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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
"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
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.
Source of the comic here.
The homework-related situation that I and many other users of SE sites find most problematic is when:
- Someone asks a question that's directly copied out of their homework adding no thoughts or comments
- 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.
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.
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.
Answers that are incomplete have more value if they include words like "hint", "incomplete" or "partial answer" (when that is not obvious).