I am wondering if there is anything suggested one should do in cases in which an answer does not actually help the poster, but in fact makes it harder to get an answer.

Here is an example

How to generalize the determinant as function

I asked this question.

The answer that was given uses techniques more advanced then in my class, and is not even the way we are supposed to approach it. However, the answer was left and the user wouldn't respond to my additional questions. Instead it gets piles of upvotes because I'm sure it is a good answer. It just does not help me.

Now I even have a bounty, and no one else seems interested because there is already an answer with so many upvotes.

I just think that while it may be a good answer to people more advanced, that does not mean it is at all helpful to the user.

What is the general opinion on this, and are people aware of this, etc?

  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Not accepting the answer if it doesnt help you is the first thing to do. I don't think that an exisiting answer is having any influence if people want to try to take the bounty. Sometimes it's actually harder to write down the basic stuff rigorously than the advanced stuff in a familiar way. $\endgroup$
    – Roland
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 0:03
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ Judging an answer solely according to whether it helps the original asker is not, in my opinion, a good measure. An on-topic answer that addresses the question at a more abstract or higher level is frequently a good contribution to have (and this has been discussed on meta a few times before). You shouldn't accept an answer if it's not helpful for you, though. As an aside, you should keep in mind that you've had a bounty open for one day; saying that people don't seem interested is a bit premature. $\endgroup$
    – user296602
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 1:39
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    $\begingroup$ My understanding is SE sites are created originally as repository of question/answer pairs so that people don't need to answer same questions again and again. It was very successful and has been expanded to cover other topics. math.SE is one them. It is never intended to help people only once. Having answer only useful to the asker is actually against the intention of these sites. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 8:05
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ In the present case, I honestly think that the answer is bad. Anyone who knows that the space of $n$-linear alternating maps is $1$-dimensional (and really understands this) would not ask this question. (Almost) any text which proves that the space is 1 dimensional will almost immediately state uniqueness of the determinant as a corollary. Thus, anybody who is able to understand the answer (and knows the stated theorems) already knows the answer to the question. It is thus of no use to anyone genuinely interested in the original question. $\endgroup$
    – PhoemueX
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 22:02
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ it seems the original answer was deleted. While it might have been unhelpful to the OP, I think that's still a shame, because it did generate some insight (for me) and because I also took the time to clarify some issues / give some perspective in the comments to that answer. $\endgroup$
    – Fryie
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 11:46
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Actually there was another answer, at what might have been a slightly more accessible level with a little more detail, that was deleted less than two days later after some exchange of comments. Getting good answers on a site like this is somewhat hit-or-miss, and to increase the chance of "hit" requires certain kinds of input (and not other kinds) from the asker. I sense that either there is not a clear enough picture of what is required for someone to really answer the question, or something in the conversation surrounding the question makes people reluctant to get involved, or maybe both. $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 16:33
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, there are surely some things that are a bit weird in this situation. For one thing, it is not 100% clear what the background of the OP is, in particular how abstract his notions of linear algebra are (this is a problem in linear algebra in general), etc. For a "first course", the question might simply be "too hard". But it's really hard to tell without more specific input. So @Quality, if you really care about the issue, please state more explicitly what you know. $\endgroup$
    – Fryie
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 17:17

5 Answers 5


Answers can be tailored to the level of the person asking, but answers are not necessarily for one person. An answer to a question that uses higher level techniques is not bad, even though it may not be helpful to everyone. Such an answer might actually inspire someone to investigate how that answer works.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I don't disagree . I just still think it should be somewhat important that people are willing to work with the student , that is what a big part of learning is about anyway $\endgroup$
    – Quality
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 5:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Quality: nothing I said is to the contrary. However, if there are already answers at some levels, alternate answers can be useful. $\endgroup$
    – robjohn Mod
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 7:06

Where do you normally get specific tailored answers to your math questions with back and forth? At a university, in a classroom or during your professor's office hours. Specifically, they are paid to engage with you and make sure you understand.

Nobody is paid here except by internet points. Nor are answers meant for one person. Go ahead and ask for clarification and make it clear none of the answers suit you, but don't think otherwise you are being done a disservice. You get what you get and you can be thankful there is a site where people give their own time toward helping you understand math better.


The answer that was given uses techniques more advanced then in my class,

Sounds good. Advanced answers are one of the best things on the site.

and is not even the way we are supposed to approach it.

Math.stackexchange.com is not part of that "we". Its users are here voluntarily and are not "supposed" to do anything in particular.

However, the answer was left and the user wouldn't respond to my additional questions.

That is wonderful: "the answer was left"! A stranger did the nice thing of leaving a response to your message. That's quite a positive, they are far above zero without having ever met you, and they stay there without doing anything more such as answering more questions.

The poster of a question is not owed anything.

The act of typing a question into a web site does not create any obligation for anyone to do anything in response to the question. The more interesting the question, the more likely it will be to attract attention.

Instead it gets piles of upvotes because I'm sure it is a good answer.

The votes don't affect you, except maybe to get more page-views of the question. Placement of questions on the MSE front page is determined in part by upvotes.

It just does not help me.

It also didn't harm you. In addition, the answerer might have enjoyed writing the answer, and it could help others (including a later and more knowledgeable version of you that can appreciate the advanced answer) in the future. A net positive overall.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ By the way, the question on the main site that led to this is a good example of how "context, work and effort" can turn a clear question into a mess. $\endgroup$
    – zyx
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 20:28

I write stuff here mostly for my own education/remembering process. Then, if what I've written seems like it could be helpful to the questioner, I press "Post." However, it's hard to guess what the person posing the question knows or finds easy to understand. I try to make a guess based on the question, but I can be wrong.

If the person posing the question then says, you're relying on theorems unknown to me, it's really hard to rewrite the answer to avoid those theorems. I tend to just refer people to a book where the theorems are proved.


If you find an answer unhelpful, downvote it.

As an answerer, I do not care what grade/year of college the asker is in. I write answers when I feel like writing an answer on the topic of the question. The asker's education is their own business.

  • 14
    $\begingroup$ I disagree with downvoting an answer because it goes over the head of the asker; I generally reserve downvotes for things that I consider (somewhat) objectively bad or irrelevant. That is, I try to decide if the answer has potential to be useful to someone with the a similar question - if no, then it likely deserves a downvote. $\endgroup$
    – user296602
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 1:01
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Well that's just a bad attitude then $\endgroup$
    – Quality
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 1:38
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "writing an answer on the topic of the question." Is this just a way to say "answering the question" or do you actually mean something more general? $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ -1: i think it's fine to write an answer whenever you feel like it, or to write an answer that is more general / presents another way (especially when a satisfactory answer was already given), but "the asker's education is their own business" sounds very condescending to me, and I hope that's not your attitude towards helping other people. $\endgroup$
    – Fryie
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 12:37
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    $\begingroup$ @T.Bongers I personally find Sally's extremely excessive use of downvotes to be quite detrimental to the site. In fairness though, Sally didn't suggest that one should downvote an answer because it goes over the head of the asker, rather that one should downvote it, if they find it to be unhelpful - whatever that reason may be. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 15:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Fryie: Condescending... "I do not think it means what you think it means." It might be a brusque attitude, and presumably a point of disagreement for you, but expecting others to bear responsibility for educating themselves is the apparent opposite of "showing... patronizing superiority". $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 17:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Fryie: On a less related note, you did a great job of filling in blanks via Comments for the OP's original question. I don't think you left a stone unturned in trying to clarify matters. $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @hardmath I might have chosen the wrong word. To me there's a difference between saying "you should make an effort, ask specific questions and try to prove things for yourself" and "your education is your own business" - imagine if a teacher said that! I know we're not teachers, but we're still trying to help, aren't we? And at least trying to consider the situation the asker is in goes a long way. Of course nobody can be blamed for not having the time, but "if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything" (this refers to this comment, not to answering a question!) $\endgroup$
    – Fryie
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 18:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @hardmath And thank you. I'm in my second undergraduate year and I can relate to somebody not having all the necessary background (because I don't have most of it myself :)) $\endgroup$
    – Fryie
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 18:17

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