I am quite new in the community, but I have noticed two different behaviours when someone asks an "easy" question:

  • Either the question is answered, which may be good since the explanation will help to everyone who comes looking for it
  • Either a hint is given (as an answer or in the comment section), which is good as well because it makes the OP to think, rather than to feed him/her with a solution.

From the FAQ I read:

Any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful

so the two behaviours are perfectly acceptable. But sometimes both things happen, someone gives a clue and a different person provides later the answer, so if there is a educational purpose in the first hint, it is lost.

My question is: which is the encouraged option in front of an easy question? Should it be somehow related with the effort the OP put in asking?

I am aware that the notion of "easy question" is highly subjective, as it is the notion of "OP effort".

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    $\begingroup$ It seems to me the paragraph from which you quote, while maybe not applicable in all aspects, is pretty clear (my emphasis) on that. "Answer the question: Read the question carefully. What, specifically, is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that – or a viable alternative. The answer can be “don’t do that”, but it should also include “try this instead”. Any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful, but do try to mention any limitations, assumptions or simplifications in your answer. Brevity is acceptable, but fuller explanations are better." $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 3 '18 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ I read it, but I felt it refers to short answers rather than hints. If as you say explanations are always preferred, do people post hints just because of 'lazyness' and not because of an education purpose? $\endgroup$ – Ripstein Apr 3 '18 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ First post hint in comment to encourage OP to think. If OP is responsive, give more hints if needed and then compose an answer with more details (even when the answer itself is in the form of a hint). If OP is not responsive, walk away. BTW, don't post a "hint" answer unless you are reasonably sure the hint actually work. $\endgroup$ – achille hui Apr 3 '18 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ It's a complicated mix. $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 3 '18 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ An extra dimension is any previous posting history for the user who asks. Did they learn to think for themselves from previous hints? Did they learn not to think for themselves from complete answers? $\endgroup$ – hardmath Apr 3 '18 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ I wholeheartedly agree with @hardmath's comment. I think the more important factor in determining whether to answer in full, or hint instead, is the asker's effort, any research they've done, they're inclusion of context other than effort, e.g., definitions, what topic they're studying, to help us gauge their level at which to answer their question, or, in the case of a mere one sentence problem statement, to not answer their post. I do not believe there is a problem with a user asking an "easy question" (who decides what's easy, anyway). If the asker seems invested in the question... $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 4 '18 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ ...and has made an effort to provide us with some context to better address their question, all the more power to them. But when an asker, at whatever level, posts problem statements expecting users here to do all their work/homework for them, that's where I take issue. Just note that, like you've probably already gathered: There isn't necessarily a "right answer" to your question, but rather, many factors to consider before taking action. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 4 '18 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ @MrRipstein Since you are interacting with people (and computers) online, you have almost no control over what they choose to do. So, you simply can't conclude that "if there is a educational purpose in the first hint, it is lost". Whoever reads the question, answers and comments, can choose to do with them anything they want: Read it all, read partially and try stuff, download and read later, copy to a different website, crawl all the links, ... It is an absurd game that that some people (↑) play, trying a classroom approach to a website not designed as such. $\endgroup$ – user545963 Apr 4 '18 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks to everyone for the answers! I conclude there is not a single way to approach these questions, but your different points of view are all valid and reasonable approaches, more based on the context of the OP and the question itself than any strict rule $\endgroup$ – Ripstein Apr 4 '18 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ Use your best judgement. $\endgroup$ – copper.hat Apr 11 '18 at 6:16

I think the point is to help the OP — and, by extension, any future readers — forward. If they are completely stuck with a problem, it's useful to give a hint to get them started. If they are in need of a detailed explanation, give that. (Users blatantly asking others to do their homework want a full solution, but I'd argue they don't need it.) I think the key factor is not the level of difficulty, but what the OP needs to learn. Granted, assessing that need isn't easy.

The best case scenario is that the OP is in the middle of a problem and asks a very specific question. This is a recent clear example that, albeit from another site, where the user is translating something but asks only about a specific word to make sure they are on the right track. Typically things are less clear and you just have to take a guess. The point is: try to give the OP what you think is most useful to them and future readers.

If you give just a hint, please elaborate on why that hint is good. Why does it make sense to define an auxiliary function like that? Should one know to integrate by parts and use Hölder's inequality? If you want to give insight, give that, not just the result of the insight.

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    $\begingroup$ Personally, I don't much care about whether or not the OP makes progress. The point is to provide an answer that has enduring value not just to the OP, but to anyone else who is having a similar problem. My own view is that if the question is of a high enough quality to merit preservation on this site, then it deserves a full answer. If not, it deserves no answer at all. Of course, opinions do vary. :) $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Apr 3 '18 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the first point. Every expert was once a beginner. Even though OP gives a short question, a detailed explanation can help others. $\endgroup$ – GNUSupporter 8964民主女神 地下教會 Apr 3 '18 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @XanderHenderson I added now what I should have had: I mean "OP" broadly, including any future readers struggling with a similar issue. It is important to give something that helps them. I also strongly prefer full answers, but sometimes a brief or conceptual answer to give the OP the correct mental image is good. If an answer gives a hint, I think it should explain why the hint is good. $\endgroup$ – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 3 '18 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ I appreciate the clarification. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Apr 3 '18 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ The point is to help the OP. If it helps others, then good. We all need a hand up sometimes. $\endgroup$ – copper.hat Apr 11 '18 at 6:20

Let me give what I consider a pretty borderline example of the dilemma. I'm not sure whether to proceed with an Answer or to engage the OP with a Comment-based hint.

The Question Graph with more than 6 vertex of odd degree was initially posed as an attempt to prove something false, purportedly taken from this text on introductory graph theory (not sure of the edition):

I am trying to learn Graph Theory by myself using Douglas West's book.

I pointed out a counterexample and asked the OP to recheck the problem statement, which they did (editing the body and title of the Question to make it sound). By my "de minimus" standard for engagement the OP has met the burden for providing context to let me know where they are having difficulty.

I further replied with a hint Comment:

The revised problem seems fairly straightforward. How many vertices with odd degree does a path have? What happens if a graph consists of three paths combined as far as counting the vertices of odd degree?

The first query is really a softball pitch (easy to hit), and the second is more or less decisive for solving the problem. But the OP has not so far responded, very possibly because they have not been back on the site.

While I believe the user could and should apply themselves to working out this exercise, I'm inclined to provide an Answer that gives a "bookkeeping technique" for such problems (how to account for the vertex degrees when composing subgraphs) based on an incidence matrix. Such a technique is the sort of explanation I'd hope would have value for future Readers whether the OP re-engages or not.


The OP did not re-engage after my Comment-based hint, but instead self-deleted the Question a little more than a week later. In the meantime I'd invited him or her to post a self-answer if they'd solved the problem on their own. I don't feel so attached to the (textbook) exercise as a teaching opportunity that I will push for undeleting (nor re-post the Question on my own initiative).

  • $\begingroup$ This is a good example, thanks for sharing $\endgroup$ – Ripstein Apr 4 '18 at 20:58

Sometimes hints no matter how obvious they seem to make the question aren't enough for the reader to understand whats going.

I myself have Autism and few other interesting things wrong with my brain when i learn something especially when im not being taught it sometimes i just need to know how a few specific cases work before i can understand and apply the definitions correctly. In a case such as that no amount of hints will help me i need to see the solution probably not just to that question but several others before i can understand how to do it.

In alot of cases if i am asking an easy question its because i have gone through a few examples in a book but it wasnt enough to concrete the concept and i need one or two more examples.

I know alot of people dont like to just answer a persons question when its easy as it could be a hw question for example. However if the reader just takes the answer and submits it without learning the concepts then they will do terribly on the exams (for example a person with better grades then me on assignments in a number theory class i took scored a 4/80 on the final and i got an $A^{+}$ despite needing help with some obvious things throughout the semester.)

In the end i guess what i am rambling about is try a hint if you want but if they don't get it from there feel free to give them the solution someone willing to learn the concept will do well and someone just looking for a free answer to hw assignment will probably fail anyway.

  • $\begingroup$ I think for most people, clarity is not incremental, it appears suddenly. $\endgroup$ – copper.hat Apr 11 '18 at 6:23

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