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This question already has an answer here:

For some reason, it seems that more recently the users of this site have adopted the fashion of commenting things like "What have you tried?", "Show your work", etc. In almost every question for which the OP has not shown his work.

I completely disagree with this stance, here's why:

  • The comment gets upvoted.

  • The op might or might not show his/her work (which is not something required to as a question here).

  • If OP doesn't show work, the question most often gets a few downvotes/close votes.

So, in many cases, if someone finds an interesting problem (here's another discussion: homework vs no homework, but I don't feel like going into that here) that he/she doesn't have the knowledge/abilities to solve it, it gets closed and forgotten.

What do you guys think?

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marked as duplicate by Xander Henderson, José Carlos Santos, Saad, GNUSupporter 8964民主女神 地下教會, Glorfindel Apr 8 '18 at 17:03

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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    $\begingroup$ Haven't variations of YoTengoUnLCD's question been asked here on meta over and over again. Quick search lead me for example to: What did you try? What have you tried? Is this homework? You will get more help if … No offense intended, but… $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak May 6 '16 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ Very related: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/172758/… $\endgroup$ – Daniel R May 6 '16 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ I forecast that this thread will simply be a rehash of the dozens of older ones, without any new contributions aside from ill will.... $\endgroup$ – user296602 May 6 '16 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ It is a bit unclear what you are asking here. Do you want that users stop posting such comments? Or do you oppose downvoting and closing such questions? (These are two different things.) $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak May 6 '16 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ This is not a duplicate of the 2-3 year old discussions. @MartinSleziak $\endgroup$ – zyx May 6 '16 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for raising the issue and callling the Craze by its name. $\endgroup$ – zyx May 6 '16 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Related meta.SE. $\endgroup$ – Surb May 6 '16 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ Here is a SEDE query which is minor modification of a query linked in one of meta.SE threads. Somebody could play a bit with it or try to improve it, so that we have some actual data rather than just subjective impressions. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak May 7 '16 at 8:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Martin I've adjusted it slightly: here. Comparing the versions with and without a question mark (which I take as lower and upper bound for the actual number) it seems that we are talking about 1-2% of the questions that make it to SEDE (e.g. April: 120/18000). IIRC comments to deleted questions are not in there so this might be quite skewed. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin May 7 '16 at 9:24
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I largely agree with this sentiment.

The "work" done by an asker generally detracts from questions in numerous ways.

  1. It obfuscates what the asked question actually is.
  2. It prompts users to not answer the question asked, but instead show why that particular line of reasoning doesn't/won't work.
  3. It can make it more difficult for others with the same literal question to find.

That said, bare questions without any further context are still terrible. Lack of precise definitions used can make them seem simply trivial ("This is the definition of quasi-lowelcheus!"), or even allow for various alternative and seemingly contradictory answers. Lack of source information will make questions more difficult for others to find, and more difficult to answer in a manner meaningful to the asker. (At the extreme end, not citing a source would also seem to make such questions an act of plagiarism, especially if these questions are transcribed word-for-word and symbol-for-symbol, as often appears to happen.)

To this end I would recommend that we seriously de-emphasize (if not eliminate outright) "work"/"effort" in our discussions of context. Other forms of context are, in my opinion, much better suited for giving precise questions which can be unambiguously answered, and also for future searchability. These two facets should be, I think, central to our understanding of "useful and clear" questions.

And, really, should we be awarding "A"s for effort?

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    $\begingroup$ There aren't many things as frustrating as writing a good answer to a question without context, and then the OP comments "I don't understand any of these concepts". Of course, the main goal is to help others, but it is much easier when you know what the OP is after. You can even have several posts with the same question, but with very different answers, if they are calibrated to different levels and techniques. So when you ask someone to show their work, they have to reveal what they know about the problem, which can give a good estimation as to what sort of answer is sought after. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila May 6 '16 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ If the OP writes and organizes their question well (for example, bolding the question, using ample spacing, etc.) there is no tradeoff between context and ease of understandability. The former only conflicts with the latter when it is done poorly, but any aspect of a question which is done poorly will detract from the clarity of an answer. As someone who used to always try to guess what the OP was most confused about or trying to ask, instead of asking for clarification first, I can say that the results are not positive. $\endgroup$ – Chill2Macht May 6 '16 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ I largely agree with this answer. But there are certain types of questions where own attempts are pretty close to necessary to be able to help. Namely those where it is supposed to be just a matter of applying the definitions with no tricks or anything (and the base topic is advanced enough that the OP must have done the same before). $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft May 6 '16 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf I'd argue that there are better methods to get a rough measure of an asker's level than the self-flagellation of shown work. The page number and title of the book the question came from is often a good indicator. (I'd also argue that the main purpose of SE is to create repositories of awesome answers to questions. Admittedly, this generally results in helping others. Any specific answer might not help the original asker, but it could very well help the next visitor, but only if the question can be later found.) $\endgroup$ – user642796 May 6 '16 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ @William And how many of our questions are cleanly delineated like that? And how many are later edited into that shape? From what I can gather, the answers are "not many" and "virtually none". Though that sort of formatting would allow me to skip over the often horrendous effort I have no interest in reading anyway. $\endgroup$ – user642796 May 6 '16 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ @TobiasKildetoft I'm a bit confused. If a question like "Show that all polismates are portitian" should just be definition handling, why wouldn't the precise definitions of polismate and portitian be sufficient context to give an reasonable answer? As opposed to possibly trying to wean these definitions from the attempts of the asker. $\endgroup$ – user642796 May 6 '16 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ I don't disagree with the sentiment that there are easier ways of finding out the context. But I think there are two issues here: (1) Feynman's algorithm, and specifically forcing someone to write the details of their work can end up with them figuring the problem on their own. (2) I agree that the ultimate goal is to have a problem and a bunch of good answers, but this can also be divided by "level"; questions about continuity can be asked in the context of general topology and in the context of metric spaces, and in the context of real analysis, and in each instance different answers [...] $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila May 6 '16 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ [...] can be given, and different answers can be very good. It makes some sense, at least to me, that such a question is better asked in three separate posts with three different contexts. It is more helpful, and easier to find too, than one general question with a bunch of seemingly inaccessible answers (or too convoluted answers if you look at them from the abstract point of view). $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila May 6 '16 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @arjafi I, and many others I believe, consider definition to be context -- it's what's written in the "How to ask a good question" thread after all. And indeed, simply reading and writing down the definitions is more effort than many students undertake when faced with a problem of the type "write down the definitions and deduce this obvious corollary". (That said, I agree with 90% of your post.) $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi May 7 '16 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi I think I've essentially said that providing full definitions is much more useful in terms of context than providing effort. (Your comment seems to imply that I've said otherwise, and I'm not exactly sure where you get that from.) My response to Tobias was essentially "An asker only giving precise definitions used should allow an answerer to give a good answer. Perhaps an even better answer than if only 'effort' was provided." $\endgroup$ – user642796 May 7 '16 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ @arjafi No, on the opposite, I understood that you're in favor of providing full definitions. What I'm saying is that I, and others, also believe that it can provide sufficient context in replacement of showing one's work. (The close reason doesn't say "show your work", it says "provide context".) The part of your post I disagree with is when you say that work shown obfuscates the real question, but other people had already commented on that. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi May 7 '16 at 9:50
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It is considered, by not few though certainly not all, as a requirement for a questioner to provide context for the question asked. This context can take many forms, one of them is their work on the problem.

When "someone finds an interesting problem" there most always will be some story to this finding. Recounting this story can serve as context.

While I agree that "show your work" and "what have you tried" comments are sometimes overused, it seems to me that this happens often when no other context is provided. In a way it is used as short for "Please provide some context for the problem. For example this could be your work on the problem."

Thus, when you come across such a comment in a situation where you feel it is not fitting, you may want to elaborate that there are other forms of context that can be provided instead, as explained in the linked to answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think that "there most always will be some story to this finding" (and what exactly is that supposed to mean)? This is not alt.literature but, rather, math.stackexchange, so one should not deprecate questions for lack of storytelling! $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 6 '16 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ Let us start a step earlier, what does "someone finds an interesting problem" mean exactly? Well, it could mean many things: they could have read it somewhere, they could have extrapolated it from something known, they could have made numerical experiments and conjecture it based on them, etc. To state what was the case is the "story." $\endgroup$ – quid May 6 '16 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Fischer May 9 '16 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "overused" $\endgroup$ – tilper Sep 19 '16 at 12:51
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The problem (most of) those comments are addressing are not related to posts from people who have interesting problems that they can't solve, but rather students who copy-and-paste their homework assignments and demand answers. Those problems are not interesting and have no inherent value aside from helping the student get a higher grade on his homework assignment without putting any work into it. I don't care in the slightest about a student's grades or whether he "shows his work"; I'm not a high-school math teacher, and I'm certainly not his high-school math teacher.

I do, however, want this site to be genuinely about mathematics, rather than a generic homework-help site. To that end, I'm happy to keep any question that has genuine mathematical content or to help people understand mathematics; that's a worthwhile goal, and this is one of the few sites where that's possible. Questions that are simply homework problems with no real questions in them (that is, nothing specific, or a desultory "I don't know where to start" for something that's clearly a homework problem and should have been covered in the poster's class) are neither. Thus, for example, I have no problem downvoting this question. (My apologies for picking on that particular poster; that was just the first such question I found in the review queue.) There's no indication of where the student is stuck; the problem itself is a standard multivariable calculus problem that is undoubtedly completely equivalent to dozens in his notes or textbook; and the post is nothing more than "Do my homework for me!"

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    $\begingroup$ This ignores the issue raised by the OP: that in the name of stopping "homework assignments that demand answers", the "posts from people who have interesting problems" are being routinely closed and deleted. I would add that the questions that survive this treatment are often made worse (by including erroneous or useless material from the OP's, who by definition cannot solve the problem), or too localized (turns question into personal tutoring for OP's particular mistakes, something it is not built to do). A clean statement of an interesting problem is better than the work-and-effort routine. $\endgroup$ – zyx May 6 '16 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ @zyx: I'm saying that I'm not really seeing the issue raised in the OP: Most of the posts that I've seen thus marked were marked legitimately. The main exceptions I can think of are contest or contest-style problems, but they're not terrific representatives either. That having been said, I would prefer to replace the current "context" reason for closing with a few more specific directions. $\endgroup$ – anomaly May 6 '16 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ I'm seeing most problem-only posts being targeted for closing or deletion, including a lot of interesting questions. Not only the contest- or homework-like material. The Review Queues automate the process. $\endgroup$ – zyx May 6 '16 at 17:20
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If the user doesn't show their work or some type of context, it can be difficult to give a helpful answer because it is unclear what they don't understand. Then they will edit their question so your answer looks bad and then everyone who is new to the question will downvote your answer. You can't help someone to understand something if you don't know what is they don't already understand.

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    $\begingroup$ That or you give ridiculously confused and unclear answers like I did because you didn't clarify from the OP exactly what they were asking for and then you write a bad answer as a result and get downvoted a lot. $\endgroup$ – Chill2Macht May 6 '16 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ The point of this meta question is that the show-your-work craze is also happening on questions where there is not any particular difficulty or unclarity that could be resolved by adding what passes for "work and effort" on MSE. On the contrary, adding the W+E makes the question longer and "too localized", in the older closing vocabulary. $\endgroup$ – zyx May 6 '16 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ See but that's the thing; while answering a question you might not think there is any particular difficulty or unclarity, but what isn't clear or immediate for one person is different for another person, so if askers don't make an effort to add in context, it is far less likely that they will get an answer that addresses the most salient points. There's nothing wrong with self-contained questions or the questions being too long, provided that the askers structure their answers clearly and make the extra effort to make them difficult to read. $\endgroup$ – Chill2Macht May 6 '16 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ This meta question is not about "context" in a general sense, but the specific behavior on the main site of pressing an OP for work and effort (or closing their question) if a posting lacks a demonstration of those characteristics. The OP clarifying what they might want, if you consider that necessary, is not a matter of work and effort to solve the problem. You seem to be defending the pestering for work/effort by talking about clarification of what the OP wants, but clarity does not necessarily require any effort to solve the problem. $\endgroup$ – zyx May 6 '16 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that it's annoying to close their question if they don't show work/context -- if someone wants to try and answer the question regardless, all the more power to them. As for the characterization as "pestering" or "epidemic" or "plague" I totally disagree. It's just an established social convention which developed naturally because it helps people to better answer questions. Yes, I have answered some questions where OP didn't show work, but those answers are usually longer and require more effort because it's not possible to identify certain details as being most salient and focusing $\endgroup$ – Chill2Macht May 6 '16 at 22:19
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What do you guys think?

I think that "work and effort in question" is a very poor proxy for "interesting" and "potentially valuable to answer", and that promoting the proxy to a survival criterion for questions reduces the quality of material on the main site.

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Without passing judgement on whether these comments are good or bad, I would like to note that these sort of comments have been officially banned from stackexchange for a couple years now. See the official response on meta.stackexchange here:

"What have you tried" epidemic

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    $\begingroup$ The automatic block prevents linking to the website whathaveyoutried-dot-com or something like that, but the policy seems to apply to "what have you tried" style comments more generally. $\endgroup$ – Nick Alger May 6 '16 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Stack Overflow also does a regular-expression pattern match to block things like "What$\ast$tried$\ast$?" in short comments. You literally could not type "what have you tried" as a comment. $\endgroup$ – zyx May 6 '16 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ While that thread is on Meta.SE now, I believe it predates the creation of Meta.SE and was ported there from Meta.SO. In any case the Question is somewhat specific to the use of such Comments on StackOverflow, and is not directly related to assigned exercise Questions at Math.SE. That said, I agree that "what have you tried?" is often a banal response to genuine confusion on the part of an OP and that a thoughtful reply asking for clarification would almost always better serve the purpose. $\endgroup$ – hardmath May 6 '16 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ -1 Should be a comment. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin May 6 '16 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ @LordFarin This is indeed an answer. Whether you or I like it or not, this rule provides a clear and definitive answer to the question. $\endgroup$ – Nick Alger May 6 '16 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick Obviously that simple-minded SE heuristic doesn't solve the problem on MSE (else the OP wouldn't have asked the question). There are many ways to pester questioners about this and related issues. One cannot expect a bot to intelligently filter them all. As such, I agree with LF that this is not an answer, and should be a comment. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 6 '16 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque I don't particularly like such a hard-and-fast rule myself (oftentimes "what have you tried" is annoying and pointless, but sometimes it can be helpful), but you have to admit that by allowing these comments here we are acting direct contradiction with a highly entrenched rule established by stackexchange employees. Saying "what have you tried" and "show your work" to someone asking a math homework question is essentially equivalent to asking someone with a computer science homework question "what have you tried" and "show your code", which is what was happening on SO. $\endgroup$ – Nick Alger May 7 '16 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick You are mistaken. The thread was originally on meta.SO before it became meta.SE, and as such should be interpreted as being localised to SO. And even if it weren't, the network-wide interpretation is in direct contradiction with the self-moderation principle that the SE network is built on. SE employees have no business in determining how a community can and cannot moderate the site (abuse etc. put aside). That's what meta and moderators are for. In that context, I can only reject your post as argumentum ad verecundiam. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin May 7 '16 at 8:44

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