tl/dr What specific policy changes or behavior changes do you think would lower the barrier to entry for new users represented by the current homework policy?

This essay is in response to a recent Stack Overflow blogpost "Stack Overflow Isn’t Very Welcoming. It’s Time for That to Change.". We've had some discussion in the h bar about the logic behind the post, but I'd suggest that we leave that aside for a bit and focus on the action points suggested in the post:

  • Let’s shift from “don’t be an asshole” to “be welcoming.”
  • Let’s do something about comments. (in particular about sarcastic, pointed, or overly terse comments that might tend to push new users away)
  • Let’s make it easier for new users to succeed.
  • Let’s stop judging users for not knowing things. (We’re a Q&A site!)
  • Let’s reject the false dichotomy between quality and kindness.

Right now I'm focusing on the third on ``Let’s make it easier for new users to succeed'' in relation to the oft-discussed homework policy.

Summary of the Current State of Things

The current policy holds that we don't work individual exercises (without regard to whether they were assigned as homework or not), but instead are happy to answer questions about physics concepts and principle no matter the context in which they arise.

Why that policy?1

Roughly this is a compromise between a understanding among some users that homework-like question flood a internet help space and push out more interesting content on one hand and the desire of other users explicitly to provide help with the early stages education and development and to provide explicit outreach to the wider community.

The matter has been discussed over and over again, and while people are willing to take the opinions of others seriously and treat them respectfully they two points of view have never been fully reconciled.

However, there seems to be a widespread agreement that current policy is not achieving it's goals and improvements are needed. They haven't happened in part because of deadlock and it part due to burnout over the issue on the part of the active meta users.

The issue with the policy

The basic problem is that extracting the conceptual trouble from the middle of an exercise the student doesn't understand well enough to complete is an advanced skill: exactly the sort of thing that is still in front of beginning students.

I wrote about some of the techniques for teaching the difference in a post on academia, and I will emphasize that it can be a time consuming process that is often frustrating to the student because they don't understand why the things I'm asking them to do are better than the thing they are trying to do.2

In short the policy we have is almost the opposite of "Let’s make it [easy] for new users to succeed." At least when the new user is a beginner in our subject.


While on the whole I think it is not useful to focus on who is responsible for policy, but I need to fess up to being non-trivially responsible for the current situation. I've been (and still am) firmly in the "homework-help eats on-line communities" camp, and I pushed some ideas that contributed to the current situation.

What Can Be Done?

It's clear from the blog post that they are contemplating a "ask-a-question wizard" type of tool, but we won't see that on Physics in the short term.3

What Can We Do in the Meantime?

That is the point of the question.

The obvious answers seems to me to be

  1. Change the policy in a way that reduces the barrier, without opening the floodgates of venue-consuming low-level problem-solving.
  2. Provide more active and positive guidance (and outright aid) so that willing posters can get past any barrier that is still in the way. 4

but neither one is actually finished in this form. The details are still to be provided.

Question to be answered

What specific policy or behavior change do you recommend (or recommend against) and why?

1 My interpretation. Opinions doubtless vary.

2 And they are better.

3 Maybe we can do some spade work to earn a spot near the top of the list? Consider this a solicitation for input from the team.

4 I tried to work on this at the level of "helpful comment to guide the poster in the direction of finding conceptual stumbling blocks" a recent post:

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, please have better comments. Certain users that start off with "-1..." in every comment are way too abrasive (for any users, really). $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ As naive data points: looking at the stats from the last 30 days, currently 9 of the 15 highest voted questions are from users with <500 reputation, and 11 of the 15 highest viewed questions are from users with <500 reputation. I wonder how this compares with other SE sites. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ There have been countless times when I have wanted to ask a question on the physics site but have decided not to in fear I will be ridiculed for my ignorance. $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2018 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @curiousGeorge119 so you choose to not learn because someone you don't know (and likely won't ever meet) thinks your question is below them? That's an odd position to hold. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos deciding not to ask a question doesn't mean I have decided not to learn. It means I have looked elsewhere for answers to my questions. I like the site. There are a lot of really talented people on here. Was just saying how I really feel. $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2018 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos Someone you don't know putting you down for a question is different from someone you don't know putting you down while the entire community watches and does nothing. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2018 at 1:11
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    $\begingroup$ It has always been in my opinion, perhaps because I come from a larger site, that this starts from people taking action against what they see go against their beliefs, and take action towards their beliefs. If a question you think is sincere ends up closed, and you think it is reasonable to reopen, you should vote to reopen it. If a question you find unreasonable is open, you should close it. If multiple people have contradicting beliefs, the result is the larger group, including only those that put in their voice. And if the other party shall strongly disagree, we have meta and mods. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2018 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ Likewise any policy with which you disagree with, you will naturally find it hard to follow or enforce. You cannot make someone flag or vote to close a question just because you told them its bad. Of course, if the majority of the community, or at least a large percentage of, agrees, then the action shall happen anyways. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2018 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not saying no policy is the way to go, but sometimes too strict of a policy is ineffective. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2018 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ @SimplyBeautifulArt both cases are meaningless and should have no bearing on your daily life or contribution to any online community. If it does, please stay away from Reddit and imgur, among other places. Probably best to find a closet and just stay there. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos You may think so, but I think a lot of people get shied away from SE because they feel attacked, even if only by one person, and ignored by everyone else. It's a common bullying scenario that happens due to a lack of action taken from the bystanders. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2018 at 2:09
  • $\begingroup$ This comment “There have been countless times when I have wanted to ask a question on the physics site but have decided not to in fear I will be ridiculed for my ignorance.” is very unsettling. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2018 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero It is unsettling! If that's indeed true for somebody in late undergrad, imagine how many thousands of freshmen and high school students are dissuaded from posting their homework every week. It makes me scared to change anything about the current policy. $\endgroup$
    – knzhou
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ To be honest, I have a slightly different point of view here. As a new user, I actually find P.S.E quite welcoming. The point is, you need to have a thick skin to participate in this site, as I learned it the hard way. Then you will see that most (advanced) participants are very willing to help answer your questions. Otherwise, an academic career is not for you. In fact, getting used to the behavioral norms of P.S.E and M.S.E has prepared me well for the challenges in graduate school and made me a stronger person. $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2018 at 2:40
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    $\begingroup$ A relevant essay on asking technical questions. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 16:50

9 Answers 9


Implement a helpful tag warning for

I suggest a tag warning for hw/exercises that's written with an eye to the user who has a question we want: lead that user to write a good hw/exercise question.

Who knows how much impact tag-warnings actually have. (They show up at the wrong time, after all.) But the tag warning for hw/exercises already brainstormed here is largely focused on preventing the asking of bad questions rather than stepping a user through asking one well.

As you said in the question-post, you're not going to immediately get a wizard for crafting good homework-based questions. But by trying to write into a tag-warning good guidelines/workflow for someone trying to ask for homework help we'll be laying the groundwork for when the time comes: "see, SE staff: we already have one ready to go, for the 2nd-most used and most-problematic tag on one of the Network's busiest sites."

  • $\begingroup$ Previously proposed when tag warnings were introduced $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ Worth noting, though, that none of the suggestions there ^^ attempt to guide a user to ask a good one, mostly just chastising users for bringing their homework here. $\endgroup$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @nitsua60 Do you know of any sites where the tag warnings do both jobs? I think we definitely want that slot to carry some indication that not all h/w is on-topic, but you're right that it'd be good to fold in more helpful guidance into the thing. Are there existing tag warnings that do a good job at both aspects? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty not at all... I'm not totally sanguine on tag warnings having any effect, personally; I'm mostly trying to suggest that the exercise of crafting good copy for a helpful tag warning might be a good demonstration that this site has a good candidate for question-wizard treatment. $\endgroup$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ It's also worth noting that plenty of homework-and-exercises questions get posted originally without the tag, it's only later that someone adds it in. In that case the OP wouldn't see the tag warning at all. I'm not sure exactly how common this is but I see it regularly. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9, 2018 at 2:49

We probably need a revamped tutorial on how to ask an on-topic homework question.

The current title of the homework policy, "How do I ask homework questions on Physics Stack Exchange?", is not a coincidence: in its original form (say, v11), and as adapted from the original thread on the mathematics site, it was intended as a tutorial to help newcomers adapt their set-piece dumps into posts that passed the bar set by the (rather more permissive?) environment on this site all those seven years ago.

Over the years, that post's form and function has morphed somewhat, but if you look at the current post from the perspective of its original goal, it's really not doing its job very well, so if you take e.g. this passage,

The best way to produce a focused, specific question is to show your work. Explain what you've been able to figure out so far and how you did it. Showing your work will help us gauge where you are having problems

it does some pretty poor justice to the actual policy as implemented in the ground, but more importantly, it's just pointing newcomers in completely the wrong direction.

So, for one, there's definitely some polishing to be done on the homework policy itself (which, I would argue, should take it closer to a proper "policy" post with a title along the lines or "Are homework questions on-topic here?" or maybe "Which homework questions are on-topic here?"), but that's probably a debate that's not for this round (again).

However, one thing I think we could do, given our existing budget of time, energy, and participation, is to write a separate post that actually goes in depth into how you write your homework question in a way that actually ticks that elusive "conceptual question" checkbox that forms the core of the current requirements. This takes me back to dmckee's premise:

The basic problem is that extracting the conceptual trouble from the middle of an exercise the student doesn't understand well enough to complete is an advanced skill: exactly the sort of thing that is still in front of beginning students.

I wrote about some of the techniques for teaching the difference in a post on academia, and I will emphasize that it can be a time consuming process that is often frustrating to the student because they don't understand why the things I'm asking them to do are better than the thing they are trying to do.

So, let's actually try and lay out in a long-form, accessible text exactly what we mean by "conceptual" (independently of policy itself), and the rough process for taking a set-piece dump, or a set-piece-dump-with-check-my-work-due-diligence, into a conceptual question that transcends the set-piece the newcomer was originally stuck with and which is useful for future visitors.

  • $\begingroup$ I think I got through about half the first paragraph before I thought to myself, "This sounds like Emilio" then I swiped downwards and was proven correct. After reading your post, which I agree with, I think I see a problem: "again". We keep meaning to talk about it, but also always get sidetracked by a post within the Meta Q or lack of want to deal with it more. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ Aside from "Just do it" (thanks Nike), I don't know what else to say on the "again" part, but I think it might be important for others to recognize that this thing's been built up for a while, and eventually the levy breaks... $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos Frankly, I don't think I've got it in me to write a post like that at the moment. But I do see an opening there that could maybe smooth some pretty sharp edges if the text is right. $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2018 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ ... add to that less terse closure notices. “Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.” isn’t terribly encouraging. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9, 2018 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero There is a character limit to the length of closure messages, so there are limits. And that is probably just as well, because the longer the block of text making up the message the fewer people are going to read it. The current edition links to a more verbose and better formatted resources (a meta post) that explains in details, but you've seen how many people come to meta to complain about closures without having digested it, right? $\endgroup$ Commented May 9, 2018 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ @dmckee I know all too well. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9, 2018 at 23:58

We could provide problem solving advice on Meta

The current situation tells posters what they need to accomplish, but not how to get there. And that is a non-trivial skill, which beginners need help learning.

Written advice is not necessarily the best way (it is, perhaps, one of the worst ways) to deliver such help, but it is what we can do without new tooling.

For implementation we could either make new answers to the existing meta question explaining what the policy is, or generate a new meta question along the lines of How do I express my trouble with a particular exercise as a "conceptual question"?

Some pieces of advice that might appear include (each with an explanation, of course):

  • Determine (and communicate) all the things that you do understand about the problem, so that you can focus on the disconnect.
  • Focus on the physical quantities present, not the numbers present (i.e. "speed at the beginning" instead of $12\,\mathrm{m/s}$): the symbols that appear in formulas means quantities.
  • Be able to state what physical principles or framework you are using to think about the problem. This could be as simple as "kinematics" or "conservation of energy".
  • Take the part of the problem that is tripping you out of the context of the question where you encountered it and re-phrase it.
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what to think of this. I don't want homework problems, even if, technically, they are formulated in such a way that they are conceptual. I don't want to see the front page flooded with mechanics 101 or electrical circuits, even if OP was able to identify the conceptual part of the problem, and strip off the rest. I'm sure some users feel the same as me, so teaching beginners how to circumvent the homework-policy is, IMHO, a bad approach to the issue. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ This is not a bad idea. A few points: 1) Close ill-researched homework problems as usual. 2) Allow askers to bring concerns about their closed questions to meta and provide them advice on how to make their questions focused enough to receive a useful answer. 3) Obviously, there will be some irreparable cases. $\endgroup$
    – user194237
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ I want to point out this question which got finally reopened after several edits (suggested by ACM), helped to understand a very important concept about wedge-block systems. If it were not for the helpful edit suggestions given by ACM (in chat) it would never have been reopened, and I would have missed learning a very important and interesting mechanics concept. $\endgroup$
    – user194237
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform You sure have a valid point too. Experts tend not to prefer seeing lots of high school or first-year undergraduate level physics questions on the site. It sort of reduces the "level" of the site. But perhaps we also need to keep in mind that this site is for beginners and experts alike. It would really be unfair to snatch away this useful resource from beginners. At least electrical circuits and mechanics 101 questions are better than the plenty of crackpot questions which tend to be asked on this site. $\endgroup$
    – user194237
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Blue Sure, I'm only expressing my opinion: I'd rather not see such posts myself. But I believe in democracy: if people do want to see such posts, I won't complain (but I won't be as active as I am now). That being said, I'm not sure why you think "fairness" is relevant here, or why you think that the fair thing to do is to allow everyone ask whatever question crosses their mind -- be it mechanics 101 or be it string theory. SE never claimed at being "fair" to everyone; and, even if it did, I don't agree "allowing everyone to post their question" is in any sense fair. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ The thing I was trying to get at in the question is "How do we take some of the users who are posting homework-like questions which we close, and give them the kick in the pants they need to start thinking like physicist so that they can post more interesting questions?" I'm not certain that what I've proposed here will be particularly successful on those lines, but it's been my best thought so far. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee Sounds great on paper. In practice, though, I can't help but think it will inevitably lead to what I said "teaching people how to circumvent the homework-policy". $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Blue Notice that the help you got was at least partly interactive. One of my big concerns is that I've never had a lot of luck with non-interactive teaching techniques for problem solving, and I'm not sure that what we write—no matter how brilliant—will really help without interactivity. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform I have to imagine that it would simply teach some people how to circumvent the policy. I have students in my gen. ed. classes who appear to put more energy and effort into figuring out how to pass while avoiding learning the material than would be required to simple learn the stuff in the first place. So there is a question of cost/benefit ratios, but I don't know how to assess them. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform "why you think that the fair thing to do is to allow everyone ask whatever question crosses their mind -- be it mechanics 101 or be it string theory" I never claimed that. The first step to getting an answer would be using a net search engine and/or consulting textbooks. Using this site should only be a second or perhaps third resort if they are not able to find the answers. I'm absolutely not in favour of ill-researched questions. $\endgroup$
    – user194237
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee in re your first comment: has it happened before that low quality homework posters turned into reputable members? My limited experience is that most people who want HW answers drop their one problem in us & move on (whether it was closed or left opened). $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos I don't know whether I'm a reputable member or not. But the quality of questions and answers I post now is far better than my initial posts which were majorly homework problems (dumped on the site without effort). And that happened mainly due to the community input. By the way, I recently had deleted my Physics SE account, so maybe you can't see them. But you could check out some of my recent posts on QC SE. $\endgroup$
    – user194237
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ @dmckee We already have the comment section for "interactivity". So I don't exactly get your point. $\endgroup$
    – user194237
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Blue You said "I got help" as an example of the value of this idea, but you got interactive help. Do you think a static resource would have served as well? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Blue Perhaps you have a different answer to this questions there: Encourage posters to engage with more advanced users for interactive help, and mean it (i.e. follow through). Why not post it. Alas, the current situation imposers some barriers to that: there are rep limits on chat which affect all users new to Stack Exchange (but not established Stack Exchange users new to our site), and comments are a so-so tool for such help. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 21:40

Summary - (Maybe) snappy video FAQs but no rule changes

There's a difference between being welcoming and being a doormat.

Let’s shift from “don’t be an asshole” to “be welcoming.”

Abuse is already a breach of the rules, it's for users to flag outright abuse if they see it. It requires no more.

We also need to avoid enforcing an artificial code of conduct which acts as a barrier to people staying on the site. If people cannot feel reasonable levels of freedom to express frustration, irritation and annoyance they will leave. And those people leaving will be the useful posters, who provide useful answers and some of the challenging questions.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

You can't completely stifle sarcasm, etc. without making the place feel like a morgue or some sort of gawd-awful genetlemen's club.

It's nice enough, IMO. We're not running a hotel for Mormons, if you see what I mean. :-)

Let’s do something about comments. (in particular about sarcastic, pointed, or overly terse comments that might tend to push new users away)

When people stop posting their homework (often as nothing more than a photo of the page it's written on) and looking for an answer (and even have the gall to want it explained "clearly and in detail"), I'll stop being sarcastic, pointed and overly terse.

These people are not remotely interested in learning physics. They're interested in having someone else do their homework, period.

There's no need to be nice about this and it's a waste of effort doing more than VTCing for homework-type reasons (which will post a message explaining why which they can fix or ignore - their choice).

Let’s make it easier for new users to succeed.

It is easy. It's a simple matter of them looking at the site before they post an answer, opinion or question.

We do not have to handhold them. There's plenty of common sense ways to learn the ropes. There's a tour, you can just read upvoted questions and answers to get a feel for the place.

Let’s stop judging users for not knowing things. (We’re a Q&A site!)

Why not ?

We're not doormats. I think we all offer help (in different ways).

Let's put that another way. In school (remember that ?) when you were in class was it sometimes exactly what you need to be told to stop wasting people's time (or similar) ? To be told that a minimum effort is expected of you ? To not waste people's time because you're too lazy to make any effort.

And it's not as if there's isn't a lot of text already posted telling people what's expected of them.

They often just don't care.

We've all experienced the posters who won't take no for an answer and do things like try and argue in comments why we should do their homework for them, all the way up to the ones that repost multiple times.

Let’s reject the false dichotomy between quality and kindness.

I was not aware of any such "dichotomy".

We have rules for quality. We have different rules for kindness.

And "kindness" is not what's needed. There's a difference between reasonable politeness as a general rule and "walk over us and we'll walk in front of you again and ask for another".

If I want to be kind to people, I'll work on the soup kitchens for the homeless.

Change the policy in a way that reduces the barrier, without opening the floodgates of venue-consuming low-level problem-solving.

The barrier is there to discourage abuse of the site. It does it's job.

An argument could be made for making the barrier tougher, not easier. I think we're already on the nice side of reasonable.

Provide more active and positive guidance (and outright aid) so that willing posters can get past any barrier that is still in the way.

I think we already provide a lot of this. This is something of a "You Can Lead A Horse To Water" thing. The warnings, FAQs and guidelines are already there and pointed to.

The YouTube generation

I think what may be needed, if anything, is video FAQs, and guidelines for newbies.

I am afraid the majority of the younger generation are utterly disinterested in reading rules. They need some snappy music backed video telling them.

However the problem users will continue to be a problem because they don't care about rules. Video rules might help avoid the problems with some genuine users keen to learn.

So maybe one specific video stating the homework policy prominently on the question entry page ? With (Gawd help us) a snappy background muzak for the Millennials. :-)

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    $\begingroup$ I'm now actually super curious as to what the Physics.SE team can come up with for a video FAQ about posting homework. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with many points here. I certainly feel strongly that the job of clearly phrasing a conceptual question is the job of the posters, not the job of other users. Although much of the discussion has focused on homework questions, the site also gets a lot of speculative questions, and a huge number of duplicates (twin paradox, time dilation, addition of relativistic velocity questions are good examples) which cannot be solved unless the OP is willing to invest in lurking to understand how to best write a question - some of them aren't willing to make the investment. $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2018 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ While I don't deny that there are "do my homework for me" users out there who won't read the rules no matter what we do, it does the site a disservice to immediately presume that every HW-related question is posted by such a user. I do think we need to assume good faith when dealing with new users, at least until their actions show otherwise. $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2018 at 20:50

As I remember there was a post way back in the mists of time...

Should we rename the homework policy?

That got consensus but still has not been implemented. Perhaps we should finally implement this, as it will probably help users understand what exactly the policy is.


I am here suggesting an attitude/behavior change (let's call it an improvement) rather than a change in rule or given information.

A specific behavior change or change of attitude towards new users with poorly described homework questions could simply be to comment:

I understand your task - but why can't you solve it? What is your doubt?

Meaning, refrain from solving the question and rather ask for the underlying doubt.

Honestly, no homework-asker needs help with their homework - they need help with the tool, method, or understanding required to solve the homework. (Apart from obvious cases of poorly stated homework-tasks or typos - or lazy panicking last-minute students.)

Focusing on targeting the underlying doubt before the question is of course more the purpose of a teacher who educates than a Q/A-site that answers specific questions without care for the background. But if this site and community really, truly wish to embrace more homework-askers, then prompting for the right question with a doubt-seeking rather than condemning attitude is a strong necessity IMO.

Now, the standard message given when closing such questions includes:

Homework-like questions should ask about a specific physics concept [...]

A sentence often mentioned for the user in comments before closing. But is this sentence and phrase clear? I do not believe so. A "specific physics concept" could for a not-too-experienced student just as well be interpreted as the homework question itself. So, such sentence may not be as helpful towards a proper rephrasing as asking for the doubt or "what prevents you from solving / starting / doing something".

  • $\begingroup$ I think the leading half of the close message is clear, it is the second half that contributes to confusion as it suggests that simply writing your work would make the question on-topic, though that isn't actually true. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos Yes, that that second part often seems to be misunderstood - the "and" tends to be read as an "or"... $\endgroup$
    – Steeven
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ Please reconsider your usage of the word "doubt". In some languages (Spanish among them; I'm unsure about Danish) there are words (in Spanish, "duda") that translate into both "doubt" and "question", which makes the two seem synonymous in English, but as used by native English speakers they're not. (This has caused some confusion in the past, and at mm.se as well.) $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2018 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ i.imgur.com/JyTS7CD.jpg $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2018 at 20:27

As a just-about-no-longer-new user, I feel certified to take a shot at this.

I recently started a discussion in a chat (Physics meta room, 6th June '18) about how homework-help-seekers find us. The discussion was inconclusive. But an important point that Rob (the moderator) brought up was that there's no easy way to do anything about a "student [that] is already in a mindset where they think copying a multiple-choice question from their homework onto a website will be better for their education than reading their textbook [that's one end of the spectrum]", which I think is a brilliant way of thinking of things. If they didn't want to read the 2-minute tour, even when motivated by a badge ('informed'), there's no point in sweet-talking too much, since they're here to get the question solved and expressed no evident involvement, and anyways they'll leave until they resurface with another similar problem. A person with genuine interest (hopefully) will subsequently read the linked documents about homework policies.

In my first couple of weeks (2 months ago), I got the feeling that some users, notably one guy with way more than 25,000 reputation, were pretty terse and mean, and I got pretty intimidated by some comments on my answers. Soon after that, I read a something on meta which, in essence, said that soon enough, your supervisors for early research work are going to be criticizing your work much more aggressively than people here do, and that there's a need to be a little thick-skinned. At the end of it, I'm grateful that the aforementioned high-rep user was terse with the feedback on my posts, because now I've gotten a better idea of how much research and effort needs to go into a post to confirm accuracy and legibility, and learned how to respond to feedback.

Hence my recommendation, as a just-about-no-longer-new user, is that we shouldn't sugarcoat advice too, but we should tell new users why we're aggressive and what they'll learn from it. (Comments are mean because we want to maintain quality standards; listening/cooperating/discussing issues in comments will help you to learn to cope with future research advisers).

There are some cases beyond homework, however, where I think we could be better. In a recent review (no link because it was deleted soon after), I left a somewhat curt message in a comment to an answer. The answer said "This should be a comment, but not enough rep... (suggestion about a solution)". I included the word 'loophole', and even felt the need to end the comment with "Sorry." Another reviewer left a similar response which had links to several (more than 3) meta and help center posts. The author of the answer apologized. And then the final review was an incredibly nice comment by stafusa. The comment said something on the lines of "don't lose heart, I'll post it in the comments section of the question; check back there for a response".

We need to adopt stafusa's approach with such new users who aren't related to the homework fiasco, i.e. the section among which there are several awesome people who genuinely want to contribute. That user clearly wanted to help the asker, but couldn't do it due to the new-user restrictions. (I'm not criticizing those restrictions though; they keep the spam away almost perfectly)

Edit: I hunted down the evasive review and put together a badly-edited picture. The author of the second comment had about 3k rep; I decided to remove the name because I don't what s/he was feeling while putting his/her comment. Note that the question has been deleted as well. enter image description here

Edit 2: Here's something interesting I read today. It's about stackoverflow, but the message is applicable to Physics SE to a certain extent. It essentially discusses the fact that the permanent residents of SO (the regular contributors) are a very small population. I don't agree with a lot of the deductions they make: most notably, I don't think that their claims and justifications that SO is declining are valid. But the relevant takeaway for us is this: most new users are going to pop in for ONLY 1 question, and then disappear with their problems solved. This follows the argument that there's no big point in 'nurturing their interests to induct them into the SE family' or whatever jazz: most are here to take the help and run away without thinking about SE as a community of people contributing in different ways.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't conflate terseness with meanness. Terse is "Did you check Google first?" while mean is "Hey idiot, are your fingers broken? Or maybe you're too lazy and stupid to Google things." Meanness isn't about quality standards, it's about being mean. Terseness is because there's about 1000 times a day somebody has to ask the same question and there's only so much energy that can be put into it. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented Jun 9, 2018 at 14:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't see anything as curt/mean or terse in those comments. That exchange is particularly frustrating because the original poster is directly flaunting the rules -- "Yes I know you're right. That's why I mentioned it too. Just wanted to help." can be translated as "I know your rules and don't care to follow them so long as the goal is 'good' based on my opinion." I don't think that serves as a great example of a new user since they knew the rules (by their own admission) and openly ignored them -- telling us to just deal with it. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't invalidate your answer here of course. But, I just wanted to point out that those are the kinds of posts/users that I find particularly irritating. I can deal with innocent ignorance of rules when somebody shows a willingness to follow them. But that, not so much. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 13:46
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 What you said is interesting; I never bothered to actually consider if I was perceiving the right emotions: maybe the post author was saying "I don't care, blast you." But whether or not my comment sounded curt, I definitely wrote it with some anger/annoyance, and even the other (name censored) comment strikes me as extremely cold. By the way, I hope you saw my other comment in which I replied to your first here before I deleted it... I thought the chain was getting long-ish. $\endgroup$
    – user191954
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 (continued) but the "just wanted to help" thing sounded a bit genuine. Don't know if this is good or bad, but that user has 0 answers/questions on their profile currently. I've added a link to an interesting article at the end of my answer (see edit 2). You should look at it; it's got some slightly relevant things. $\endgroup$
    – user191954
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Chair While I don't want to dismiss people who have good intentions, at some point the scale of the community gets big enough where letting people slide because they meant well could just lead to chaos. There's over 100,000 users registered on the site (no clue how many actually use it, not important for the point) and if we let all of them break rules because we felt they meant well, I think it would be chaos. For smaller communities (online, or in real life) and things like small chatrooms, you can probably get away with some flexibility without as much ill-effect. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 One of the main non-controversial claims of the linked Medium article in the post is that all our stats are manipulated by the fact that so many people don't return. The number of regular users is actually very small. That's the only case where I have thought that the author genuinely wanted to help but still broke rules, in a couple of hundred reviews, so in such rear cases, I would support niceness. But we need to have a consensus that the user wasn't just an arrogant guy who's above rules before supporting them, which I'm quite sure would be rare enough. $\endgroup$
    – user191954
    Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 some 70k users (about 50% of the total registered) have logged into the site within the past year. Of those, some 7.4k have posted positive-score posts within the past year. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty A tangential note, but do you know where I can find some good documentation for the usage statistics scripts on data.stackexchange like what you just posted? I've looked about a bit, but this wasn't too understandable. Is there anything better? I wanted to try writing some of my own... $\endgroup$
    – user191954
    Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Chair The database schema is useful; beyond that, it's just a matter of learning to write SQL. If you need more detailed help you can ping me on the chatroom. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty Thanks a lot! I'll be able to get a hang of it with the hints and you gave; I have a basic understanding of programming already, so it shouldn't be too hard. $\endgroup$
    – user191954
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 13:13

If the concern is that homework like questions clog up the site, would an “easy” solution* be to make these posts optionally invisible?

One check box removes the content from your feed and search results - yet people who want to help (or need help) can find each other on this site. We already have he ability to have favorite tags. This just extends that concept in the opposite direction.

It would give people who choose to be welcoming and helpful the chance to do so - the ones who want to snark can instead ignore these posts and live happier, more fulfilling lives.

* I realize that on a common platform like SE nothing is as easy as it sounds...

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The favorited/ignored tag mechanism is not terribly visible, but gives a good approximation to this behavior. $\endgroup$ Commented May 6, 2018 at 17:42
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This basically makes homework on topic by default of ignorance, which is a bad thing, IMO. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos unless the default is “ignore” unless you opt in.. $\endgroup$
    – Floris
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 18:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Floris Your post is saying "Let homework be on topic and the people who don't like HW not see it so they can remain ignorant." Whether it is an opt-in or not is entirely irrelevant. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos yes that is what I am saying. It addresses (in a way) the question. Whether you agree with my proposal is a matter of personal choice/tolerance of the noobs. It would be a departure from current policy - but policies can evolve. $\endgroup$
    – Floris
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Floris yes, that would be quite the fundamental shift from current policy. It's also been repeatedly shot down every time someone had proposed it, so I doubt your proposal will gain any amount of traction. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ The problem is that not all homework questions are bad, although a lot of them are. You don't want to through the baby out with the bathwater. $\endgroup$ Commented May 6, 2018 at 20:30

Invite people from different backgrounds as newcomers to peer review this site

To get a good idea of problems experienced by newcomers, we should consider inviting a number of newcomers to peer review this site. They can be physics students, professional physicists etc., they are then asked to occasionally post here and keep a file about their opinion on the questions/answers they post and the feedback they get. When the review period is over, we can study the opinions of the reviewers and then decide how best to address problems experienced here.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This seems to me to be a bad idea for the same reason end-of-semester student reviews of faculty/lecturer are bogus: the people who had a problem rate you terribly while the people who were fine generally don't. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos, but we're not going to let ourselves be rated in that way. We're just going to ask for feedback from people who we think should fit in well, but who are not active here. We can see what the feedback is from students, researchers etc., and then take make decisions based on all that information. $\endgroup$ Commented May 6, 2018 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ E.g. if it turns out that researchers too often complain about an unfriendly atmosphere here, than that is probably something that should be seriously considered. But if the unfriendly atmosphere complaints happens to come from a small group of students who as we can check get that only in response of posting homework when they don't post much details about their own thinking, then that's not a big problem, although we could then consider giving better feedback about how to post homework problems more effectively. $\endgroup$ Commented May 6, 2018 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that is exactly what I described: the results would be incredibly biased to those who had problems. And I don't see how what you've described differs from being rated. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos Because there are then moderators from here who are tasked with seeing this whole process through, they get to analyze the feedback, they take into account from who the feedback is coming. $\endgroup$ Commented May 6, 2018 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ which, regardless of who sees the reviews, it seems to be exactly I criticized as being useless $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 22:08

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