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I am pretty new in this community and honestly do not know if this question is too out of place here, please let me know and I will delete it.

When I try to give an answer to something that looks like part of a homework, I avoid going into too many details, just giving enough information for the OP to figure the rest out. But then I get bombarded with comments like 'what do I do next?', 'should I then do ...?' 'what happens if ...?' Should I reply to these comments?

My impression so far is that, more often than not, there's another user in the community that is willing to post a full reply, with a step-by-step solution to the original post. So even if I don't answer these comments, somebody else will, which kind of defeats the purpose of being subtle to begin with.

I do realize that sometimes this may be the result of a race for votes, which I believe shouldn't be the case, but because of the dynamics of the community is already established like this, I do not know if I should just post a possible reply and forget about it, or should I keep in the discussion? down vote answers that are too explicit for homework?

Thanks in advance for you comments

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    $\begingroup$ What about not answering in the first place? $\endgroup$ – quid May 14 '17 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ @quid That's a definitely a solution, but that is like turning your back to the problem (see my third paragraph), should I do that? $\endgroup$ – caverac May 14 '17 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ If you want to prevent answer being given, you should vote to close the question. I wrote an answer. $\endgroup$ – quid May 14 '17 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ Whenever you feel like it. Presumably you have a life and this is not your job. I'm running late to dinner, or I want to watch TV, or I just don't feel like dealing with that person. Those are all valid reasons to log off and unplug. $\endgroup$ – Robert Soupe May 16 '17 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ So... because you think a question is homework, that gives you the right to essentially discriminate against the user and refuse to give them a complete and full answer that would be acceptable in a formal class setting? I find that to be quite disconcerting. When I ask a question, I expect that the answer I receive is full and complete and that the answer gives me the actual final answer. Refusing to give someone the actual final result is absurd. $\endgroup$ – The Great Duck May 18 '17 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ "Refusing to give someone the actual final result is absurd." - eh? This is the Internet; no one is obliged to give anything in full (most especially since this is all being done voluntarily). $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician May 19 '17 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ "When I ask a question, I expect that the answer I receive is full and complete and that the answer gives me the actual final answer." When I ask a question, I expect nothing at all, and I am grateful for anything that exceeds my expectations. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 19 '17 at 4:31
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    $\begingroup$ @TheGreatDuck I do not believe that encouraging somebody to think qualifies as discrimination, but I can understand the point you're making $\endgroup$ – caverac May 19 '17 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson let me rephrase it a different way. When I go to read an answer on this site (whether it be 'my' question or anyone else's), I anticipate that the answer will be a full complete answer that is well written and competent. I definitely expect a level of quality and a completeness to it. If that couldn't be done by the author then they could've at least posted it as a comment or even just saved the post for later to come back to if they were busy. One should never use "I'm volunteering" as an excuse to shank quality. $\endgroup$ – The Great Duck May 19 '17 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ @caverac Well what I mean to say is that you propose to give a different answer based on suspicion of it being homework and my argument is that you are then being in some way biased. When reading a question on here you shouldn't look at who is asking it or what the problem might be. Rather, those biases should be put to the side once you decide to answer the question. If you have an issue with the question, then I would recommend leaving a comment and not posting a lower quality answer. A well quality answer will be much more useful in the long run that a possibly annoying and useless hint. $\endgroup$ – The Great Duck May 19 '17 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @The, I'm reminded of a comedy sketch I once saw, where someone wants to hitch a ride from New York to San Francisco, and a driver comes along who is willing to take the hitchhiker as far as Oakland, and the hitchhiker turns down the offer. "Completeness" is not a good standard for hitchhiking, nor for m.se. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 20 '17 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ @The, "deserves" doesn't enter into the calculation. The driver feels it would be better for the hitchhiker to get out and finish off the problem on her own. And none of us on m.se were even planning to go to Oakland in the first place. We were quite happy to stay in New York, but offered, out of the kindness of our hearts, to take the hitchhiker to Oakland. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 20 '17 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ @The, "The goal of MSE is to provide a means by which anyone who wishes to go to san fransisco can go there without anyone having to provide further effort." Where does it say that? [and, even if it does say that somewhere, why can't we subvert it for the superior goal of giving people the tools they need to make the further effort that is going to be necessary when we aren't there to hold their hands?] $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 20 '17 at 4:56
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    $\begingroup$ @The, "an answer that at least includes the final solution somewhere is a little more useful than a partial answer" – in the short run, yes. In the long run, no. (And I'm init for the long run.) As for "posting purposefully bad answers," you seem to be conflating quality with completeness. I consider that incomplete answers can be of higher quality than complete ones. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 20 '17 at 5:14
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    $\begingroup$ @The, "it seems like the OP is in a tactful way saying that they purposefully give useless answers to people they think are cheaters." What OP actually wrote was, "When I try to give an answer to something that looks like part of a homework, I avoid going into too many details, just giving enough information for the OP to figure the rest out." An answer that lets OP figure the rest out is not a purposefully useless answer. It could be the most useful answer OP could possibly get. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 20 '17 at 12:13
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While I agree with quid's1 answer, let me add a point I consider very important: You do volunteer work when you answer questions, and you are entitled to do it on your own terms.

If you think a conversation is going in an unwanted direction, you can leave it. It is polite to tell the other party as much, but I would not consider you obliged to do anything. For example, you can leave a comment like this: "I think my answer answers your question as stated. Filling in all the background details would be a sidetrack here. Please ask a separate question about them and give a link to this question to add context."

In this community there are no private communications. (Well, there are moderator chat rooms and all that, but the main activity of the Q&A site is for all to see.) If you decide not to answer, someone else can. And if no one does, then perhaps the question was badly asked in the first place, or should have been asked as a separate question.

For a more extreme example, my SE profile links to my homepage with my contact details, and I have received some unsolicited requests for math help. I always refuse out of principle to help unknown people via email, unless it directly relates to my own research. I'm usually polite enough to recommend asking at this site, but I certainly don't feel compelled to reply at all. If I help someone online with math, I will do it my way.


1 I feel tempted to spell it cuius instead of quid's, but I resist the temptation.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Joonas, this is a very important point you bring, all this is volunteer work after all, and I certainly appreciate the politeness of the comment above. It is also true that in many cases other users will restraint themselves from posting any further after something like this comes up in the post. Thanks for your reply. (+1 for sheer honesty =)) $\endgroup$ – caverac May 15 '17 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ Cuius - very funny. Wonder how many of the kids got it (O tempora..) $\endgroup$ – David C. Ullrich Mar 2 '18 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidC.Ullrich Thanks! I'm glad to finally get confirmation that the humor did no go unnoticed. I hope everyone who gets it finds their way to Latin Language Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$ – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 2 '18 at 19:41
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I am pretty new in this community and honestly do not know if this question is too out of place here, please let me know and I will delete it.

It's fine. Indeed, if anything it came up too frequently already... :-)

When I try to give an answer to something that looks like part of a homework, I avoid going into too many details, just giving enough information for the OP to figure the rest out. But then I get bombarded with comments like 'what do I do next?', 'should I then do ...?' 'what happens if ...?' Should I reply to these comments?

In my opinion, you should reply something. However, you can very well reply what you said here: "I tr[ied] to give an answer to something that looks like part of a homework, I avoid[ed] going into too many details, just giving enough information for [you] to figure the rest out."

My impression so far is that, more often than not, there's another user in the community that is willing to post a full reply, with a step-by-step solution to the original post. So even if I don't answer these comments, somebody else will, which kind of defeats the purpose of being subtle to begin with.

There are competing views on this subject. I for one am rather of the opinion that one should either be willing to give a complete answer (which still might be terse) or not answer at all. The principal idea of the site is to provide answers that are "ready to use." That is, if you feel not comfortable answering a question completely, maybe just do not answer the question and possibly vote to close it for "lack of context," if applicable.

I do realize that sometimes this may be the result of a race for votes,[...]

Well, incomplete answers or "hints" are often quicker to write down and they can be very popular, so one could just as well argue that what you do may be the result of a race for votes. I take it, it is not, just to point out that there is whole different way to look at it, too.

[...] I do not know if I should just post a possible reply and forget about it, or should I keep in the discussion?

As said above, I think it is generally a good idea to be explicit about ones intentions. No one here is a mind-reader (or who knows...but then in any case I'd think at least hardly anyone :-)). Somebody else could just as well reply to the questions directed at you or complete your answer, because they think you might be busy with something else now.

downvote answers that are too explicit for homework?

It is a somewhat common practice. It is also controversial. Personally, I would not answer a question incompletely and downvote complete competing answers. I sometimes (but rarely) downvote answers to questions that I believe are clearly off-topic; yet, if I do so at all than this is rather directed at poor answers.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the reply, I really appreciate the time you put on it. Your position about giving complete answers is certainly very practical. I do believe this isn't a black-or-white problem and in some situations the person asking the question may be genuinely in trouble trying to understand something, in which case giving a full answer would be the most reasonable thing to do. As you point out, it's truly hard to read somebody's mind from a few words written in a post. Thanks once again, I truly hope to hear more opinions on the subject $\endgroup$ – caverac May 14 '17 at 17:57
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In writing answers it should be considered that over time your readers will largely consist of people who are not the Original Poster of the question.

The goal of Math.SE is to collect excellent content for learners of mathematics at all levels, so it is possible that a Question might be homework for the OP, yet worth answering because it is novel in some way for Math.SE as a whole.

If you have misgivings about giving an answer that is "complete" because it will deprive the OP from the learning of attempting the problem for themselves, then in most cases it does not make as much sense to post a "hint" as an Answer as it would as a Comment (possibly as a Socratic exchange of comments).

I would draw the line at posting answers where I expect future Readers to benefit from the response. Sometimes the value added is by giving an alternative approach, or a complementary example that illustrates the necessity of certain hypotheses. Included in my value calculation is the educational benefit I get from researching an answer.

That said, I recognize I'm not a "normative" participant. There are some who respond with a quickly composed "hint" shortly after Questions are posted and are reluctant to elaborate even when gaps are pointed out. If rapid accumulation of reputation is the metric, this is a superior strategy.

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  • $\begingroup$ I truly appreciate all the comments and discussion this question has spawned, in particular your point about the legacy of this site. I am not a very experienced participant in this community, and assessing the relevance and novelty of a given question for MS as a whole is still challenging for me, but I can appreciate the fact that these are the answers that make this archive unique, beyond a mere repository for homework solutions. Thanks for your comments, I really appreciate it $\endgroup$ – caverac May 15 '17 at 10:37
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The original intent of the OP should be of no concern. Also the identities of the askers, commenters, etc. are irrelevant. I think one should stick to the contents of the various messages and ignore (mostly) what one might think about the other communicative aspects (like identity or intent).

The reasoning is clearly that your question displays a view on SE as a kind of one-to-one communication tool but obviously it is not. Questions and answers linger for years and are public. I know a lot of people who have never posted anything on any SE forum but regularly search for answers to questions they have but do not ask (for whatever reason) and hope someone else has already asked. And as I see it this way of using SE without contributing is completely okay.

A question concerning a homework can easily be too specific to be of any help to anybody else but the OP; then the question has a high probability to be off-topic (it's not certain, though). If it is off-topic, the question should be removed for the known reasons. Please vote/flag accordingly then. If the question is not off-topic, then later viewers might have a different reason to search for an answer than homework.

From my own experience I know how frustrating it can be to find "only hints" then instead of complete answers. For example, I'm a software developer with a decent mathematical background which was never on a maths-studying level and which is years past now. Once in a while I need some answer to something very "basic" like "What's the result of $e ^ {\pi i} $?". If I happen to find my question somewhere in SE, I'm happy to find a proper answer as well. If the answer is just something like "Oh, that's easy, just consider the imaginary plane and that $\pi$ describes a half circle. Try for yourself!", then from my point of view this answer is useless (and I might even downvote it, but more likely I'll ignore it) because I'm not learning this stuff anymore, I just need it sometimes.

If an OP continues to ask follow-up questions as comments (despite a complete answer!), do not regard them as only directed at you (identity should not be too important, even if the OP as well might see it that way). They are put to the community, not you alone. Right, OP can add the @alfe, to address a person directly and the author of the post of the comment will always be notified about the new message. But that does not exclude anybody else; it is just a technical means to notify the ones most likely to answer the question. If you feel you should not answer anymore, don't. You could be on holiday or have missed the notification. Of course it might be polite to respond with telling why you don't answer, but on the other hand that might seem to close the discussion off. Instead of a "I don't want to go into any more details because I think you should better try out the rest for yourself" I'd prefer a "Maybe somebody else is willing to answer this?".

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    $\begingroup$ Despite the tone of my question I do realize that the purpose of SE transcends the identity or motivation of the OP, and definitely can understand the fact that the answers posted on the site will be potentially useful for many users in the future. I can also relate to how frustrating can be to get a hint-type of answer when one really looks for solid reply to a question. Thanks for your reply $\endgroup$ – caverac May 16 '17 at 13:39
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Here's an analogy I like to compare this scenario to: Imagine that you're a dentist and the person who asked the question is a normal person. This normal person doesn't know how to brush his teeth in this case and asks for help. The dentist helps him out by showing how to brush some teeth on a fake set of detachable teeth that he has.

But now the person keeps insisting that he will visit the dentist everyday so that the dentist can brush your teeth for you.

So, you have to just tell them that at some point you will let them try things on their own and that you can't hold their hand forever. And that they should try some things out on their own, make mistakes, learn from them and then come back after a bit for the next checkup instead of coming everyday.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the dentist could make a lot of money off someone who makes a new appointment every day. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 19 '17 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ Well think of the dentist as a friend who happens to be a dentist and that you won't be paying him $\endgroup$ – Smit Shah May 19 '17 at 4:39
  • $\begingroup$ That's precisely the breakdown: none of the answerers here are monetarily compensated, AFAICT. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician May 19 '17 at 6:58
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    $\begingroup$ @SmitShah Elaborating on your analogy, I think the question can be translated to: 'when should the dentist tell the patient to try and brush their teeth on their own?' $\endgroup$ – caverac May 19 '17 at 14:25

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