# Posting exam questions

https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/353202/how-to-find-a-recurrence-relation-from-a-word-problem/353385#353385

Is there some policy concerning how to deal with this sort of thing?

The user known as DrBaxter has posted several similar answers today. Maybe there should be some way to prevent answers from being posted until the date cited.

• My policy for dealing with this sort of thing is to point out (long before anyone arrives to say we are dealing with an exam question) that the question is unmotivated, unsourced, shows no effort and no indication of what OP knows; I then vote to close the question. If it gets closed before anyone can post an answer, and then it turns out to be an exam question, then we've closed the barn door before the horse has bolted, and maybe we've discouraged some others who have similar plans. – Gerry Myerson Apr 7 '13 at 4:05
• I'm definitely interested in this, as several problems that have been reposted from Brilliant would fall into a similar category. This is something that the MSE community will need to figure out what their ideal response would be. Currently, there is no common consensus even amongst the moderators. – Calvin Lin Apr 7 '13 at 4:55
• Take-home exams are a wonderful way of teaching/testing (when done right and with an honor code in place). But I don't think we can catch all of these people. Ever. May be internet will mean an end to them. At least on courses with mass attendance. A change not unlike the one that took place in professional chess, where games are no longer suspended overnight? – Jyrki Lahtonen Apr 7 '13 at 5:07
• @Calvin: I don't know how Brilliant works. If it is anything like the contest-math training I participated in during my junior years, then the point of take-home problems was all training. So performance on take-home problems carried no (or very little) weight in e.g. team selection. It may be impossible for you to set it up that way. My sympathy is with you, if this site is ruining your efforts at Brilliant to a significant degree. – Jyrki Lahtonen Apr 7 '13 at 5:13
• I noticed that someone invalidated the flags that DrBaxter's posts are not answers. But the fact that they are not answers. Valid concerns and legitimate pointing out that someone is cheating does not constitutes of an answer, regardless of how much we want to see the question itself locked or closed. When the moderators come to check it out, they will see the issue. So no need to "support" these answers by invalidating the flags. – Asaf Karagila Apr 7 '13 at 6:26
• @Asaf: I marked ‘Other’ and left a comment to the effect that it needed to be looked at promptly. – Brian M. Scott Apr 7 '13 at 7:36
• @Brian: I marked one with a custom text that a moderator should look into that (the one was automatically flagged because it was the fifth or sixth duplicate answer) and the others "not an answer". Three of the flags were disputed, which means someone invalidated the flag. – Asaf Karagila Apr 7 '13 at 7:39
• As a student, I really hope the internet doesn't kill take-home exams. The style of exams I like best are ones that couldn't possibly be completed in the typical hour-long testing session. – Snowball Apr 7 '13 at 9:51
• @Snowball No doubt the web will kill take-home exams. New technologies always force changes in prior ways. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, because it will force teachers to resort to better methods of evaluating students' knowledge - something in which new technology will surely play a key role (e.g. software that models your knowledge as it evolves, identifying stumbling blocks, automatically generating exercises to correct misunderstandings, etc). – Math Gems Apr 7 '13 at 16:23
• Once again, the M.SE community kicks the can down the road, under some pretense of ignorance of the legitimacy of the claim and a notion that academic integrity is something that need only be upheld from within the cloistered boundaries of the institution... – Emily Apr 7 '13 at 16:43
• The effective thing to do to alert moderators is to flag them with reasonable evidence that the question belongs to a contest or exam. When I receive such a note, I make a moderator note at the top of the question, add the tag contest-math, and lock the question. I convert non-answers stating that the question is on an exam or contest to comments on the question (or delete them if they are inappropriate). If a moderator does not get to the question in a reasonable amount of time, comment on the question that you believe it is from a contest or exam. – robjohn Apr 8 '13 at 0:32
• It DrBaxter is telling the truth then this user should be suspended (and also expelled). – Douglas B. Staple Apr 12 '13 at 18:17
• As @DouglasB.Staple points out, this could (and arguably should) be handled within the institution the student in question attends. Math.SE question are well-indexed by Google so any professor interested in enforcing an honor code could simple Google the exact wording of questions to see if they have been asked on the Internet. The Internet has made cheating easier in all fields, but it has also made catching cheaters easier in all fields. – Todd Wilcox Apr 19 '13 at 18:27
• @Todd: Reminds me of the Vogons replying to the panic of the pending destruction of the Earth by "reminding" everyone that the demolition orders have been on display in the local planning department in Alpha Centauri for the last fifty years. – user14972 Apr 19 '13 at 20:15

I propose a policy that if someone reports that a question is part of a take-home test, we have a 4 step process:

1. We close the question as soon as possible to prevent any possible cheating.
2. We then ask the reporter for the test's due date (as DrBaxter has provided in his reports)
3. We also ask the reporter for some verification that they are, in fact, a professor or someone qualified to ask for the delay of answering the question. (This could be done via a .edu email address or some other suitable manner.)
4. We reopen the question after this deadline has past, or if the reporter does not respond within a reasonable timeframe.

Note:

I'm throwing this idea out here so others can critique it-- I find it's often easier to tweak what someone else has started than to create from scratch. Thus, I'm also making it community wiki so others can edit to update with an official policy later.

• OK, so far, but it would be easy for anyone to falsely and maliciously claim that anyone else's posted question is an exam question due next Christmas. We may need a way to verify that people are who they say they are. – Michael Hardy Apr 7 '13 at 0:57
• @Michael This is true. However, if people are prone to falsely and maliciously reporting questions, I think we would already be seeing this behavior. I don't see it right now, so I don't think it would be a big problem. That said: having a verification could be helpful. Perhaps providing a faculty website or email address would be verification enough. Yes, it is possible that John Doe would copy someone else's email address, but the thought that we may contact the email address' owner should deter identity thieves. (Also, we should ignore ridiculous (e.g. multi-semester) deadlines...) – apnorton Apr 7 '13 at 1:12
• The basic approach is fine, but I do think that it needs at least some minimal verification procedure. – Brian M. Scott Apr 7 '13 at 7:42
• I understand Brian's sentiment, but given the speed at which answers appear on this site, if we have to wait for a verification, the horse has bolted. – Jyrki Lahtonen Apr 7 '13 at 16:11
• Furthermore, it is easier to unlock a falsely locked question than make a posted answer (copied by the asker within seconds) unseen. – Jyrki Lahtonen Apr 7 '13 at 16:13
• I think retroactive verification should be enough. That is a moderator should lock immediately, but ask the person who pointed out that it was an exam to send them an email from a verifiable email address (e.g. .edu). – Noah Snyder Apr 7 '13 at 16:53
• @Jyrki: An immediate moderator lock followed by verification is fine with me. – Brian M. Scott Apr 7 '13 at 18:15
• @BrianM.Scott see the changes I made to the post. Does this seem to reflect the general thoughts? – apnorton Apr 8 '13 at 1:14
• @MichaelHardy See changes I've made to post--does this seem to be a suitable verification method? – apnorton Apr 8 '13 at 1:14
• Looks fine to me; +1. – Brian M. Scott Apr 8 '13 at 1:21
• Could be. ${{{{{{}}}}}}$ – Michael Hardy Apr 8 '13 at 3:09
• The problem with this approach (which I think is good, thogh), is that it is possible that what is an exam question for one person is just a question for someone else. Only today I noticed a question on MSE that I didn't have for a take-home exam myself, but which could easily have been in there. However, at this point I could also just as easily have asked the same question out of sheer interest. It seems impossible to decide between the two. – HSN Apr 16 '13 at 22:40
• Just a thought: if a professor has had issues in the past, perhaps s/he can email the mods before hand to warn them which questions, if they pop up, are on the test? – Double AA Apr 18 '13 at 0:02
• @DoubleAA I'd be a little cautious about implementing something like that... We only have a handful of mods, and there's a lot of professors out there--even if only 3% of math professors sent in their test questions before each test they teach, we'd be swamped pretty quickly... – apnorton Apr 18 '13 at 1:48
• @HSN The chances of someone asking the exact same question as a take home exam within the window of the exam are pretty slim. And while it could happen, I don't think the person asking, if it is for self study or curiosity, would have a huge issue waiting few days... – N. S. May 9 '13 at 14:25

Among the grounds for closing, there should be a button labeled "Temporary close for a take-home exam question".

• And this button should ideally have a "automatic reopen" date. (IMHO) This would work similarly to a user suspension, but be for questions instead of users. – apnorton Apr 7 '13 at 17:23
• It'd also be handy if one could still answer the question, with the answer made public only on the "automatic reopen" date. – Douglas S. Stones Apr 8 '13 at 12:31
• @anorton, on meta.stackoverflow.com I suggested something like this, that was shot down (for good reasons, IMHO). – vonbrand Apr 10 '13 at 16:27
• Your question suggests you're proposing a large-scale roll-out for homework questions. We're talking about questions that, whether or not the proposed feature is present, (a) are identified as examination material, and thus would be closed, and (b) would be re-opened after the deadline. The only differences are (a) there is an appropriate justification for closing and (b) the "re-opening" step is made automatic. – Douglas S. Stones Apr 11 '13 at 14:02
• I'm going to start a separate thread with the feature-request tag to see if we can get an answer from our SE overlords on this idea. – David E Speyer Apr 12 '13 at 13:16

What I would like is some kind of software solution. For example, I could imagine something like "flag as low-quality copied question" where a user who got enough flags (and where a moderator agreed) would think they were still posting questions but in fact the questions were no longer visible to other users.

Currently the problem is that since it's trivial to close down an account and reopen a new one (and since the privacy policy limits our ability to keep track of users) it's incredibly difficult to identify the few problem users, and even if they are identified it's hard to stop them from coming back in the future.

• This proposal seems to despair of any problem users ever mending their ways, by hiding from them completely that their ways need mending. That will do more harm than good, I think. – hmakholm left over Monica Apr 8 '13 at 22:40
• The banning process already does something similar, only that the delinquent has the opportunity to do amends. Perhaps this should be integrated there? Or just agree to flag those posts for deletion (random exam/homework questions won't add too much to the site anyway, IMHO), that should take care of the post and poster. – vonbrand Apr 10 '13 at 16:35
• SE has stated that they won't implement any form of Hellbanning, that option is off the table and for a good reason in my opinion. And the privacy policy doesn't limit the moderators in tracking duplicate accounts, but there are quite enough technical reasons why it can be very hard to do that. – user9733 Apr 10 '13 at 18:17
• @MadScientist: Fair enough. I'm not wedded to exactly this example, though I do think we should be looking for some creative software-based solution. – Noah Snyder Apr 10 '13 at 18:35
• There is something that makes cheating different from most other abuse of the system. Which is that the philosophy behind suspensions is that starting a new user is not so troublesome because the new user has no rep, and so can't comment or engage in other disruptive behavior. Since cheating only involves asking a question, and that requires no rep, the usual SE approach is completely useless and something new is needed. (Though hellbanning may be the wrong approach.) – Noah Snyder Apr 10 '13 at 18:46
• In my (admittedly sheltered) internet life, I've mainly seen this sort of technique proposed for actively malicious users who exploit the ease of creating new accounts to continue their malicious activity even after being banned. By making them unaware that their latest account has been banned, you greatly diminish their ability to be malicious effectively. – user14972 Apr 10 '13 at 18:52
• @Noah: And the same goes for any abuse that involves only asking or answering questions. – user14972 Apr 11 '13 at 6:22
• I have removed zyx's comments, and comments related to them. – Zev Chonoles Apr 11 '13 at 21:45

The vast majority of the "exam-kind" (or homework-like) questions I've seen aren't of any wider interest (small wonder ;-) and show no elaboration by OP. Those I just request to close as "too localized" (an answer won't do anybody any good, and a positive harm to OP and their classmates).