I hope the community supports this effort. We often see homework-type questions with no attempt from the OP at solving the problem. In many such cases the OP answers that they don't know how to begin.

While some of this may originate from the lack of effort, and this is addressed very well in How to ask a homework question?, there's also a very strong possibility of genuine confusion. I'm speaking from experience, both my own and my students'.

Which is why I propose, instead of just demanding effort and/or closing the questions like that, provide a guide on how to begin working on a problem, mainly geared towards homework questions (as opposed to research or idle hobby questions).

There's a related topic here "I have no idea what to do" - How do you respond to self-study questions by users who are completely lost?, however it's for the users answering such questions.

Why do I think a separate guide for the inexperienced users is beneficial? Because instead of scolding them, we will be giving them a number of instruments general enough to be used further instead of continuing to be lost and ask questions with seemingly no effort.

Disclaimer: I am guilty of both asking no effort questions (of a hobby kind) and scolding the users asking such questions. I would like to improve on both fronts.

I will provide my own answer later if this question is received well.

Here I will put the links on the topic provided in the comments:

1) http://karagila.org/2015/how-to-solve-your-problems/

2) https://math.meta.stackexchange.com/a/27933/269624

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    $\begingroup$ The more a user tells us about specific "confusion" a problem gives them, the better able we are to make suggestions about getting started down a fruitful path. In some cases it makes sense to ask them to try some small examples (of a general proposition) or to simplify the problem to get a feel for what's happening. Also if the problem involves an "if-and-only-if" formulation, I'll invite them to hazard a guess whether one direction is easier than the other. $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Nov 3, 2018 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ @hardmath, this makes sense. I just want to add that in a lot of schools/universities they forget to teach students the general methods of problem-solving. Which exist. It always takes me a lot of time to explain to a student that they always can make some progress on any problem, even if it's just looking up and writing down all the definitions involved. It took me years to understand myself, and Math.SE helped a lot. Still, I think some kind of guide by more experienced researchers and/or teachers could do a lot of good here. $\endgroup$
    – Yuriy S
    Nov 3, 2018 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ karagila.org/2015/how-to-solve-your-problems $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Nov 3, 2018 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ Note that there is also a related answer to the "How to ask a good question?" faq for pretty much the same purpose. $\endgroup$
    – Arnaud D.
    Nov 3, 2018 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ If this thread doesn't bring anything else, I can always post a link to that Shia LaBeouf video, because it gives the most important advice $\endgroup$
    – Yuriy S
    Nov 4, 2018 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Yuriy: Well, JUST DO IT! $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Nov 4, 2018 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ Additional thought: the advice about carefully reading the problem would do a lot of good to the users who answer the questions too. $\endgroup$
    – Yuriy S
    Nov 4, 2018 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Often simply stating the definitions of key concepts is a good start. Other times translating all the information given in the question into accurate mathematical statements makes a difference. And very often thinking "what have I been told, but I'm not yet using?" gives a clue to a next step. But having suffered practice for Olympiad questions where I did the same thing over again because I couldn't think of anything else to do, I do have some sympathy with people who ask these questions. Often slickly stated answers conceal the route to insight, which doesn't help in these circumstances. $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2018 at 22:50

2 Answers 2


Having looked at the comments both here and on the related topic linked in the question: I think that "I have no clue where to start with this" has an immediate answer: Start by identifying what you're clueless about.

But of course the questioner might have no clue how to do that either—but they could perfectly well be given (or pointed to) a checklist of things to ask themselves:

  • Do I understand every word in the question?
  • Do I know the definition of everything used in the question?
  • Do I know exactly what I'm being asked to find or prove?
  • Can I see how to express the relevant aspects of the question in mathematical notation?
  • Is my problem that I can do all those, but can't see how to get started on a proof?
  • Have I been taught any theorems or techniques that look as though they ought to help? Can I remember them? Do I understand them?

And so on and so on.

Possibly this will point them towards what they need to get started. Possibly it still won't get them far enough, but they'll still be in a position to come back and say "I understand the question and I think I'm supposed to use Cramer's rule, but I don't understand how to make the two determinants" or whatever.

I think being able to say "Try this checklist and see if it helps" would help avoid the questioner being bombarded with well-intentioned(?) comments that they perceive as hostile: "Give some context!", "Have you llooked up Cramer's rule?", "Your question makes no sense" etc.

Ideally the questioner should get something which either helps them get going on their problem, or enables them to come back with a more specific and usefully answerable question about it.

  • $\begingroup$ This is good! Checklists are usually helpful $\endgroup$
    – Yuriy S
    Dec 26, 2018 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ @YuriyS There's a huge one in How To Solve It by George Pólya (I wish the book was more organised, though). $\endgroup$
    – timtfj
    Dec 26, 2018 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ I think another good bullet would be - What do I want? i.e. what exactly do I want to prove? $\endgroup$
    – user486983
    Dec 27, 2018 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Isa I've added it! Thanks :-) $\endgroup$
    – timtfj
    Dec 27, 2018 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ This actually came from an old advice my professor told us once. Was like this, ' First you need to ask to yourself : What do I want?, then to ask What do I have? and then How will do it? ' :) $\endgroup$
    – user486983
    Dec 28, 2018 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding to the four bullet, it might not be that necessary for now, first thing is solve the problem correctly and then you might want to beautify it with mathematical notation, IMHO of course. $\endgroup$
    – user486983
    Dec 28, 2018 at 1:24

Well, I am a guy who asks frequently such kind of questions - with no visible for readers of my posts attempt to find a solution myself.

First thing to say - it is definitely wider than just a homework. Especially so for self-learners like I am - who does not go to university, nor to special kind of courses and just uses Google and what is reachable from the Google for everyday learning. Books, articles, video courses, even introductory-level, might confuse a lot! Quite often I am struggling to understand what exactly I don't understand and what is the best way to ask it not confusing my readers with my personal misunderstandings.

Secondly - once again, according to my personal experience - no generic instruction or checklist will work (effectively). I would say there is no better help from the community than just a wise question, forwarding a newcommer/confused person toward a right way or, at least, slighter clarification. In terms of publicly shared instructions, it transforms to "How-to-ask-helpful-questions-that-let-author-to-understand-what-he/she-does-not-understand" - dedicated for knowledgeable people in appropriate areas rather than confused newcomers.

  • $\begingroup$ I would disagree with you about the impossibly of general instructions. Besides, I specifically dedicated this thread to "homework-type" questions, by which I understand all the mathematics questions that do have a definite answer which can be found using existing methods and theories. As for the amateur curiosity questions, I ask plenty myself, but there's no urgent need to get an answer and so I'm less concerned about those cases $\endgroup$
    – Yuriy S
    Nov 12, 2018 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ About that "no visible for readers of my posts attempt" - wouldn't it be better to make it visible? If such attempt existed, there's surely a way to at least describe it in the post $\endgroup$
    – Yuriy S
    Nov 12, 2018 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ @YuriyS, I guess, most questions on the math.stackexchange do have a definite answer. The problem is that author can't ask (formulate) a razor-sharp question, which slows him down in getting razor-sharp answer(s) in return. I think it makes sense to move to a chat-room, actually. My standpoint is that there are at least two levels of understanding: 1) you don't understand what exactly you don't understand. That's the hardest obstruction to break trough - especially for newcommers, at this point most vague, senseless, "I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO" questions are asked. And ... $\endgroup$
    – Zazaeil
    Nov 12, 2018 at 11:12
  • $\begingroup$ ... 2) you know what you don't know. It implies that you've managed to master at least basics, which allow you to move forward, ask more precise, clean questions. In the first case - no generic instruction would work simply because there are no reliable knowledge (yet), based on which author can solve requested problem. In the second case there is no skill to apply gathered knowledge for concrete practical problems, or hidden misunderstanding beneath some mathematical formalism or false feeling on confidence. In both cases, as I can see, questions from knowledgeable people are FAR better. $\endgroup$
    – Zazaeil
    Nov 12, 2018 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ -1, I can't agree with this. In case 1 you mentioned above, the obvious starting point is: "you're trying to go too fast; please read up on what you need to grasp the basic definitions". Eventually you will end up in case 2. That this process is frustrating and time-consuming might be disheartening, but that doesn't make it less applicable... Sure, questions on MSE can help clarifying a lot of things, among which the problem of figuring out in which areas you are in case 1 to begin with. But this ("what do I need to understand X, given that I know ...") is vastly different from "How do I X". $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    Nov 12, 2018 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ I think it's true that the wrong generic advice won't help. But the right genetic advice might—and if it doesn't, the questioner can still say "I was advised to try this, but it didn't work because . . ." , which is progres towards understanding what the block is and addressing it. $\endgroup$
    – timtfj
    Dec 26, 2018 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding Google—I think anyone whose advice is "goigle it!" ought to try that themselves before suggesting it, so they get to see what sort of mishmash of misleading sites Google comes up with. $\endgroup$
    – timtfj
    Dec 26, 2018 at 21:07

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