I don't want to link to a specific question to avoid singling people out and to avoid making assumptions about specific questions, but I think people posting questions directly from problem sets is a common occurrence.

Problem set-style questions have some nice properties. They're generally short, self-contained, neither too easy nor completely open, and encourage you to use a particular skill.

There's a lot of discussion already on the site's policy around asking homework questions; my question is about answering homework questions and interacting with folks who might be asking a homework question.

My question boils down to: what sorts of things are appropriate to do as an answerer when you encounter a question that might be a homework question?

Are we permitted to ask people directly whether they were assigned a particular problem?

Are we permitted to ask people change their post to a related problem that they specifically weren't assigned? Many problem sets have practice problems that are explicitly labeled as such.

Are we permitted to come up with an example problem ourselves in an answer, pose it, and answer it in the answer in lieu of answering the original question if it looks like a homework question?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ A lot of your proposals seem to be centered around the idea that the policies exist to prevent users from cheating. This is not the case. While we certainly don't want to enable (or encourage) cheating, the policies exist because the goal of Math SE is to produce a high quality repository of questions and answers, and homework-style (or problem-set-style) questions typically don't meet that standard of quality. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Apr 16 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ I think people posting questions directly from problem sets --- I don't know why this was down-voted several times. Not being fully cognizant of things pointed out in the comment and answer presently here seems worthy of having such things pointed out, but not something to chastise the asker about, no more than someone not fully cognizant of school algebra asking a legitimate (but otherwise rather low level and simple) mathematical question. That said, what probably bothers me the most are bald questions such as this (see my comment there). $\endgroup$ – Dave L. Renfro Apr 20 at 18:19

You're permitted to do any of those things. Whether they're helpful is another question.

You are free to decide whether to answer or not. You are free to leave a comment asking questions and use the response to decide whether you wish to spend time answering or not. You are free to suggest improvements to the question. (The poster is free to adopt them, or not, as they see fit.) You are free to vote as you like. You are free to vote to close if you think that is warranted. Who is going to stop you?

You can ask whether the problem was assigned to them as a homework problem, but I doubt that will be useful. In my experience it is rarely effective. In any case it misses the point; or focuses on only a narrow aspect of the issue. One of the main issues with 'problem statement questions' is that they tend to be low quality and unlikely to be of help to others in the future, so they don't fit the Stack Exchange mission (building an archive of high-quality questions and answers that will be useful to many people) well. Whether it was assigned as homework or not is orthogonal to that and not terribly relevant.

I don't expect it'll be helpful to ask the poster to create and ask a new variant of the question that they weren't assigned. If it's still a 'problem statement question', then it still has all the issues that implies. (And I suspect you'll find that compliance with such a request is low.)

One thing that would be helpful would be to generalize the question: to ask the poster to identify some concept that is unclear, and ask a general question about that concept, one that will be useful to others even if they're not working on exactly the same exercise. Such questions are often more likely to be helpful to others in the future. You can certainly encourage posters to do that. Just don't get your hopes up too high. Formulating well-thought-out questions like that takes a fair bit of effort and insight; it's harder than just copying the text of the exercise one is looking at. And changing a site's established culture, or getting people to change how they ask their questions when the current method is working for them, is not an easy task.


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