I have seen that a substantial proportion of new posts require clarification to know whether the question belongs to a homework assignment or not. Also I noticed that has been a great amount of debate concerning the homework tag. I think it is quite safe to assume that new posts that should be tagged as 'homework', go improperly tagged for one of the following reasons:

  1. Users do not bother to check the FAQ and fail to realize that there is a homework tag.
  2. Users deliberately omit to tag properly hoping to have his/her assignment solved for free, which can be seen as a malicious behavior.

Frankly, I don't see how to address the second reason, however, the first one would be easily targeted by using a check box similar to the one used in order to notify users of new answers. Therefore, given explicitly the possibility to tag as 'homework' when appropriate, non-malicious users would do so.

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    $\begingroup$ A checklist or form for optional information about a posting would certainly be useful, but for a much larger category of postings than homework, and there are many other pieces of information that would be useful for displaying or searching the postings: problem source ("original" would attract much attention, "olympiad" has its own audience, etc), level of difficulty, level of answer sought, and many others. Homework is, as always, not a specially relevant category for proposing upgrades to the site, though of course having [homework] as one of the checklist items can be informative. $\endgroup$ – T.. Oct 23 '10 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ I see what you are saying. However, I think that around the 'homework' category revolves most of the troubles that in turn give rise to some discussions (i.e. meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/914/…). $\endgroup$ – Robert Smith Oct 23 '10 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ The trouble arises only because a very small number of activist users -- predominantly just one or two -- occupy themselves with identifying homework, not because the community as a whole has determined that homework per se (rather than questions that are [unsourced], questions that request [specified-method] for solution, questions that are [numerically-specific], etc). As far as these obsessive homework inquisitions (1) lead to false accusations or (2) are made by those who don't then answer the question, they are a busybody Citizens' Patrol and this behavior is noxious for the site. $\endgroup$ – T.. Oct 23 '10 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ You want to name names and give links, T..? $\endgroup$ – Paul VanKoughnett Oct 23 '10 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Paul: yes, I made a compilation and will post it in the other thread --- as requested by one of the main homework inquisitors. Also, in the comment you are answering, it should read "not because the community as a whole has determined that sometimes-undisclosed homework per se is a problem (rather than...)". $\endgroup$ – T.. Oct 23 '10 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ @T: Looking for the pattern that you referred to, and I think it looks like you are right, although maybe the issue with those people is to have questions in which the author doesn't provide any sign of previous work. $\endgroup$ – Robert Smith Oct 23 '10 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ @T..: Perhaps you should start a new meta thread about the "citizen patrols". While I wouldn't put it that strongly, I agree that homework questions are sometimes met with more negativity than is perhaps warranted. However, it is difficult to discuss this in the comments thread of this question, which is about a different suggestion. $\endgroup$ – user856 Oct 24 '10 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ While I try not to be a busybody Citizens' Patrol, I do generally point out when a question looks like homework. If it would be preferable to tag the question with "poorly-motivated, unsourced, and very local" that would be fine with me, although with the limit of four tags we might run out of space very quickly if the question has many problems. However, saying "this looks like homework" is not the same as actually tagging a question as homework, which I would not do unless the asker said the problem was homework. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Oct 24 '10 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @T..: If you would care to look at the top voted answer in meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/914/… you will see links to what are the current community voted guidelines regarding homework. If you don't like them, please feel free to raise the issues which you think the guidelines fail to address in those relevant threads. And please stop attaching absurd names to folks who are just following those guidelines. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Oct 24 '10 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ @CarlMummert What makes you think a question looks like homework? $\endgroup$ – Makoto Kato Aug 7 '12 at 1:22

My opinion is that it is irrelevant whether or not something is homework. I've discussed this in the past but it seemed to cause quite a lot of upset and anger - so it's potentially a difficult issue. I'll just post my thoughts on it then:

I think it is crucially important that we do not answer questions of the form "What is 1+1" with answers like "2", or questions like "What is a happy number" with answers like "wikipedia.com/Happy_Number". Calculators and Search engines already do this job. (N.B. it is also crucially important never to refer people to search engines or calculators in answers to questions - this is a new phenomenon which is ruining the value of searching the internet. One now encounters pages and pages of "JFGI" when searching). If a question is trivial in this sense it should just be closed and ignored.

That said there are lots of computations in mathematics which are do-able by computer but people struggle with: An example (that has come up a few times) is base conversion, the algorithm is easy to do but many people cannot derive it for themselves (and thus, understand or correctly carry out the algorithm) because they lack the conceptual understanding. This is the case when a simple computational question hides a deep conceptual question.

Anyway the issue is treating homework questions differently than other questions. I'd argue this is a bad idea,

  • One strategy sometimes performed is to see the questions template, modify the parameters and give a solution for that - so as not to just 'give away the answer'. This is obviously harmful, it encourages the questioner to simply substitute their own values into your solution and watch them trickle down through what was written. It affirms the 'blank page' fears as well as requiring zero mathematical thought. It is possible that the questioner may attempt to understand aspects of the solution but if they are attempting to "cheat" this does not stop them from writing a solution that appears to have taken effort but did not.

  • It carries the assumption that people are actively attempting to cheat, by default. This is rude and it is easily observed treating people immaturely helps them become it. If someone does not want to put effort into working and expects somehow, to get a solution from someone online they may attempt it but they will probably not gain anything from it. Is this some terrible shame? Should the person that answered the question feel like they have done wrong? No to both. First of all the site is archived, questions don't disappear after the questioner has handed in his work - someone struggling with self study might find it useful to them in future. Also if one avoids answering the type of questions previously mentioned that reduces the possibility of this sort of cheating.

  • It categorizes things incorrectly. The category 'homework' could only really be useful to someone that wants to ignore homework questions. Since homework questions are equally mathematical there does not seem to be any real reason to do this. I think it would be best for tags to just describe aspects of the question - not the social setting that the question arises from. (On that note, it seems odd that people have to "motivate" their questions when they are not homework, but a homework problem is always motivated... by the requirement for grades? It's not something which should motivate mathematical problems)

  • You cannot verify whether a question is homework or not. There is no way to actually decide whether or not the tag is applied correctly - just a hope that they don't lie. People doing self study might be working on problems from a book and want to ask about them - but equally likely someone might set problems from a book as homework. It's also a vague term, if someone is doing homework but they need to ask about something else to solve it - does that count? That question probably doesn't have a yes/no answer.

All in all it's just a huge waste of time and it's also irritating to read all the "Is this homework? Can you tag it that way?" handshakes which are actually meta-discussion but are allowed because there's no other way to conduct them.

  • $\begingroup$ Closing a question instead of replying with a link to, say, Wikipedia won't help with the problem of too many "JFGI" links in search engines. The math.SE thread will still turn up on Google, but now without even a link to an actually useful page; I'd say that's a worse outcome. $\endgroup$ – user856 Oct 23 '10 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ I think that questions of the type you describe ('What is a happy number') are rather rare. Assuming that's correct, we don't have to worry about it. Concerning to the 'homework' issue, I'd argue that homework questions are different than other questions because students need hints and valuable references, not full solutions. Therefore, the answer should be framed in the best interest of the student. On your fourth point, if people doing homework ask questions that do not reveal previous work done, they shouldn't expect to receive a great answer. The same applies to people doing self study. $\endgroup$ – Robert Smith Oct 24 '10 at 0:12
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    $\begingroup$ I wanted to add that I didn't intend to pursue another discussion about 'how should we respond to homework questions'. Now I see that the first comment written by T. targets the suggestion I wanted to make and provides a useful framework to avoid giving undue credit to the homework tag. $\endgroup$ – Robert Smith Oct 24 '10 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ You make a thread called "Suggestion regarding the 'homework' issue" but you don't want to follow a discussion about the homework issue? That is absurd. $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 24 '10 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ @muad: Try posting your answer here: meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/106/…. Robert Smith asked a specific question, giving an answer which is not on-topic is what is absurd. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Oct 24 '10 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Moron, don't mock my use of language please. I was light footed in writing this out specifically to avoid upsetting you again. $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 24 '10 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @muad: I am not mocking you! If you are not happy with the current guidelines around homework, I am suggesting you post this answer at a place where it is on-topic and people can vote on it appropriately. What you wrote is not really on-topic here, as Robert said so, in polite words and IMO, didn't really deserve the response he got from you. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Oct 24 '10 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ @muad: I made a thread with a suggestion that doesn't directly involve issues such as 'What is the proper way to handle homework questions' or 'Can we please stop asking "Is this homework?"'. That's why I don't want to follow a discussion of that nature. $\endgroup$ – Robert Smith Oct 24 '10 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ @muad: For what it's worth, I did not feel Moron's comment was mocking you. It was criticizing you, yes, but if you feel it is valid on meta to criticize someone's behavior (I agree) and call it absurd (I disagree), then you should find it valid when Moron does the same to you. I really hope you do not begin to feel frustrated with the community due to my comment, as you are a valuable member of this site, but I feel you take some of these remarks too personally. $\endgroup$ – user856 Oct 24 '10 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ As these threads demonstrate, the word "homework" is a viral meme that afflicts the site, obstructing clear thought on to how to improve and develop the site, imparting tunnel vision to those worried that somebody, somewhere, is getting free solutions to an assigned school problem. (Think for a minute how utterly marginal the effect of this is, even for one individual who receives a homework solution. Of all matters to consume time and energy in building the site, this one has to be among the most petty and puny.) $\endgroup$ – T.. Oct 24 '10 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ @T..: It seems you haven't comprehended at all (inspite of being told this repeatedly) the reason behind people trying to ascertain if a particular question is homework. It is to help the students learn. Calling those efforts petty or puny is utterly ridiculous. Anyway, I regret even having gotten into these discussions with you and muad. Please excuse me if you intend to pursue to this further. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Oct 24 '10 at 21:21

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