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I recently answered this question about vector space isomorphisms. The question is somewhat unfocused, but it seems clear to me that this is because the asker is struggling with the concepts involved and is unable to put their finger on exactly what isn't making sense to them. Having been in this position many times myself, I think it's one of the times when some personalized guidance can help the most, and it seems like a shame that such questions would just be closed.

What can we do to assist askers whose question is unclear or unfocused because they don't know what they don't know?

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    $\begingroup$ In such cases it is best to engage the asker via comments and help them to clarify their post. Also closure of the question does not impact this process. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh Mod
    Jun 8 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ Hey there, I'm sure you're aware of why we close such questions : because they aren't of usage to future visitors if only the asker is aware of what they are talking about in that post. (at least, in the opinion of five close voters). So, if the target of your explanation is the asker , then you should probably comment or get the OP to edit this question to a clearer form. That could easily happen, see if you can ask the right questions. On the other hand, if you think your answer could be useful to a wider audience, write your own question and answer. Call OP there if necessary. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ In fact, I would recommend this for your perusal. It is a well-received answer from a current moderator. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ If they don't understand enough to ask the question, they need to step back a level or two (or fifty..) and ask their way back up to the actual point. The benefits of this are clear: their understanding develops naturally and we get a series of questions to lead others on that pathway. The downsides of just treating Math SE as a tutorial site are also clear: that's not what we want, it's not how the software works, and it leads to having no difference between "honest" tutoring and being a free DMHWFM service. $\endgroup$
    – Nij
    Jun 8 at 5:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Nij "that's not what we want" $\,$ Please refrain from speaking in the royal plural, unless you have some undisclosed mandate to do so. There is a big difference between "tutoring" vs. helping a user articulate a legitimate math question that they may not know the right jargon to ask it in. The latter deserves the kind of assistance MSE claims "for people studying math at any level", rather than summary dismissal. $\endgroup$
    – dxiv
    Jun 8 at 7:17
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    $\begingroup$ 3 voted to close, 2 voted to leave open math.stackexchange.com/review/close/1803910 The question is basically in the middle of being clear and unclear. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ @dxiv "People studying math at any level" includes "studying", i.e. active participation. That means math.se is not here to reteach an entire chapter for those who were "too busy" to study, and ask exercises way ahead of what they last left off at it. Even those who are very confused, but striving to keep up, with questions upon confusion, they will have their bearing to at least add as context the section they are confused about, and what confuses them. No asker is assumed to already "know what they don't know", but they are expected to write an intelligible question with context. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    Jun 8 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy I disagree with your statement that "don't know what they don't know" is meaningless. It means that the student is unable to pinpoint the gap in their knowledge that is preventing them from understanding something. $\endgroup$
    – Sambo
    Jun 8 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy Since your commenting on this question, my three most recent questions on the main site have been downvoted in short succession, and one has a close vote. I don't see what's wrong with any of these questions, and it feels like you are just targeting me. If you did downvote my questions, could you please explain (on the corresponding questions of course) what I could do to improve them? $\endgroup$
    – Sambo
    Jun 8 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Nij who is 'we'? The illuminati? $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ Oh come on, @dxiv you've been here long enough to know the position stated is popular with a significant number of users and moderators, if not a majority of at least one group. Do you reject the statement that the community here does not want to become a tutoring site - you honestly believe the position in favour of that to be a plurality, let alone a majority? Nonsense and you know it. $\endgroup$
    – Nij
    Jun 9 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Nij I've been around here for long enough to remember that EoQS was not always the law of the land, and may not be forever, either. There is less consensus on the "Q" in EoQS than some would like you to believe, just browse the meta and you'll find several relevant threads. Given that, personal opinions ("I") should not be put forward as a statement of fact ("we"). Note also that OP's question was not about "tutoring" or "homework mill", so that part is a red herring here. Question was about users who are honestly confused, lost or stuck, only to find their question deleted in a hurry. $\endgroup$
    – dxiv
    Jun 9 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ Also, let's please stop with the royal-we distraction on the site. Usually it's just a turn of phrase and doesn't signify anything important. Besides, everyone here knows it is a common habit of mathematical writing and so it is likely to spill over into other writing. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 14 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @rschwieb In most cases, questions closed quickly enough get eventually roomba'd away, so the two are not so "completely different". As to the "we" part, it's not the first time I see it used here on meta to insinuate some kind of righteousness, consensus or pervading support for one's own position. Don't think it's too much to ask that personal opinion be unambiguously labeled as just that. $\endgroup$
    – dxiv
    Jun 15 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ @rschwieb "someone trying to express what they believe the consensus is" $\,\ne\,$ "that's not what we want" and I'll just leave it at that. $\endgroup$
    – dxiv
    Jun 16 at 0:38

2 Answers 2

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What usually happens to such type question:

  1. Downvote and close vote without any explanation why.

  2. Click SE chat and search "cured" chatroom. Post link of question inside this chatroom.

  3. On top of people viewing and downvoting, a whole lot of Cured users "cure" the site by massdownvoting and mass close voting this single question often without any explanation.

  4. ????

  5. Profit!

  6. Delete the question so no one except those of extremely high rep can see the question. Now at this point it can't even be reopened if improved because most people can't even view it.

Examples that verify this phenomena: 1 ,2, 3 ,4 , 5

Side effects include:

  1. New users being traumatised from ever using this site.
  2. Giving perception that only those with extraordinary intelligence can use the site.

How to prevent new user from experiencing negative effects: If you care for the site and its development please try to edit and get the best question out of it if you have time. "Rescue tactic"

A recent example of prevention :1, 2

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    $\begingroup$ For the first question you cite, the reason it can't be reopened is that it was deleted by a moderator. One could, I suppose, appeal to the moderators. The second question you cite is the epitome of the copy-pasted question. OP had the option of bringing the question up to site standards, but didn't do so; then, the Community Bot deleted it. $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ If you invested half the effort you put into your dramatised descriptions into improving questions that are closed I wonder if there'd be any closed questions at all... At the heart of your complaints is that people don't behave the way you want them to. An intractable problem for any person, in any field, on any topic. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 9 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ "People don't behave they want them to do" I suggest you slow down and really think of what you said here. In any possible situation where a law is there, the law is there because people don't behave in the ideal way you want them to and put a punishment. That is also the idea of EOQS and the idea behind banning people. @rschwieb $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @EthakkaappamwithChai A false equivalence, done by lifting a quote out of its context. To say it another way, "you are only complaining about people doing something other than what you want. You are not offering viable alternatives or addressing critiques." The critiques should give you pause, but they don't, because you don't seem to care about opposing viewpoints. It has nothing to do with the phrase you lifted superficially meaning "rules also change people's behavior." $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 20 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ Please don't continually edit this answer (by adding new examples). This wastes much cumulative community effort processing the bumped thread. $\endgroup$ 22 hours ago
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TL;DR

(Adding this because I suppose people are misinterpreting the post somehow.)

Of course that happens. Of course we can help them. It goes like this: close the question, have a discussion, the question gets better, reopen the question, badda-bing-badda-boom solutions can be offered with confidence.

Why so stressed about closure? Sure, maybe people bring their impressions from elsewhere about what it means. We should try to do better about changing that impression with comments and FAQ and whatnot. Let's not default to walking on eggshells just because they haven't heard the explanation about closure yet.

Now deletion, sure. Let's not delete such questions hastily. That would be a shame.


this is because the asker is struggling with the concepts involved and is unable to put their finger on exactly what isn't making sense to them.

That is natural, and as you say, assuredly something everyone has experienced at some point or another.

I think it's one of the times when some personalized guidance can help the most, and it seems like a shame that such questions would just be closed.

Yes, guidance would help. And luckily guidance and our site's process are not mutually exclusive.

A shame to close? There it is again. The stigma. Why a shame? Nothing is lost. Nobody gets it right the first time every time. It's just like caution tape around a construction zone. This misapprehension of what we intend closure to function as is a big headache for the site's culture.

If the caution tape isn't there, solutions will have to speculate, and that sometimes works but sometimes it generates irrelevancy.

The closure is a catalyst for improving the question

Improving, I say, in the sense of making it more fit for the site. When a question is closed for reasons like clarity or context, we hope to engage the user in the comments to suss out what the actual problem is. After exchanging comments with the community and getting suggestions, we should eventually hit upon what it is that the user did not know, and then with the new information either

  1. arrive at a solution on their own: They could potentially self-delete, or if they feel they have a nice solution they can request reopening for a self-answer; or
  2. revise their question to be more answerable. Hopefully it usually only takes a couple iterations of this step to convert it to something suitable. Then the question gets reopened and both parties have profited.

If there is an endless cycle of comments with the user that never seems to bear any fruit, or no engagement from the user at all, that probably signifies content that doesn't belong on the site. You see, it is better that this messy bit of clarification happens in comments rather than solutions.

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    $\begingroup$ You see it as "caution tape around a construction zone". The new user, downvoted without comments, question closed & perhaps deleted within an hour or two of posting, may not see it that way. $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson I can't help that. I'm not going to base my description on how someone completely ignorant of the site guesses things should work. I can only help promote an image commensurate with the intended usage. If regular users come to think of it this way, then it won't take new users long to pick up on it. It's like "downvotes in meta." Some newer users get upset about them but then a few people comment that "it doesn't mean the same thing in meta" and usually that's the end of it. I haven't seen anyone in meta getting out the torches and pitchforks about meta downvotes, recently. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 10 at 1:17
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson Also, I am on the record opposing hasty deletions of closed questions. We should definitely also continue to promote giving time for questions to improve, if it looks like they could. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 10 at 1:24
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    $\begingroup$ "I'm not going to base my description on how someone completely ignorant of the site guesses things should work." I'd guess that 99% of new users are (mostly) ignorant of the site. Even the design and deployment of caution tapes at construction sites has to be based on how inexperienced pedestrians and motorists are likely to engage with them. $\endgroup$ Jun 10 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson If you are saying we should improve how closure is explained (i.e. improving the roadsigns), then I am 100% in agreement with you. It feels like you're talking at me like I'm trying to describe how people perceive closure, as opposed to how closure should be interpreted. I am not doing the former thing, I am doing the latter thing. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 10 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ I have no illusions about how the uninitiated perceive closure. I'm trying to change that perception over time. Obviously better signage would help. But when I suggest what perception we should convey, and you raise some comment about newbies don't currently perceive it that way as if it were an objection somehow, I'm at a loss as to what your point is. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 10 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ In this case, I would like to hear reasons for downvoting, because I can't begin to guess what is objectionable. Even if you can just clarify "I knee-jerk downvote anything closure related that isn't a diatribe against closure" or "I oppose using closure constructively for some reason" that would be helpful. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 10 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ My apologies for misinterpreting your comments. I fear that no matter how we improve the roadsigns there will be many new users who will take closure as a slap in the face, and will turn away, and turn their friends away, rather than follow our suggestions to improve their questions. $\endgroup$ Jun 10 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ " I can't help that. I'm not going to base my description on how someone completely ignorant of the site guesses things should work. " ... really....? $\endgroup$ Jun 11 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson That's good to hear. I think we're all interested in minimizing the audience lost to unintended first impressions. We probably have plenty of work to do to that end. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 13 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ @SarveshRavichandranIyer Yeah: as you can see I was attracted to this issue very early on. I think there were some steps taken in the interval since then, like the experiment with "on hold" rather than "closed." No major change though, I think. But somehow in meta the "downvotes are different in meta" message seems to be working. Maybe "closure is often reversible" has to be explained and exhibited more often for it to enter the group consciousness. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 13 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ @EthakkaappamwithChai Is this place to collect people who can follow rules or a place for people to ask and answer about mathematics? seeks to establish a false dichotomy. History has shown that without quality control, Q+A sites wither and die. I'd also comment that be a place you can ask and answer is also a poor description of our purpose. A better one might be "be a place where you can find great answers, and ask unaddressed questions." I'm glossing over things about asking, but this latter one gets across the point that we want what accumulates here to be useful, not detritus. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 13 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @rschwieb Exactly. I think we need to find away to fit closure into all of this. Regular answerers will need to be part of the conversation , simply because closure is unenforceable if one bunch of guidelines is used by reviewers and another by answerers. I still remember a user describing a certain behavior as "drew a line and battled over ..." EoQS has shown that we are drawing our invisible lines and battling over them. It's up to us whether to erase them and start afresh, or to keep battling (a "power" struggle is what I'd call it then, and the side battling harder wins). $\endgroup$ Jun 13 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @EthakkaappamwithChai We await your suggestion on your strategy to "fix the system" without making an "issue with people." #3 is a value judgement for which we seem to be perpetually striking a balance, but it's not an issue that's going to be "decided" or "fixed" ever, I don't think. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 14 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ Implementing better training would be great. It has been proposed in the past. But it is an obvious idea, right? The trick is to now make suggestions that are concrete, actually possible, and effective. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Jun 14 at 13:52

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