I recently had an answer to this homework question downvoted twice because I provided a complete solution. Has a consensus been reached about how to treat homework problems? If not, is this an acceptable use of a downvote? It seems like this could be the beginning of a flood of competing "(-1) for complete solution" and "(+1) for hint". At the same time, it seems like a potentially effective way to let the majority stance on homework questions be enforced.

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    I was mildly annoyed to see complete solutions posted to a question that in my view obviously deserved either a hint towards the obvious solution or a discussion of why this kind of question actually has no definitive answer, and for which it was easy to formulate a hint. However, I think that downvoting such an answer is likely in the long run to prove counterproductive. (I personally think that it’s an abuse of the downvote, but as a matter of policy I don’t ever downvote; I find comments much more informative.) I also think that there was no good reason to close the question. – Brian M. Scott Oct 7 '12 at 10:33
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    @Brian +1 I agree with everything except "don't ever downvote". Downvotes do have constructive uses, e.g. to warn readers about incorrect or misguided answers. Comments don't always suffice since they are more easily lost in the noise, esp. in long comment threads. Further, one may already know that the OP is not receptive to constructive criticism, so critiques in comments might lead to nonconstructive arguments. – Bill Dubuque Oct 7 '12 at 17:30
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    I would like to point out, as in my comment below Hurkyl's answer, that Norbert is downvoting answers to questions that don't even have the homework tag. His reasoning is based on the questioner asking too many bad questions, so therefore any one who gives a complete answer will be punished. Are we supposed to guess on which questions are homework when they are not tagged? – Graphth Oct 8 '12 at 12:51
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    @Graphth, I always guess which questions are homework --- I thought everyone did. The argument is over what to do once you've made your guess. – Gerry Myerson Oct 8 '12 at 23:13
  • Do not delete downvoted answers if you find evil reasons for downvoting, it may take time for other people to realize you are right but it does not matter. Improve and require proper references if someone thinks something is a homework. I actually like downvoting very much, they make me work harder -- I would be scared to death in meeting people that have never done mistakes :P – hhh Oct 8 '12 at 23:57
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    @Grapth you translated my behaviour the way you wanted. I downvoted two answers in that thread for several reasons. The questioner seems to be old enough to answer this question by himself. You can check that he have questions about cubic equations, limits and complex numbers. I can't imagine a guy studying analysis not able to find a pattern in the sequence $1$, $-3$, $-7$. If this is the case I'm sure that MSE for him is the place of getting homework done. As for the answerers. I really don't like complete answer to such an extremely simple questions. That is why I downvoted answers. – Norbert Oct 10 '12 at 19:30
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    @Graphth Do you disagree with downvoting complete solutions even for trivial questions? – Norbert Oct 10 '12 at 19:31
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    @Graphth Also I recoomend you to take a look at this thread: Suspicious behavior between two MSE users – Norbert Oct 10 '12 at 21:14
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    @Norbert "I really don't like complete answer to such an extremely simple questions. That is why I downvoted answers." The purpose of posting this question was to determine whether a complete answer to a homework-type question was sufficient grounds for a downvote. The consensus seems to be that it is not. I am not telling you what to do, but you deserve to know that your actions appear to be going against the general wishes of the community (in addition to having the side-effect of filling the site with correct answers of negative score). – Austin Mohr Oct 10 '12 at 21:49
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    @Norbert Whether a particular user is engaged in a reputation scheme is a separate matter from the general claim that complete solutions to homework-type questions should be downvoted. – Austin Mohr Oct 10 '12 at 21:56
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    @AustinMohr How much time should I repeat that I'm downvoting not all complete answers for homework like questions. But that particular case was outrageous. This is the reason of downvotes. I see that community implicitly blaming me for this (though I provide evidence) And what's interesting no one paid attention to the behavior of the user Grapth. He upvoted your answer only to annoy me. Moreover he downvoted two my answer to relatively difficult questions just to troll me. – Norbert Oct 10 '12 at 22:07
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    @Norbert After knowing all the information, I think you did a great job of noticing something suspicious, and an amazing job of research to gather evidence. Based on your full evidence, it would be perfectly reasonable to downvote Ha Hi and Madrit whatever. But, you didn't post your full evidence until sometime yesterday, and you can't reasonably expect every other user of the site to notice, or guess, or do that huge amount of research, just to answer a simple question. So, it was never reasonable, in my opinion, to downvote Austin Mohr. And, this is what you don't seem to understand. – Graphth Oct 12 '12 at 16:56
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    @Norbert Imagine if instead you noticed something suspicious, downvoted (Madrit and Ha Hi but not Austin) with a clearer message like "-1 for suspicious behavior where you consistently answer easy questions a few minutes after they were asked by a user who clearly knows how to do these problems". Was the complete solution really a problem to you? Or was it the suspicious behavior surrounding it? Because, if it's the suspicious behavior surrounding it, then your "-1 for a complete solution" is not clear and could easily lead to misunderstanding. Or, you don't downvote and do tell a mod. – Graphth Oct 12 '12 at 17:01
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    @Graphth I downvoted Ha Hi and Madrit Zhaku for the "suspicious" reasons. I downvoted Austin Mohr for two reasons: 1. This was too simple question under the level of OP, it was enough to write a hint 2. Austin Mohr is experimced MSE user and mathematicain able to resist temptation to write complete answers for simple questions. Sometime ago I was doing the same things - writing complete solutions for homework like questions. Now if I see that answer is a fact from textbooks or trivial I just provide a list of hints or a reference. For me homework questions without efforts is a cheating. – Norbert Oct 12 '12 at 21:16
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    in addition to having the side-effect of filling the site with correct answers of negative score - This might be the most problematic aspect of the problem. Suppose someone asks how to solve a 2nd degree equation, and someone else posts Bhaskara's formula. Then because the question is lazy, the answer gets downvoted. In the end, the internet spreads the news that Bhaskara's formula is wrong!!!!1!1oneone. Not a happy ending, I fear. – Luís Henrique Oct 26 '17 at 16:56
up vote 46 down vote accepted

I am strongly against downvoting complete solutions, and I believe such behavior would have a negative long-term impact on the site as a whole. I went over my reasons in detail in this past answer, A Consolidated Homework Policy, and I have pasted a large portion of that answer below. I also want to link to Professor Hamkins answer to the question What do we do with users who post numerous unlabeled homework questions?

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on this issue, and voting is fundamentally subjective. It is usually unknown why users downvote certain answers, perhaps there were other reasons. However, let me stress and outline what I consider to be many of the problems associated to downvoting full solutions for no reason other than the fact that they completely answered the problem. I understand the arguments for doing so, and there is no perfect choice, but I believe the negatives of such actions far outweigh the benefits:

  1. One purpose of stack exchange sites is to have long lasting questions and answers, this is why we close as duplicates, because the original is meant to be found on search engines, and be a reference for future question askers. Having an inordinate number of questions with only incomplete hint-answers, and where posting a complete answer is not allowed, nearly defeats this purpose. I am not saying hints are bad, they have their place, but having a policy which only allows hints on a whole class of questions is ludicrous.
  2. I can imagine situations where people make accusations about what is and what is not homework, re tag questions, and refuse to give full answers. In the worse case, things may degrade into a witch hunt scaring away new users.
  3. How much of a hint is too much? What may be a complete solution for one user would not suffice for another. How can we standardize this? It seems to just create a whole host of reasons based on ones opinion of "what is a sufficient hint" to downvote/not vote up otherwise good answers.
  4. It is enjoyable to write out complete solutions to questions. This type of policy punishes answer writers by forcing them to conform to a subjective nebulous standard. Again this goes against one of the principles of stack exchange sites: putting the answer writers first. This type of policy creates more conflict, and encourage less posting.

There are a plethora of ways for students to get help on their homework, and different standards exist around the world for what is and is not allowed. Who is to say your standard is the correct one? I don't think that we should compromise the functionality of the website, the happiness of our answer writers, and the health of the community to try and be some kind of academic police. Hints can be very helpful for students learning, but there is nothing wrong with posting a complete solution.

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    Another negative: A future user of this site will be quite mystified to see a perfectly good answer with a negative rating. This could call into question the value of ratings throughout the site. – Austin Mohr Oct 7 '12 at 0:53
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    @AustinMohr If this would be the fundamental criterion, we shouldn't edit downvoted questions either. – Michael Greinecker Oct 7 '12 at 1:07
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    @MichaelGreinecker I see your point, but I think the confusion is worse with answers than questions. A Googler with no account on the site who happens upon a downvoted question will (I think) simply wonder why so many disliked what seems like a well-written and interesting question. A downvoted answer, however, carries with it the implication that something is wrong with the answer. This can cause serious confusion on the part of the reader, especially if s/he has come to the same conclusion that was (apparently) rejected by this community. – Austin Mohr Oct 7 '12 at 1:23
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    Everyone is a student in Mathematics, let's tolerate one another more. Homework -discrimination does no good to this site. When I ask questions in SE, I usually make sure my teacher knows it (if appropriate) -- I think the way to go is "to use references". It creates trust and I like it, people want to learn things, not to be digmatized. – hhh Oct 8 '12 at 23:45
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    I remember teaching a grade school class where $2 \times 3$ was accomplished by making three rows of two dots each and counting the dots. We were using this method to multiply two-digit numbers times two-digit numbers. I watched one student work on $37 \times 22$. He dutifully worked out $7 \times 2$ and $3 \times 2$ and put the results in the correct place. He then proceeded to, again, compute $7 \times 2$ and $3 \times 2$. It took me almost ten minutes to get him to understand why he didn't have to do that. Hints make assumptions about the abilities of the OP which may not be realistic. – steven gregory Sep 26 '16 at 5:33

The homework-related situation that I and many other users of SE sites find most problematic is when:

  1. Someone asks a question that's directly copied out of their homework adding no thoughts or comments
  2. Someone gives an answer which could be directly copied into a solution set.

There are many ways to avoid this situation which you may want to consider:

  • Give answers which, even if complete, are written pedagogically and don't read like a problem set.
  • Ask the question asker for some context and background and refuse to answer until they provide this. This template is a useful comment in that setting.
  • Sketch the argument rather than filling in all the details.
  • Check whether the question is a duplicate, or an "abstract duplicate" and vote to close as a duplicate. (An example of an abstract duplicate would be two questions asking about how to differentiate different polynomials.)
  • Answer a more general problem, leaving the application to the specific case for the interested reader.
  • Check whether this user has a history of directly copying questions, and flag the question for moderator attention. Then you can just answer the question, but the user can be suspended if they continue to abuse the site.
  • Investigate before giving complete answers to questions that have been downvoted. Sometimes this is an indication of a pattern of user behavior that other voters saw but you might have missed.
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    I did not personally downvote your answer. But I do agree with their opinion that your behavior in this situation should be discouraged. I'm unclear whether downvoting is the right way to do said discouraging. – Noah Snyder Oct 6 '12 at 20:54
  • The comment template is useful. Thank you for the link. As for my behavior, I believe it complied with your first bullet point, but I don't want to get on that tangent. The point of my question wasn't to vilify the downvoter or justify my answer, but to determine whether I had missed a community-wide homework policy. – Austin Mohr Oct 6 '12 at 20:58
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    @AustinMohr: Ah, sorry, I realized I haven't actually seen your solution since you deleted it and I'm below 10K. I was looking at the other solutions on the linked question. My apologies, you may very well be right. – Noah Snyder Oct 6 '12 at 21:00
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    All is well. :) – Austin Mohr Oct 6 '12 at 21:01
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    Where did you get the strange idea that users can be suspended for a "history of directly copying questions"? – Bill Dubuque Oct 6 '12 at 22:51
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    @NoahSnyder: +1, I like the list you made, with the exception of the last point. I would like to add the following: Search to see if the question is a duplicate, and vote to close accordingly. I think a lot of problems would be avoided if reputation wasn't hunted after, and if the MSE archive was treated more like a library to be expanded, improved and referenced. Noone gains if the same question is answered in 10 different places, and this behavior makes MSE look bad. – Eric Naslund Oct 6 '12 at 23:00
  • @EricNaslund: Good point. Added a version of your comment to (the middle of) the list. – Noah Snyder Oct 6 '12 at 23:10
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    @Bill I remember some moderator mentioning that there is a template for suspending user for continuous very low quality content, but I forgot who wrote it or where. – Michael Greinecker Oct 7 '12 at 0:07
  • @Michael If we suspended every user who posted a few questions without any motivation then we would not have many users left. – Bill Dubuque Oct 8 '12 at 23:25
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    It seems to me that the vast majority of users of the site do not ask just directly copied questions from other sources with no attribution, and no shown work. Furthermore, many users who do so on their first couple posts change when they get comments explaining what is expected in a good question. I'm surprised that your opinion of the typical user of the site is so low. – Noah Snyder Oct 9 '12 at 8:00
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    @BillDubuque We had several cases where users made several posts that simply consisted of a list of homework-like-problems being copied verbatim. I wouldn't feel lonely at M.SE if people who do so (there are very few of them) would have to go to the penalty box. – Michael Greinecker Oct 11 '12 at 20:29
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    @Noah There are indeed many users who post questions without motivation. This does not imply your false and bizarre claim that my "opinion of the typical user of the site is so low". Again, would you please stop putting words into my mouth. That behavior is something that I do have a low opinion of. – Bill Dubuque Oct 11 '12 at 21:12
  • @MichaelGreinecker Are users banned by account or IP? If the former, banning will only slow them down for a moment while they register a new account. – Austin Mohr Oct 12 '12 at 19:29

"Everyone is a student in Mathematics, let's tolerate one another more." said a good professor to me when doing a mistake. Homework -discrimination does no good to this site. When I ask questions in SE, I usually make sure my teacher knows it (if appropriate) -- I think the way to go is "to use references". It creates trust, a feeling of professionalism and I like it, people want to learn things, not to be stigmatized with arbitrary labels such as homework or too easy.

It is not important where we are now, it is important we improve, together. More talking about references, less talking about homeworks, thank you. How many academic papers do not use references these days? What kind of papers are they? We do not probably want to make an environment lacking proper references, quality up.

enter image description here

Source of the comic here.

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    No offense intended, but this is sort of a naive view of the issue. People cheat on homework, and many (most?) people view that as generally being a Bad Thing, and place value on opposing it. I believe it is actively harmful to push a one-sided view that pretends there is no value in opposing cheating (even if you believe it cannot be done reasonably). – Hurkyl Oct 9 '12 at 0:41
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    @Hurkyl Please do tell between which lines you were able to make the illogical giant leap that hhh "pushes a one-sided view that pretends there is no value in opposing cheating". If you wish these discussions to be constructive then it is essential to stop making loaded false accusations that all opposing points of view support cheating. This could not be further from the truth. – Bill Dubuque Oct 9 '12 at 0:56
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    @Bill: Maybe I fail at reading comprehension, but I certainly don't see any acknowledgement of one of the primary motivations for treating homework questions differently. The only part that could even be construed that way (and I don't believe that this was the intent) is taking "Homework -discrimination does no good to this site." to be a blanket dismissal of an entire side of the topic. A constructive discussion requires making arguments that actually acknowledge and address opposing points, and that one-sided arguments be exposed for what they are. – Hurkyl Oct 9 '12 at 1:56
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    note to @hhh: my apologies if it wasn't clear, but the tone of my comment is directed at Bill, not at you. I recognize that you have good intentions; I'd just like you to realize that asserting conclusions that are (apparently) derived from only one aspect of an issue is problematic. (not just for the sake of discussion, but more generally it can be bad for your own decision making as well) – Hurkyl Oct 9 '12 at 2:12
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    "Everyone is a student in Mathematics" Except for those of us who aren't. What might be a homework question for an undergraduate in Maths might be an earnest question for someone with a different background. – Luís Henrique Oct 26 '17 at 17:03

The accepted answer is an example of what, IMO, is an example of a terrible complete answer.

The main deficiency is that gives no suggestion or hint at how one could come up with the answer, or recognize the approach could be used. It has an extra bonus malfeatures in that the answer can't even be mimicked for other similar problems (unless you already know how to solve similar problems): seeing the answer to this problem offers nearly zero help in solving similar problems.

I find it plausible that your answer simply got caught in the crossfire: with the floodgates already opened, your complete answer got downvoted along with the other one.

It's interesting because I consider the remaining answer as being an effectively complete answer as well, but he dodged the bullet by leaving the final result in "translate words into symbols" form.

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    Actually, in the first answer you mention, Norbert specifically says he downvoted because it was a complete solution. And, I thought that was terrible because it's not even tagged as homework. Norbert says that because the question asker is known for asking questions that aren't very good, that less help should be given to him and if someone gives a complete solution, it should be downvoted. And, when I asked how should any user know they aren't supposed to answer this question, he cited the fact that the same answerer had answered ONE previous question by that same questioner. – Graphth Oct 8 '12 at 12:46
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    I think perhaps the problem here is just Norbert has some weird ideas. – Graphth Oct 8 '12 at 12:49
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    @Grapth I downvoted that question because I see that it is very deep under the level of other questions of OP. I think he just post questions here and rewrite solutions in his exercise book. I downvoted accpeted answer because it is really terrible and the author of this terrible ansswer have one more terrible answer to the similar question of the same question asker. This is a very bad practice when one guy comes here to get solutions for homework, and another guy is happy to provide complete, but terrible solutions. Solutions which doesn't teach anything, just give a solution. – Norbert Oct 10 '12 at 19:52

I strongly disagree with downvoting complete answers to homework questions, and furthermore I disagree with the posting of "hints" to homework (or suspected homework) questions, except in the cases where a hint has been explicitly requested.

Math.SE is supposed to be a long-lasting repository of high quality answers to mathematical questions. When you answer a question, you are not just answering it for the person who asked it. You are answering it for everyone who will read the question in the future - likely because they have exactly the same question. If we fill the site with half-answers and hints, it degrades the experience for all future users.

On a related note, I find the tendency of some users to make accusatory "is this homework?" style comments to be in extremely bad taste.

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    The site benefits from all kinds of answers, whether terse hints or complete answers. Besides the OP, later readers may seek one or the other, or something in-between. The richer the spectrum of answers, the more potential that readers will find one that meets their specific needs. – Bill Dubuque Oct 6 '12 at 23:58
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    The question whether something is homework is perfectly legitimate, it influence whether a question is tagged correctly or not. And one can also give hints to other persons cming to the same question. I don't see how your argument against hints works. – Michael Greinecker Oct 7 '12 at 0:10
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    On a related note, I find the tendency of some users to make accusatory comments on "is this homework?" style inquiries, to be in extremely bad taste. – Did Oct 7 '12 at 9:56
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    I agree with much of this. I dislike the way newcomers often get jumped on. And I don’t downvote, full stop: I prefer to leave comments. However, I disagree strongly with the objection to hints: a good hint is as valuable to posterity as a good complete answer, and I often give one, albeit sometimes quite detailed, even when the question is definitely not homework. On this I’m in complete agreement with Bill Dubuque. – Brian M. Scott Oct 7 '12 at 10:19
  • It's not clear what the up/downvotes signify, since your post contains at least 4 independent opinions. This makes the votes essentially useless. Better to stick to one point per answer if you wish the votes to have any meaning. – Bill Dubuque Oct 8 '12 at 23:18
  • @BillDubuque My points are tightly coupled (possible exception of the final point) and I don't think it would have made sense for me to split it into multiple answers. – Chris Taylor Oct 8 '12 at 23:25
  • @Chris I don't agree. I think that we have users who hold every possible Boolean combination of the four opinions in your answer. As a moderator, I strive to judge community opinions on subjective matters. That is logically impossible when you post multiple opinions in one answer. If you wish your answers to be helpful for such it is essential to put separate points in separate answers (and/or put minor tangents into comments) so we can be absolutely certain which point the votes target. – Bill Dubuque Oct 8 '12 at 23:33
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    When then do we have "Is this a homework question?" as a comment template? – draks ... Oct 9 '12 at 10:35
  • @draks Anyone can post template answers into that thread. That doesn't imply any community consensus on the matters that they address. My earlier proposal on standardized meta-comments proposed using votes to help determine consensus, but the newer proposal doesn't seem to address that matter, which is a serious defect in my opinion. – Bill Dubuque Oct 15 '12 at 16:11

Answers that are incomplete have more value if they include words like "hint", "incomplete" or "partial answer" (when that is not obvious).

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