I'm not sure what to respond to these questions. Most people just answer the stated problem which is not what the question is asking, however is probably the best response. This typically satisfies the querent.

It's hard to answer because what does "like" mean? Like in what way?

I think there is something of value of asking about general techniques rather than specific problems, numbers, etc. I don't want to just answer the example problem if the question is more general.

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    $\begingroup$ 'It's hard to answer because what does "like" mean? Like in what way?' Well, then ask for clarification in a comment. Can you give an example where you had the difficulty you describe? Other than that, it should usually be possible to solve the specific problem and explain in parallel what methods are used and how they could be applied to related problems. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Dec 29, 2016 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ I was almost expecting some joke about Maria... $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2016 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ I think you should answer what you can, to the best of your ability. Others will hopefully interpret the OP and do likewise, and the OP can decide which answers (if any) are most helpful. There's no point in trying to set deterministic rules for answering questions with a level of uncertainty in interpretation. Let the wisdom of the crowd do its thing. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2017 at 4:03

1 Answer 1


The most tragic part about mathematics is that students often lack the ability or vocabulary to ask the questions that will really develop their understanding. Instead, they ask vague questions, such as "how do I approach problems like...". Often, I see teachers respond to these sorts of inquiries by shoving equations in the student's face--"just plug in the numbers", they say. I cringe when I see this, because it makes the student think that memorizing an equation is the same as understanding the problem.

When I tutor kids and they ask me something as open ended as that, I tell them to put down their pencil for a minute and take a break. Vague questions are a strong indication that the student is overthinking the problem. That is true on SE as well.

I recommend reminding the OP of the foundation of the problem. It is possible that the question that they are asking is well beyond their current level of understanding. The comments section is a great resource. Ask the OP questions about what they are trying to accomplish. Comment a link to some literature on the topic. Try to get the OP to specify their question.

Ultimately, I would down vote a question like that, unless the OP specifies what it is they are asking.

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    $\begingroup$ This is great in theory but currently the problem with this that I see is that while you are trying to determine the OP's confusion someone else comes along and answers the specific question given and it then gets upvoted the underlying issue is lost. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Miller
    Jan 9, 2017 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ So you would downvote questions that are asking for a general way to solve a type of problem? $\endgroup$
    – suomynonA
    Jan 10, 2017 at 6:53

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