So I'm a math teacher and would like my students to get comfortable with this community and to get familiar with this resource. To this end I've daydreamed about assigning them a problem, then posting it here as a question, requiring my students to submit answers.

All of the questions I've read have to do with the student who posts a question and receives help through answers. But that's not the situation here. My thinking is that the students can learn a lot by posting answers and then engaging with the community in all the usual ways: receiving feedback, editing their presentation, learning to use $\LaTeX$ in a way that clarifies concepts, &c. &c. &c. So it doesn't seem to run afoul of the homework policies here.

On the other hand, I don't really have a question about "how do I prove this foo is bar?" So I feel like it's a bit of a disingenuous use of the site.

Have any others tried this? Is there guidance on this? Does this strike you as an on-topic type of question to ask?

Some comments suggested local sites, scoped instances of Stacks, &c. My response was:

To address a couple of the comments: either using our native CMS or a localized instance of a Stack would undercut the intent: to get students introduced to and participating in this community. I've got plenty of ways to get them to interact with each other and with me; it's blowing out those walls that I'm looking for, and guiding them through the process of becoming a productive member of an organization that, to their generation, will be as important as an MAA membership was/is to mine.

In other words, the explicit object of this (hypothetical) exercise is to get students' foot in the door here.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect it really depends on how you actually ask, and if your question meets community standards (part of getting comfortable with this community is how to write a good question). So having "how do I prove this foo is bar?" or "prove foo" is not enough for a good question. Also I am not sure how the community feels about people asking a bunch of questions they know how to answer... $\endgroup$
    – user29123
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 2:29
  • $\begingroup$ I think that second part is where I'm suspecting some discussion. Let's assume that I'll post well-posed questions. But they (presumably) will be ones that I know the answer to. But there's nothing inherently wrong with that, as the "answer your own question" tooltip reminds us. And there's nothing saying that the solution I have in mind is the best one. So I don't see it as completely cut-and-dry. $\endgroup$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 3:14
  • $\begingroup$ I think the main concern is that it may appear that you and your students are colluding to earn points. But otherwise I do not see any problem with your situation. $\endgroup$
    – JRN
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ This older discussion is related (in the sense that the OP there was also interested to use math.SE for students in their course): Can my students ask questions in Chinese here, and can I write answers in Chinese? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think it would be much better to set up your own website, and carry out your proposed activities there. As a side note, I've always taken "answer your own question" to be something you do when someone posts a hint that enables you to answer a question of yours that you weren't able to answer at the time you posted it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 6:26
  • $\begingroup$ A related question on meta.academia.SE: Instanced versions of StackExchange/Academica for classes? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 6:34
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    $\begingroup$ To add to Geryy Myerson's suggestion, you might find some advice related to various e-learning tools on academia.SE (which has online-learning tag) and matheducators.SE (you might check online-instruction tag). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 6:40
  • $\begingroup$ And you can find some such question even on math.SE. (In fact, I have asked a question on related topic. It was closed as too broad, but it is still possible that if similar question would be asked in a more specific way it might be on-topic here. (But my guess is that the two sites I mentioned in the previous comment are more suitable.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 6:42
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    $\begingroup$ To address a couple of the comments: either using our native CMS or a localized instance of a Stack would undercut the intent: to get students introduced to and participating in this community. I've got plenty of ways to get them to interact with each other and with me; it's blowing out those walls that I'm looking for, and guiding them through the process of becoming a productive member of an organization that, to their generation, will be as important as an MAA membership was/is to mine. $\endgroup$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ It might be useful if you would participate a bit before trying to introduce your students to this community. I saw you are active on other SE sites, yet not this one. Of course I cannot know if you followed the site passively in detail, in which case the point is almost moot. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ Let me add to what @quid said, and point out that even if you have a lot of experience in other SE communities, it is still a good idea that you participate and get the feel of the community before you do something like that. Each SE website is different, and MSE is very different. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ As Dale Berra is said to have said of his father, our similarities are different. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ @nitsua60 I consider the comment explaining why you want to do this on this site rather than on your own website rather relevant to the question and . So if you agree with me that this information is quite important to the question, maybe it could be useful to edit it into the question. (It will be more prominently visible there.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 6:11
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    $\begingroup$ It would also be useful to know whether this was discussed on some other SE sites. The only discussion I was able to find is this: Stack Overflow as a class assignment? You can read the discussion and judge by yourself. My impression that negative reactions prevail, especially in the cases where the subject of the course would be vary basic. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ It is an interesting idea, but there are some caveats. For instance, the high probability to trigger the script for cyclic upvotes detection. Also: how to avoid fast-gun pro-users to provide answers to all your questions, limiting the involvement of your students? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26, 2016 at 0:19

3 Answers 3


This is an interesting idea. I definitely see the appeal of getting learners of mathematics on this site. Used properly, Math.SE can be an incredibly effective resource for learning mathematics.

There is no rule preventing your posing a question and requiring your students to answer this question. There are a few odd interactions that may occur, though. I can think of three quickly, but I'm sure there are more.

  1. For most easily approachable questions here (like I imagine that a question you would pose might be), there are very many users here who provide good answers, formatted well, very quickly.

    I foresee a scenario in which you ask a question and expect your students to answer it over the course of a week. But an hour after you ask it, a few great answers get added and upvoted. Then over the course of the week, your students try to give good, new answers, but the "good" answers are already there, and what should be said has already been said. Or perhaps a few of your students give good answers, but the latecomers face this problem.

    I suppose you might remedy this by posing several questions, as most questions could benefit from one more additional well-written answer.

  2. If you ask a question with a sort of classic approach (like, say, some volume of revolution question in a calculus class, where there are distinguished methodologies that are very similar, then I foresee a problem where later answers are perceived as "copies" of earlier answers and get downvoted by the community.

    This might also be remedied by posing several questions.

  3. There are some automatic vote-fraud detection scripts that run each day. Having a class all answer the same question or set of questions sounds like it might lead to a lot of inter-voting, which would tip off the vote-fraud script. It can be weird to gain reputation and give votes, and then have these discounted.

But I would actually recommend that you take a slightly different approach. I think it might be a good experiment to ask your students to answer some question that's already here, instead of a question posed by you. If you're particularly worried about students finding an appropriate question, you could take on some of the scouting process yourself. There are so many unanswered questions, or questions that have answers but which would benefit from a new well-written answer. I can't say more on this without knowing what sort of class you're teaching, but I highly suspect that there are answerable unanswered questions corresponding to essentially every at least semi-popular tag here.

This has the benefit of having your students actually engage with the community itself in some way. I have a hard time imagining someone in the general community being annoyed (or even noticing, really).

As a final note, I would advise that your students learn something about LaTeX before attempting to answer.

No matter what you decide to do, good luck to you and your students.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for bringing up in my initial concern: The math.SE community tends to have a generally unfavorable view of "correct but isomorphic to something already posted" answers. It would be a disheartening first experience to be the down-votee in that situation, I imagine. $\endgroup$
    – pjs36
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 6:57
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    $\begingroup$ I like that suggestion. I recall hearing about a course that encouraged students (using lucrative bonus incentives) to choose a topic in Wikipedia and edit the hell out of it. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila On the other hand, Wikipedia has detailed guidelines for this kind of projects. I do not know whether some SE site has something addressing the "usage as a teaching tool". $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin: The page history goes all the way to 2012, but I think that I heard about it a couple years before that page existed. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila : this one? $\endgroup$
    – user99914
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Arctic: Unless Israel is an official state in the US, then probably not. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ +1 This is a great suggestion for his students. Were I a student, it would also increase my curiosity seeing a question that I was unable to answer and would then lead me to ask my teacher how to solve said question, increasing the interactivity between teacher and student. $\endgroup$
    – Anoplexian
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 19:41

Some problems I see with this proposal.

  • I would be hesitant to go ahead with something like this unless this is agreed by a community and a rather detailed guidelines are created. (Will such questions be marked by a special tag? Will other users be allowed to answer them? Should we treat those questions differently with regards to voting and closing as duplicates?)
  • I have difficulty to imagine how this would work for some basic course (let us say undergraduate level). I guess that about a half of the question which are reasonable problems for some basic mathematical subject might already have duplicates on this site. I would probably less opposed to something more advanced - since advanced questions and answers to them is the area in which the site is a bit lacking.
  • I would not be surprised to see that often soon after posting a question somebody would comments that it is actually a duplicate. Which would mean that your students could then simply look at answers to other questions and use them to post their solutions. (Although in some cases I think it might be useful to post a more detailed version of already existing answer, which has a form of a hint of which purposely omitted some details which are expected to be filled in by a reader. A beginner would probably omit less details than an experienced user for whom many parts of the proof might be obvious.)
  • If we consider the main purpose of this site to create a repository of interesting questions and good answers, I am not sure whether students learning about these things for the first time would contribute quality answers. I still think that it is useful if somebody who learns the subject tries to answer questions. I agree that this might help the answerer in learning the subject, especially if they receive some feedback to the answer in the comments. But if the rules are that only students of your course should answer your questions, this would probably reduce the number of good answers which other users - already more experienced in the subject - would be able to give.
  • Using this site has a learning curve and learning how to use it correctly takes a lot of time. (Just have a look at the newbies who ask many questions with all of them getting downvoted and closed.) There is only limited time you can expect your students to spend on coursework for one particular course. (In fact, many universities even have some guidelines how much hours is student expected to spend on a particular class depending on the number of credits.) So you would have to subtract the time needed to getting acquainted with SE model and also specifics of this site from the time you expect them to spend studying the subject you are teaching.

I have also tried to check whether something similar was discussed on other sites. I guess that some of the comments posted in discussions on other sites might also be useful for this discussion. However, I was only able to find this one: Stack Overflow as a class assignment?

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    $\begingroup$ If all teachers in the world recommended their student to participate here the number of questions would rise dramatically... However the site has exceptional educational features. $\endgroup$
    – Widawensen
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Widawensis in 20 years I expect every undergraduate assignment to pop as duplicate on this site. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ @LeGrandDODOM It's pretty much already the case. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ @LeGrandDODOM Once I asked here a question what could be an appropriate strategy to deal with growing density of points in the space of answers and questions of MSE ( I assume that some metrics exists in this space) Number of duplicates has to grow unavoidably and it will be harder to ask a new question with proper distance from others in so dense space. $\endgroup$
    – Widawensen
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 9:04

It doesn't seem like anyone else has mentioned this yet, so I'll throw it out there for consideration:

Maybe have your students answer as community wiki? That way they don't receive reputation if their answer is upvoted, and so no one will accuse you of colluding to get points.

Asking the question as community wiki would probably be a good idea too, although I don't know how to do that.

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    $\begingroup$ I think I'd have to flag it to a mod to convert or throw a CW lock on it? In any case, I'm not too worried about fielding accusations of collusion. If some sort of 'bloc-voting' behavior triggers things and a mod or CM thinks it's irregular I'd, of course, stop at the first request to do so. (But I don't even know yet if I'm teaching this class in the coming year--I was just spitballing with a colleague and thought I'd take the temperature over here.) $\endgroup$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 1:22

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