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Less a question and more of a heads-up.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, most higher education institutions (that I know of) are moving to online examination. Many of these examinations count towards degree classifications.

In most physics departments (again, that I know of, in the UK), these exams will be open book, and where students will be given a certain amount of time to submit answers electronically. A typical arrangement is that students have 24 hours to return their solutions.

I anticipate that we will see more and more exam-type questions coming in over the next weeks and months, that will be from students unfairly soliciting answers to their exam questions.

I am not sure what can be done about this, but from my point of view an effective measure would be if everyone is vigilant at closing such questions and even if they are not closed, did not answer questions with the homework tag (or those that should be tagged as homework) for at least 24 hours.

And here is an example of where people just couldn't show any restraint and provided several full answers to an obvious exam-type question within 3 hours of it being posted.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is a good idea. To prevent answers to such questions slipping through and facilitating cheating, is there the option to flag for moderator intervention and for moderators to delete the answers? I guess it may be difficult to identify such questions unambiguously. $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger Apr 23 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Wolpertinger The diamond moderators frequently remove complete answers to homework-like questions in response to custom flags. Multiple flags on an answer make our decision-making process easier, so don't be shy. But make sure to also flag/vote for closing the questions as well; the community is faster at that than the diamond moderator team, because you outnumber us. $\endgroup$ – rob Apr 23 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ I've said it before and it seems worth saying again: why don't we just ban homework altogether? This would be a rather minor change in policy, essentially changing it from "you can ask about homework but only if you do XYZ" to "you can't ask about homework, but you can do XYZ instead." But it would make everything a lot more clear-cut, and I think this issue would become lot easier to deal with. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel May 1 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel You raise an interesting point and one I agree with - but I think it's really a matter of wording in the homework policy. How about if I make a new meta post with a complete proposal for rewording the homework policy, based on your answer there, to confirm that the community is still on board with this? I can probably post it tomorrow. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 1 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ it sounds good to me! $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel May 1 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ it's also worth mentioning another thread from around that time, where Emilio Pisanty and others made some great suggestions for the wording of the new policy in the various places where it appears. physics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5179/… $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel May 2 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel Thanks, I'll make sure to reference that as well. BTW the way things are looking it may actually take me a little longer than today to get a draft ready, but I haven't forgotten. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 2 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ For context: those with access to site analytics will not a definite uptick in the number of questions since mid-March. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero May 3 at 1:09
  • $\begingroup$ Related: The homework guidelines $\endgroup$ – Haem May 5 at 16:02
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I am not sure what can be done about this, but from my point of view an effective measure would be if everyone is vigilant at closing such questions and even if they are not closed, did not answer questions with the homework tag (or those that should be tagged as homework) for at least 24 hours.

I will note that not all questions that have the homework-and-exercises tag should be closed. The tag also applies to valid PSE questions where a homework problem is the context. If the OP is clearly not asking for a solution and is really looking to understand physics concepts behind what is presented, the question should not be closed.


I will also say that I do agree that we should be vigilant during this time, but I also worry that this call to be vigilant will send the wrong message that once this is all over we can then be less vigilant and less strict with the homework policy. Ideally there really shouldn't be any difference in how things are approached compared to normal. An off-topic homework question is an off-topic homework question. I don't think the motivation behind the posting of such a question should be relevant.

So, thanks for the heads up, but I hope our adherence to the homework policies will be as strict as it should be during this time as much as it should be at any point in time. I also hope that we will not become less strict after this is all over.


At the same time, I do agree with the anticipation of more homework/exam questions being posted. The issue with users like me is that I pretty much run out of close votes every day, and most of my votes to go towards homework questions. Therefore, being more strict / more vigilant is not going to do anything for users like me.

So instead of a call to be stricter on the policy, I would think a better call / proposition would be to allow users to have more close votes during this time (or at least more close votes for the option of being off topic homework). This would then allow the site to take on the increased levels of homework questions. Unfortunately, I believe there would need to be ample evidence that there is actually an increase in the posting of off-topic homework questions and that this increase is overwhelming the closure process to where questions like these are not closed fast enough. Additionally, I am not sure how this would be implemented, as I think the rules on the number of close votes a user has is implemented across all SE sites. So, at the end of the day, this idea probably would not be able to be realized in a fast enough time to combat the problem, should it actually arise.

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  • $\begingroup$ As I have suggested. A bit of self-discipline and a 24 hour cooling off period would be extremely effective. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Apr 23 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries But that "cooling off" period wouldn't be fair to the users who actually post legitimate questions with the homework tag. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 23 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ What do mean wouldn't be fair? That they would have to wait 24 hours to get an answer. Why would they need it quicker than that? $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Apr 23 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries I guess it would be more fair if all questions had a cooling off period. Plus the cooling off period has the same issues as the idea I present of increasing closure votes. Unless you are just asking users to wait 24 hours and not requesting it be an actual feature? $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 23 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ To note about your close vote points, the most viable solution I can think of (that is out of our hands), is the "3 votes" rule that SE has been testing. That seems like it could be a help; but sadly it's also not directly our choice if it gets implemented or not. $\endgroup$ – JMac Apr 23 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JMac Ah yes, that could also help. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 23 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ I also run out of votes quickly, and I now filter the VTC queue to homework problems only. The other close votes I cast I do so outside the VTC queue. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Apr 24 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero That's actually exactly what I do too haha $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 24 at 1:49
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Speaking as a university professor, I disagree with a stricter adherence to homework guidelines.

I think it's my duty to administer exams where cheating is ineffective, and I would not ask any website to be vigilant on my behalf.

Moreover, this is certainly not the only website where students can find help: would you consider submitting such a request to any possible website? There are many fora around the world, some in local languages (do you have foreign students, don't you?), where students can get help. And there are past students, and also professors, who offer their paid "services" to help students cheat. And, finally, students can certainly create a network to collectively solve the exam problems with a strategy to avoid detection.

In other words, I'd be all to support such a proposal if I thought it's worth the effort, but what I'm implying is that this would actually put an unduly and worthless burden on this site's users.

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    $\begingroup$ Speaking as university professor I disagree. Of course instructors must do what they can to minimize the possibilities of plagiarism, but plagiarism in all its form is something that cannot be fought by a single professor. It is up to individuals in the broader community to refuse to participate in such activities. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Apr 23 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero I expressed my ideas on cheating here (especially), here and on few other places on Academia SE, and this post is certainly a consequence of those ideas. $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ Why can't it be both? Why can't we be vigilant on PSE and you can give exams where it is hard to cheat? It seems like you are saying we should not close off-topic questions on PSE, especially during Covid-19. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 23 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ @AaronStevens I'm saying that we shouldn't do any different from what it was done before. Note also that I have quite different view on homework questions with respect to the current policy (that's certainly another story but somehow related to my view on this). $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ @MassimoOrtolano Sure, I agree with that point. I have just made an answer somewhat saying that as well. I guess you just said "I disagree" without any sort of explanation of what you disagree with. It might help if you clarified what specifically you disagree with. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 23 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ @AaronStevens I edited my answer to be more specific on what I disagree ;-) $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ Please tell us how online exams can be administered so that students cannot solicit help on stack exchange. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Apr 23 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ "Moreover, this is certainly not the only website where students can find help:" there aren't too many where students will get the right answer! Quora? Pffft. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Apr 23 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries E.g. I do oral exams, and there are also online proctoring services. You can find some discussions on Academia SE about various possibilities. I'm not talking about Quora, there are many fora around the world, some in local languages (do you have foreign students, don't you?), where students can get help. And there are past students who offer their paid "services" to help students cheat. $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries Anyway, I have about 35 years of teaching experience at various levels, in which I've witnessed all sorts of cheating strategies, and I'm just trying to warn you that the real "enemy" is not where you seem to think it is and that from what you write you're probably overlooking a number of much more dangerous possibilities. $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ You do oral exams and online proctoring - for hundreds of students? Right... There are many possibilities to cheat. I am asking that users on this forum are vigilant and perhaps restrain themselves from answering questions that look very likely to be exam questions for 24 hours. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Apr 23 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ a relevant post on the experience of one user with one proctoring service: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/147884/… $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Apr 23 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries Yes, I wouldn't have give the suggestion otherwise. I'd be all to support your proposal if I thought it's worth doing it, but what I'm implying is that this would put an unduly burden on this site's users which is not really worth the effort. $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see how being aware of the current climate, and what to expect based on that, is some sort of large burden on our site's users. It's definitely something worth paying attention to, but doing so isn't particularly more effort than paying attention in the first place. I personally don't think that such minimal effort is much of a problem to maintain the integrity of the site. $\endgroup$ – JMac Apr 23 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JMac "not answer questions with the homework tag (or those that should be tagged as homework) for at least 24 hours" is an additional burden to the site's user because it requires a different behaviour from the usual one. $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 at 18:34
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It seems to me that most of the 'offenders' who post complete or near-complete answers are themselves relatively new users who are unaware of the Homework Policy and do not read Meta questions. Users come here primarily to ask or answer questions. Most have little interest in reviewing and closing questions, or in site policies which are not prominent and - other than what is available in the 'help' pages - are difficult to find.

So I think this call for self-discipline and stricter adherence to site policy will have little effect.

As for making more effort to get Homework questions closed promptly, I am dismayed by the futility of spending my time to vote when answers have often been posted before 5 votes are accumulated. Like Aaron and Zero I find that even in normal times I run out of VTCs quickly. There ought to be a more efficient method of closing blatant Homework questions such as About significant figures and At every corner of square of side a there is charge q as shown - ideally with a single vote. I suggest that flagging the question for moderator attention is the most efficient method, and does not require any alteration to SE software.

More generally I see much confusion about the Homework Policy.

Sometimes the Homework tag is applied and VTCs cast - improperly in my view - to any question which asks how a calculation can be made. This deters quantitative answers to interesting problems such as What is the physics of a spinning coin? - with the result that most answers are qualitative, and many which quote formal equations do so unnecessarily.

The Homework tag is interpreted very broadly by some reviewers, and narrowly by others. Questions which are Homework-like are often closed despite showing effort and asking about a conceptual difficulty (example : Why are approaching discharging initially charged pith balls almost at equilibrium?). Those who disagree with the VTCs and answer such questions are penalised by down-votes and/or by their answers being reported and deleted (example). Whether a question which fails to meet the requirements of the Homework Policy ought to be closed also depends on how interesting the question is - a view which you have expressed and I am sympathetic with but it makes it more difficult to apply the Policy consistently.

We need a clearer, narrower Homework Policy. We need a way of making site policies more prominent to all users, especially to those who post questions, so that policies become mostly self-regulating. Then less time will be wasted voting to close questions, and more time spent usefully in asking, answering, commenting and up- or down-voting.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the point (in my mind at least) raised by the OP is not stricter adherence by posters but more vigilance by answerers. I totally agree that expecting new posters to read site guidelines is futile - they rarely did before so why should they start now. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Apr 29 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps a useful addition to your answer: if you do flag a question for moderator attention to get it closed because it's homework-like, make sure to mention that you have run out of close votes for the day. We moderators would rather have people use the standard flag/vote procedure, but if there's some reason you can't do that, you can say so in the flag message and we'll understand. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 1 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ This would not achieve the result I am suggesting - that blatant HW questions could be closed quicker (before answers are posted) and more efficiently (using fewer reviewers/mods) by 1 flag + 1 mod vote instead of 5 reviewer votes. Many HW questions would still require 5 votes. I am weary of reviewing questions and no longer reach my quota of close votes. But I don't mind flagging questions as I find them. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil May 1 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil To be clear if you flag a question for moderator attention for a reason that is covered by a close vote (or, for low-rep users, a standard flag) instead, your flag is likely to be declined. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 1 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ It is a suggestion to deal more efficiently with rising numbers of HW questions, in response to a request by a mod for greater vigilence in closing such questions promptly. Of course if mods are not happy with this suggestion they are welcome to reject it. I shall not bother flagging. Probably I shall not bother voting either, for the reasons given. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil May 1 at 23:25
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I agree with the need for increased vigilance which may come in the form of "stricter guidelines." I'd like to add raise awareness to other aspects of the situation.

Also be aware though that some students have legitimate questions and cannot get the regular tutoring or attention they need when at school or around their classmates. Professors are under a lot of strain and students still have difficult concepts to learn. I believe there will also be an above average number of students seeking help online because they don't have the usual resources for help, not necessarily because they are trying to cheat. In a sense, we have an opportunity to help out in a small way during this crisis.

Professors not only have to work from home and use a foreign teaching method, their children are also home and are having the same problem with their school and sometimes the professor ends up tutoring their own kid through AP calculus or physics (since science and math usually runs in the family).

That said, I agree. Many will probably post questions at times they aren't allowed to and we should do our best to discern what those exam type questions look like and avoid giving students unfair help.

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  • $\begingroup$ So are you advocating for lenience in the homework policy right now? $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 23 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ I was just putting things in perspective and raising awareness to both sides of the situation... how anyone could downvote the post is beyond me $\endgroup$ – Andrew Apr 23 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ This is a good occasion to visit the site and explore the vast repository of questions of all types, many of which have excellent answers. It is not a bye to ask homework questions. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Apr 23 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero No one is advocating that we allow the homework guidelines to be violated $\endgroup$ – Andrew Apr 23 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Andrew Down votes on meta typically just mean disagreement. It isn't a vote against the quality of your answer. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 23 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @AaronStevens Right but how anyone could "disagree" with it is beyond me. Seems like you assumed I thought the downvote was due to the quality of my post. Obviously it's about the content $\endgroup$ – Andrew Apr 23 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe they thought what I thought; that you are advocating a more lenient handling of homework questions during this time. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Apr 23 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ Considering that I began my post with "also" and "be aware" and ended with "I agree" it should be apparent that I am not disagreeing the the OP and that I am simply discussing the situation and raising awareness to the complexity of the situation that wasn't described in the OP $\endgroup$ – Andrew Apr 23 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ Anyhow I will edit my post to make it abundantly clear... $\endgroup$ – Andrew Apr 23 at 20:49
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I respect and agree with the suggestion to show some self-discipline. These are special circumstances and we need to do more. Maybe another idea would help :

Would a 24-hour wait period for new members before posting questions or the questions appearing be of help ?

My impression is that many of these homework-type questions are from new Physics SE members. I feel this would deter many of the problem cases.

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    $\begingroup$ But many genuinely good questions are also from new users, what about them? $\endgroup$ – FakeMod Apr 24 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @FakeMod Their questions will still appear on the site and just not immediately they write it. It is, after all, a site that, unlike Twitter or similar, is not about racing to get an answer straight away, but getting a good answer. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 24 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ Aside from the terrible user experience ("Where did my question go?" or "Why is no one looking at my question?") for new users, this isn't something we could do with the current tools, but SE would need to provide a way for us to do this, so it's not a viable short-term (and probably also not mid-term..) solution regardless of whether we wanted to do this or not. $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Apr 26 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ @ACuriousMind I don't see the user experience been worse than (in effect) "Your question is closed because it looks vaguely like an exam question". And it's not like we wouldn't tell people their question won't appear on site for 24 hours - it would be sensible to put up a prominent on-screen message to that effect. This isn't been proposed as a sneaky super-secret trick, I presume we're going to be up-front about it as we should be on SE. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 26 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @FakeMod so? their question will still be good 24hrs after, and the impatients would be deterred. Beyond the simple technical problem to implement this, the core issue is this would be such a turn off that the business side of SE will not go for it. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Apr 26 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ Although I agree with the intention, I think that practically this would do little to resolve the problem, and might cause more problems. If there is a 24-hour delay before questions are displayed, we would be left with many questions which have already been abandoned by the user before answers can be posted. Comments asking for clarification would get little response; 'best answer' would be awarded much less, encouraging more unwanted answers. If the question is displayed but answers cannot be posted for 24 hours, there would be an increase in 'answering in comments'. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Apr 29 at 1:37
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    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil I am not proposing displaying the question to anyone until the 24 hours (or however long) is up. There would be no point in this for the reasons you describe. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 29 at 3:23

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