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Recently, I flagged some posts as "a solution to homework" on the question Net Force of Equal and Opposite Gravitational Forces Don't Equal Zero?. Knowing which posts were flagged is irrelevant for this meta post. My flags were declined with the reason$^*$

The question has not been closed as HW, and if OP had not written the question in the style of an exercise, no one would have thought it was one.

My thoughts:

I first want to focus on the latter part of this : if OP had not written the question in the style of an exercise, no one would have thought it was one. This is true for any "homework-and-exercise" question on this site. We ask students to frame their question to focus on the concepts they are confused about, not the exercise, calculations, etc. So really this argument could be made about any question: "This could have been framed in a way so that it wasn't an obvious exercise/homework question, so it actually shouldn't be considered a homework question." Therefore, I don't think this is a valid argument.

This is obviously a student posting a homework question and asking for someone to check their reasoning and/or give them a better answer. This leads to the first part: The question has not been closed as HW... Why does this matter for flags on answers? The answers supplied to this post could very well be turned in by the student as an answer for their homework. Just because the question wasn't closed as homework doesn't change this. There are answers here that are solutions to this homework question, and this is why I raised the flags that I did.

However, I understand that my opinion is not the only one that matters, and I would rather align with the community than only focus on what I think. So here are some questions I am left with:

1) Should answers that are solutions to homework problems only be flagged as such after the question is closed specifically for being an off topic homework question?

2) If a question is not closed as an off topic homework question then does this mean that its answers cannot be considered solutions to homework?

3) If I can see a way that the question could be worded to not be an off topic homework question, does this mean it should not be closed as an off topic homework question?

I think "no" is the answer to all three questions, but maybe I'm missing something. I always look forward to learning more about the community and how certain scenarios are best handled, and I hope this post can help myself and others gain more insight here.


$^*$Actually, one flag was accepted as helpful, but no action was taken because of it, which makes the declined reason even more odd to me. By the given reason, all of my flags should have been declined, not all but one.

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It seems I now share Fermat's fate: The margin was too narrow to contain my reasoning. I declined your flags with that terse explanation because the reason text box for declining flags doesn't allow novels. I can also see now that I worded the short explanation that I gave poorly. So here's your (short) novel:

I agree on your "No" to your three questions as a matter of general policy.

I did not mean to imply any sort of general policy that answers to homework-like questions can only be deleted if the questions have been closed with that specific reason, nor did I mean to imply that the "obviousness" of the "homeworkiness" plays a role here.

What I meant to say was, with respect to this specific question:

  1. I do not think that the question falls under our "homework-and-exercises" policy because it simply asks the conceptual question it has been closed as a duplicate of - why does Newton's third law not imply that the net force is always zero?

  2. I think that you (and perhaps others) may think it falls under the policy because it is a homework question in the colloquial sense, i.e. an exercise posed to the asker as part of their academic work. Had they not quoted their exercise literally, i.e. given no clue that they are thinking about this issue as part of an actual homework assignment, I do not think anyone would have been tempted to think of this conceptual question as HW-like.

  3. I take the non-HW close reason as evidence that my view is supported by the majority of close voters. I realize this is only weak evidence, since they may well think it is both a duplicate and a HW question. (However, if the duplicate voters think that, shouldn't they have also voted to close the duplicate as HW?)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your quick reply and transparency. I suppose a better action for myself would have been to just flag one of the answers. I still have issues with point 2, as that argument could be made for any question that was closed for being an off-topic homework question. But I agree, this is a pretty border-line case. Thanks for the input. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Feb 2 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ I'd also add that in general the " flag decision to action" map isn't always one-to-one. Sometimes a declined flag still results in action, sometimes a helpful one doesn't result in action. And sometimes the actions are not visible. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 2 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 Yes, I am aware of this, but thank you for the reminder :) $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Feb 2 at 21:44
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  1. Should answers that are solutions to homework problems only be flagged as such after the question is closed specifically for being an off topic homework question?
  2. If a question is not closed as an off topic homework question then does this mean that its answers cannot be considered solutions to homework?

No, of course not. Actually, it's possible (and not even that rare) to have answers to on-topic homework questions deleted for this reason - so there can be answers that should be deleted even if the question is never supposed to be put on hold at all.

  1. If I can see a way that the question could be worded to not be an off topic homework question, does this mean it should not be closed as an off topic homework question?

For context, let's imagine a student who's trying to solve a homework (or similar) problem they've been given, and they want to ask for help here. Whether the question is on topic or not depends on how they do it:

  • Post the homework problem verbatim, with nothing else, and ask for a solution or a hint: off topic
  • Reword the homework problem to make it sound less like a homework problem and post it with no work: off topic, at least theoretically, although in practice we may not be able to tell
  • Post the homework problem with some work or an attempted solution and ask if it's correct: off topic
  • Post the homework problem with some work or an attempted solution, and ask about something confusing they found while doing that work: on topic
  • Don't include the homework problem at all, but just ask about the confusing thing they found: on topic, and doesn't even need the tag, but it might be missing useful context

I make this list to point out that the kind of edit required to turn an off-topic homework question (the first three types) into an on-topic one (ideally the fourth type) is substantial and is generally something that can only come from the original asker. Basically, they have to add information about the specific point of confusion they encountered while working on the homework problem. It's generally not possible for someone else to guess what specific issue the student is hung up on. So I think it's rare that you find a question which appears to be off-topic homework-like but can be reworded to be on topic.

That being said, if you do find such a case, then I'd follow the general principle that editing a question to make it clear how it's on topic is preferable to putting it on hold, as long as your edit isn't too major according to our normal rules about edits.

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