So there was a recent conversation below the main post of When does the series converge?, which prompted this meta post.

I know there are plenty of people who are for and against the closure and voting of others on questions that are of the general form:

So the problem I've been facing...


...and I don't know where to start

Where nothing substantial other than the problem is given. There multiple related meta posts to this topic, a few being

A consolidated homework policy

Problems with homework questions

And while those are all interesting, I'd like people who participate on other math sites or forums/chats give us all a word on what they think about how our policy compares to others.

If you'd like to see how other sites work yourself, I encourage you to check them out as well.

To be more specific, there are many sites where there is no (major) discouragement of questions that come in the above "problem statement" form, and it may be quite interesting to see what those sites are like.

One such chat is Kik. I've got it and I happen to be the black and white cat who's username is Shi_hana (with a bowtie and stuff). If you want to really participate on this thread, you can download Kik on your phone and join all the main math groups.

The particular problem I've found on Kik, where homework problems are a daily thing and people will ask for "help" with their homework, but when you truly try to help them... many will basically ignore you and ask for answers. Try it yourself! (mainly when school kicks back up and the homework starts flooding in)

Some might argue this is only the case with the more basic questions (algebra, trig, geometry, ...) but I've even seen cases of multi-variable calculus where people will join all the math groups, ask for help (in other words, answers), saying its due the next day and all, and make no attempt at the problem, as you try to guide them. Upon which I get frustrated and give up on them.

Of course, there are likewise, many like me on Kik, who are the "helpers", and many share the same vision as me:

People need to show they are trying to do their problems and clearly show they are not relying on others to their problems for them.

In fact, a few group chats on Kik have a rule similar to the above, and the admins will kick anyone abusing the group in this manner. Me included.

Indeed, the reasons for the above are most clear when you are on one extreme of the homework policies, and I feel like math.SE is on the other end of the spectrum, which changes the opinions some users on what I think the real goal of any math.SE user, which, in my opinion, should be something along the lines of

Learn from others, learn from trying, and watch others learn. (learn math that is)

but if people post problems of the form at the beginning of this meta post, the likelihood of the above decreases... quite a bit.

(Kik is very informal and built mostly for social media)


What other sites/forums relating to math problem solving are you a member of?

What's the homework policy?

How do you think it affects the learning environment?

What changes (or lack of changes) would you like to have on this site after your experiences?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I think the policy for Math.SE on "allowed questions" is orthogonal to whether the problem is a homework assignment in reality. Other characteristics of a Question are more important to my close-voting. So I would say that the homework policy is rather agnostic, that homework problems are not a priori excluded (as they are in some SE Communities). $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Aug 2, 2017 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ @hardmath: Back when there was a lot of debate over closing, some of the major voices did their best to cast doubt on the idea that we could distinguish homework questions from others. While intended as a reason to leave everything open, one of the major effects this had was to push the people advocating that some things should be closed to expand their scope to all questions that shared qualities they found disagreeable about the bad homework questions. $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Aug 2, 2017 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ I find it hard to believe that math.SE could be worse than other math sites (and let's restrict the comparison to Q&A sites/forums). $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh Mod
    Aug 3, 2017 at 3:22
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Masacroso : MSE was designed to be a Q&A forum and by that design it can not be used to discuss topics in detail. The idea is that you build your mathematical knowledge from conventional sources like books, papers, my blog (haha! as well as other much better blogs too), YouTube videos, and then if you have a doubt get it clarified here. That said, I have seen some detailed answers which provide information in great depth and sort of cover a topic. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh Mod
    Aug 4, 2017 at 0:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Masacroso: I disagree that chat is a bad format for a proper discussion. So far I have had numerous interesting and in-depth discussions in the logic chat-room and SBA's realm. It works as long as the participants are actually keen on mathematical discussion. It does not work if there is a crank who is allowed to disrupt the conversation. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Aug 4, 2017 at 6:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Masacroso: But I agree that the reputation system is deeply flawed; I've seen many mathematically incompetent users get high reputation very quickly and then teach their nonsense to the poor unsuspecting users. The worst part is that their nonsense cannot be easily removed by the mathematically competent users. This is a defect of not just the voting system but also the junk-removal system. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Aug 4, 2017 at 6:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @user21820 the problem with the chat is the timing... with a forum I can discuss with people of different countries because I dont need to stay at the same time of the other people. More over: a topic in a forum have a title, but in a chat room? I see that discussion is possible in chat but it is not the best format for it. $\endgroup$
    – Masacroso
    Aug 4, 2017 at 6:45
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I want to add also that Im a devoted defender of free talk. For me any kind of political correctness or net etiquette is a terrible cancer. $\endgroup$
    – Masacroso
    Aug 4, 2017 at 6:52
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I've made it a habit to downvote each post beginning with "so". Sorry. $\endgroup$
    – user23365
    Aug 8, 2017 at 18:05
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Relevant (from other Stack Exchange sites): Open letter to students with homework problems ---- Why is “Can someone help me?” not an actual question? $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2017 at 20:35
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Masacroso: The votes are more important than the explanations, since the votes are what the site software needs to actually do a good job of delivering content. The harder you make it to vote, the less often people will do so. $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Aug 9, 2017 at 0:32
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @TakahiroWaki Any comments about how homework style problems on quora or yahoo are handled? $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2017 at 10:48
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @TakahiroWaki Well, everyone has their reasons. But in the long run, I don't think such things should matter too much, and those who actually want to learn math are not deterred. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2017 at 13:33
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If you conclude by yourself, you don't have to ask. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2017 at 13:41
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @TakahiroWaki Why should I trust myself? I'd rather hear the community's thoughts instead of my own. Anyways, thanks for your comments $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2017 at 13:47

4 Answers 4


I think probably one of the best policies that I wish was discussed here more is stated very clearly in PhysicsForums:

Any and all high school and undergraduate homework assignments or textbook style exercises for which you are seeking assistance are to be posted in the appropriate forum in our Homework & Coursework Questions area--not in blogs, visitor messages, PMs, or the main technical forums. This should be done whether the problem is part of one's assigned coursework or just independent study. The reason for this is that the scientific and mathematical sections of Physics Forums are to be reserved for discussions and not academic assistance. Since graduate level assignments are meant to be more thought provoking (and hence more worthy of discussion), graduate level questions will be allowed in the relevant part of the main section of PF, provided that the graduate student attempts the problem and shows his work.

Emphasis mine

I think that is a very important and subtle issue. I don't think there should be a distinction between homework exercises and homework style exercises.

I wish this was something people were more precise about and it would eliminate pointless arguments. "Oh it's not really homework I'm just doing this for fun/self study/etc" which is totally unfalsifiable.

I think having a policy/consensus that homework problem = homework style problem would eliminate needless and pedantic arguments.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Ah yes, I suppose this works too :-) $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2017 at 23:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ As far as (written) policy is concerned I think this is established, at least since the retirement on the homework-tag. But I agree that in practice not everybody is on the same page on this. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Aug 3, 2017 at 0:00
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ I'd love to check KIK out but I don't think my wife would believe me if I told her I joined a dating site to help people out with their homework. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2017 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ So you're saying we should go to Area 51 and suggest a math homework Stack? $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2017 at 13:42

The XKCD webcomic has a math forum and the homework policy was that you should demonstrate the work you're done in an attempt and that you have read all the definitions required. If the poster failed to do so the thread was locked and the recieved a warning. If the poster opened a new thread or attempted the same thing with a new problem they were banned.

As someone who did extensive self-study and would often seek assistance on those forums I found this policy kept all the post in the forum relevant and the quality of the discussion high. Because the forum is very small you could see how much of an impact one person asking a lot of homework question could have. This policy had no visible impact on people who were earnestly trying to learn. The people who were impacted the most tended to be those who would join, then open a bunch of threads with one sentence questions within the first few hours. Very few of these people would show any effort or put any work into the problems when asked for clarification or further details.

Just imagine what a classroom full of students like that might be. Some people are there genuinely trying to understand the material but that one guy who really wants answers to specific calculations without putting in any effort of their own is allowed to dominate the conversation. The signal to noise ratio on that class would be unbearable, no real learning could be done. This policy is one of the reasons I was a member of that community for so long. I strongly feel it created a nurturing and environment for earnest learners like myself.

  • $\begingroup$ this sounds like a good policy, i feel quite a few questions are solved by "have you actually read the definitions", but I don't know how this would be an actual deterrent on the internet, since you can just make a new account. I think one of the important parts is that nobody would answer the question if OP failed to do any of the requirements. $\endgroup$
    – mdave16
    Aug 11, 2017 at 23:14
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @mdave16, I am a part of a relatively private paid forum that works very similarly. The threat of banning for repeatedly asking for answers to homework is a bit more significant then. The general culture of "show your work" and "teach someone to fish..." is also beneficial. The lack of a visible reputation/postcount helps make things a somewhat even playing field (though you could see over time who made many helpful posts). Even though I've been here for a while, I still have trouble adapting to MSE's culture, which feels overly permissive/quick-to-give-complete-answers. $\endgroup$
    – Mark S.
    Aug 13, 2017 at 19:25

I'm not on any other math sites other than here, but I'm active on other Stack Exchange sites and have (modest) reputation on some of them (5K on Stack Overflow, for example, and a couple of gold badges for working the review queues there) and can describe what we do there for homework.

First, on Stack Overflow the rules are specific that "Questions asking for homework help must include a summary of the work you've done so far to solve the problem, and a description of the difficulty you are having solving it."

Also, here's Stack Overflow's FAQ article on "requirements-only" questions: Why is “Can someone help me?” not an actual question? Its point is that these questions are impossible to answer without giving the OP the entire code base (or, in this case, the entire answer) because it's completely unclear what part of that they're confused about. This kind of question basically evaluates to "gimme the codez" / "do my work for me."

Also, one of the main purposes of Stack Exchange is to be a repository of knowledge; this being said, one of the main characteristics of a good question is that it's likely to be searched by others. Odds are (unless you're working on an exercise from a popular textbook or something like that) no one will be trying to do exactly the same thing in the same way as you, so these questions tend to be too localized to be helpful to future readers.

Also, this FAQ article from Software Engineering SE argues that, not only are we not a code-writing/proof-writing service, just copying and pasting someone else's answer is actively harmful to students because it prevents them from learning the material. Copy and paste takes no skill, and the only way to learn this stuff is to practice. Furthermore, mathematics and computer science education tends to be highly sequential; if I hadn't paid attention in my Calculus and high-school algebra classes, I would've been hopelessly lost in Differential Equations and not even able to understand the lectures or textbook.


What I think works here, most of the time, is that if people post homework questions, there is an understanding amongst most of the community that the real question is "are you trying to learn mathematics" as opposed to "getting credit for answering the question". No line will do the job perfectly (statisticians will tell us we will have alpha and beta errors). Most of the time, this site works well. Given we can't be perfect, I think the balance achieved in practice is a good one, and on the whole helps people to learn.


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