 at 16:59

The important points are these:

  1. A user submitting material from this site as their own work and using no real effort of their own is (under normal circumstances, where they are not given permission to do so) guilty of academic dishonesty.

  2. It is immoral to facilitate academic dishonesty.

So to address these two questions:

Why is so important for the site if the question is part of the user homework?

I don't know if I would call it important, but by disclosing their post is homework, a poster is at least being forthright. It is also useful for answerers who wish to measure out a solution that isn't "giving it away." You can frequently see cases where posters in fact don't want everything given away, and only want a hint.

or even if the user actually tried to solve the question?

This is again just helpful for answerers to measure the intentions of the poster. In theory, effort shown correlates with the poster's good faith in answering the question. It's not foolproof, but it seems like one of the few good tools we have to discern questions asked in good faith from those asked in bad faith.

why we should care from where the questions come from?

If you are referring in part to questions that come out of homework, then again I'll reiterate that indiscriminately answering all questions that are posted would, in all likelihood, facilitate academic dishonesty in some part of the community (whatever proportion that may be) and (hopefully you agree) that facilitating this dishonesty is wrong.

Remaining transparent about what is homework and encouraging a modicum of effort shown are two barriers to impede that behavior.

Of course it won't prevent all dishonesty, but it's a reasonably good practice to encourage. The information helps us write better solutions.

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    $\begingroup$ You have make a point with the academic dishonesty, that makes me think ... and totally agree with you $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 1 '15 at 0:51
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    $\begingroup$ It may be immoral to facilitate academic dishonesty willfully, but why should we play cops for the whole world? People who are getting their homework answered here without any effort and understanding are just harming themselves. So I find it silly that users are patronized which questions they should answer or not. Same thing for the "off-topic"/"lack of context" close option, which is just newspeak for "lazy questioner wants others to do his work for him" (so what? nobody is forced to do that...). $\endgroup$ – Qyburn May 7 '15 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ Dear @Qyburn : This sentence using "patronized" isn't totally clear to me, but I gather that you don't like the idea of a mandate that people must behave a particular way. If so, then my response is: nobody is mandating anything here. I only attempt to explain the most apparent motivation. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb May 7 '15 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ Dear @Qyburn: As for "play cops with the whole world," that seems to be a sensationalized exaggeration of what I describe: individuals independently retarding immoral behavior when they encounter it. A much better metaphor would be a neighborhood watch. Perhaps there is an individual or two that takes things to such an extreme as to describe them as "policing the world," but that is certainly not what I'm describing. Regards $\endgroup$ – rschwieb May 7 '15 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ To provide full answers to questions that are clearly homework simply interferes with the learning of the student. It puts the ego of the person providing the answer ahead of the needs of the student. It also undermines the student's teacher, who is providing a learning opportunity for the student. These matters are quite evident to natural teachers (who may or may not be actual teachers!) $\endgroup$ – Paul May 13 '15 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Qyburn While one may debate whether or not is is immoral to facilitate academic dishonesty unknowingly, any reasonable person will realize that the majority of questions asked on this site are most likely, to some extent, helping people cheat. $\endgroup$ – apnorton May 14 '15 at 3:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Paul you're totally right, but still IMHO I think that shouldn't be so important if a question is from homework, because good questions (as sometimes are homework's questions) deserve to be here and to have answers here. Or, should we exclude all those great questions that are homework just because some(all) teachers are using it? Of course is morally wrong to help in academic dishonesty, but we shouldn't care for the personal learning process (in school) of one particular OP, we should care for the potential thousands of users that will read the good question/answers. $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 14 '15 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @xndrme I don't think it is a full answer versus no answer issue. There is always plenty of room to give a partial answer, a hint, a special case and so on. The full answer can be develop in its own time by the student. Those who rush to give a full answer (and it may not be the answer to the actual question, which often is only for help or a hint or a start) have their own priorities. This may be as facile as to get points for an answer before anyone else. $\endgroup$ – Paul May 15 '15 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Paul as I told you, I agree with you that answering just for the points or personal priorities is bad for the site and the community, but again we are not here to help people improve their studying habits. My issue is full answer versus partial answer. Of course you can give some time to the OP to complete a full answer on his/her studying time but I think that there should be a complete answer also, if the question is good enough. Because IMHO this site is not just for the OPs is for everybody who need an answer to a mathematical question, just like books do (sometimes). $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 15 '15 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ @xndrme we shouldn't care for the personal learning process (in school) of one particular OP I think I mostly disagree with this. Facilitating the learning process is at least, if not more, important as building a heap of quality questions and answers. In fact, questions generated by particular OP's that wind up being instructive about their learning process are a primary source of the best question-answer sets for the thousands of readers you alluded to. Regards $\endgroup$ – rschwieb May 15 '15 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ @rschwieb Ok, maybe I didn't put it the right way, of course helping to the learning process is always good (this is the main reason of this site IMHO), I'm just talking about the part concerning if it is homework or not, that's why I put school, because homework is associated with it. Answers and questions that helps in the learning process are the best, but to the learning process as a general process in understanding math not as part of school learning process aka homework. $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 15 '15 at 13:51

Questions should (and, practically, must) be judged by their intrinsic quality. Whether a question is homework or not definitely does not matter, and in judging or discussing the quality of a particular question, one should focus on more concrete aspects - e.g. how well does the question guide answerers to a particular issue? However, on a more global level, we must recognize that, while many people write good questions based on their homework, homework questions posted directly to this site are a large source of low quality questions and hence we may find it reasonable to discuss the particular issues regarding homework.

However, judging questions purely by their value should still lead one to believe that posting verbatim homework questions is not productive. Homework tends to consist of run-of-the-mill exercises which have well-known or formulaic solutions - it is unlikely that they carry enough mathematical interest to stand alone. The way to make these good mathematical questions is to be specific about one's difficulty with them - good answers to such questions address whatever misunderstanding the author has - and this can sometimes be entirely unrelated to the actual exercise at hand. But one cannot possibly write such good answers if the author does not help focus us on their difficulty (e.g. by trying to solve it, and explaining where they got stuck). Though context narrows the scope of the question, it leads to deeper and more substantial answers.

If you had a problem with your homework, you wouldn't take it to a teacher, tell them to do it for you, and ignore whatever questions they ask you. That happens on M.SE. Posting such questions is inherently and visibly different from genuine mathematical inquiry and leads to answers which recite common knowledge rather than elucidate nuances. If a question doesn't do its part in narrowing the discussion on an otherwise common exercise, it does not belong on the site.

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    $\begingroup$ I think we have the tools to handle low quality questions, as well as repeated ones. Repeated questions could come from high level mathematics also, not just from homework, and what could be easy, or run-of-the-mill, for a lot of users of MSE not necessary will be for all the potential users (particularly the ones who are just visitors on the site). If a question tends to be repetitive is because a lot of users have problems with it, and the current answer for a representative question on MSE should be good, and should exist. $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 1 '15 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ @xndrme I do not believe that a single, good answer suffices to address every concern regarding a given exercise. People get confused for any number of reasons and a general proof is hardly a substitute for a more tailored answer. My issue is not that a question is common, but that it ends up being too broad because of it - if the OP refuses to include context, then we have a whole proof as an answer, but no clue what part of the proof should be emphasized. Yes, we can provide rigorous answers, but this is not as productive a goal as providing or correcting intuition. $\endgroup$ – Milo Brandt May 1 '15 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not saying (maybe I do not made myself clear, sorry) that there should be a single answer, just that there should be at least an answer (a representative one), and for that to happen there must be a question first. About context: I totally agree that context is usually (almost always) a good thing, and the refusal of adding, if you actually have something to say, is not a good practice. But in the other hand, the enforcing of context sometimes degrades the question as users tends to add the first thing that comes to his/her mind in order to get an answer. $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 1 '15 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ What I trying to say is that usually the most helpful answers, in the sense that will help to more people (maybe not mathematicians, just common people), comes from a user that sadly do not know very well how to ask a good question, and a lot of times it appears as part of the user's homework. But still it has the potential to reach, to show, or to teach something to a lot of people. $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 1 '15 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ @xndrme Your argument is why I sometimes answer questions that appear to be homework with no effort given by the person asking. But my answer may consist just of facts that I think might be useful to someone looking at a problem of this sort, not a complete step-by-step solution, even if the OP asked for step-by-step. If the OP will make the effort to learn something from this, that's fine, but in any case I hope the answer may be useful to someone else as well. $\endgroup$ – David K May 13 '15 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidK Not at all! What I'm saying is that no matter if the question is from a homework or if the user shows effort trying to solve it, the intrinsic value of the question must be its value as a mathematical question and the potential to help more people with similar problems. Of course there is the point of academic dishonesty as stated in the answer of rschwieb. In fact I think that what you say you do is good! The usefulness of the question and the answers is (IMHO) the ultimate judge. $\endgroup$ – Alvaro Fuentes May 13 '15 at 19:01

The best way to approach an answer may be dependent on the rationale for asking the question. If the question is a homework question, giving them the answer defeats the point of doing homework. Accordingly, the best way to answer a question for homework purposes is to describe the process to get the answer, and let them get it.

If a question is not for homework, it is often just a sticking point in a much larger search while one studies math. In these cases, a quick answer is often the better way to go, because the OP has a reason to go research your answer on their own time afterwards.

Unfortunately, exciting questions studying math can be hard to distinguish from homework questions in a higher course. Confusing them yields poor answers that do not help as much.


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