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- How to ask a good question. 8 answers
First of all, whether you're a new user or a long-time contributor, welcome! Mathematics Stack Exchange welcomes learners and lovers of mathematics from all levels.
You have been directed here because your question needs to be improved to meet the site's quality standards. Maybe your question has been closed already, or maybe it is accruing close votes. This page is here to explain why context is necessary, and what you can do to improve your questions, even when you don't know where to begin.
What is the problem?
Your question lacks context. This can mean one (or more) of a few different things.
- Your question only poses the problem, and doesn't show any of your efforts to solve it,
- Your question may be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on your own level of knowledge, or the course you are taking,
- Your question contains terminology that is not completely standard and requires clarification, or
- Your question is suspected to be in breach of our policy regarding contest mathematics.
Please read any comments under your question, as they should help clarify specifically which points you need to address.
Why is it a problem?
Simply put, we will not be able to help you as effectively.
The same question, asked by two different people, may require two completely different answers. For example, the question
How do you find the area of a semicircle?
could be asked by a student who is just learning elementary geometry, or by a student just learning integration. It is very unhelpful to show the geometry student how to perform trigonometric substitutions, just as it is unhelpful to show the integration student how to halve the $A = \pi r^2$ formula.
By providing context, you help us know more about you, what you need, and what you want out of us. It means that people are more likely to give you helpful, on-topic answers to your questions. It means that the answers are less likely to confuse you or tread old ground. It means that you are more likely to learn from the answers to your questions, and that is our ultimate goal.
Providing context also helps motivate people to answer your question. Many people here will not help someone unless they've shown in the question that they have previously thought about the problem, or engaged with it at some level. It is therefore important that you include your own thoughts about the problem.
How can I fix the problem?
There are a few tips and tricks for giving context, even when you don't have an idea of where to start on the problem.
Specify where the question came from.
If you're taking a class, tell us which class. If it's an exercise from a textbook, tell us the name and the author. If you're thinking about problems on your own, tell us that, and help us understand the thought processes that lead you to consider this question.
If it's a contest problem, then please provide a link to the contest so that people may verify that the contest has ended.
Define your terms.
The mathematical terms in your question should have precise mathematical definitions. Knowing and understanding these definitions is always the first step to solving a problem, so it's really important that you and the people reading your questions are on the same page. Putting in definitions for some of the more specific terms in your question also shows engagement with the question, which helps motivate people to answer it.
If you don't understand one or more of the definitions in the question, then ask another question about the definition itself. If you don't understand the definitions, you are not going to be able to learn how to answer the question.
Put in your attempts so far.
If you have tried things that haven't worked, write your attempts in your question. No matter how quickly you got stuck, even though they don't lead to a solution, it shows us where your mind has gone with the question, and helps pinpoint what is causing your confusion.
Put in results you know that seem relevant.
If you don't have any attempts that you can put into the question, consider finding results that remind you of the problem in some way. Maybe they also talk about a relevant term in your question? Maybe it was something covered in class just before you were issued the question as homework? Maybe there was a part (a) that you managed to answer, and your question is part (b)?
If you include more of this stuff, your questions will have a better reception on MSE, and they will be more helpful to you and to others.
Thank you for reading.