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This site gets a lot of low-quality homework questions. Since I ignored the homework tag a few months ago, my experience of the site has been much more pleasant.

The current homework policy is nice, but the questions that actually obey it are few. I think this is because if you've put the effort in to identify the concept you're having difficulty with, it's then easy enough to take the "homework" part out of the question and just ask about the concept itself.

Because of this, and since we're looking for ways to improve the site's quality, I wanted to put the following idea forward to see how people respond to it: why don't we just ban homework altogether? The homework policy would be changed to say that we can only help with homework-like questions if you can phrase them in a way that they're only about the concepts and not about the actual assignment. Potentially we might lose a few good questions, but we'd also lose a lot of bad ones.

I'm not 100% I agree with this proposal myself, but I'm curious to see how people feel about it, and it seems like it might be worth having the discussion.

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    $\begingroup$ I was actually thinking of posting this exact same question myself. +1 for bringing it up. (On that note, I think such a big policy should have a dedicated voting question, after the discussion, so my vote here shouldn't count one way or another toward a policy change.) $\endgroup$ – user10851 Nov 1 '13 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ Have to agree with both of you. It would solve a number of direct and indirect problems. $\endgroup$ – user29350 Nov 1 '13 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ I was going to post something similar, though with a slightly different focus. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 1 '13 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ Note: I quoted part of this and linked to it in an answer to the other meta post. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 1 '13 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ That isn't the right approach. There are good homework questions, too, like the questions by Trung Phan and user26143. $\endgroup$ – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Nov 1 '13 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @DImension10AbhimanyuPS I do not think that one is talking of graduate level homework in this proposal. I checked your first example anyway, and it does not have a homework tag. $\endgroup$ – anna v Nov 1 '13 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @anna is correct, grad level homework is usually conceptual and can easily be converted to that form. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 1 '13 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ I think we should either ban HW or allow it, I think the middle road of trying to force people who cant answer their own homework into writing good conceptual questions isnt going to work. Not to mention the constant editing closing reopening and reviewing involved. $\endgroup$ – TROLLHUNTER Nov 3 '13 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ I'm ashamed (maybe) to admit my first reaction to this question was "wow? ban all teachers from handing out homework assignments? A new era for Educationists!" :-) . With that out of the way, I'll just say that banning HWL posts is about as effective as banning duplicates. Some people never ever learn to search the archives. $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Nov 13 '13 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ I say allow HW like questions to an extent of (x) $\endgroup$ – Luna Jan 31 at 18:46

11 Answers 11

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Please, please, please ban homework altogether. Allowing homework has resulted in a deluge of questions from users with a reputation of 1 asking us to do their work for them. Yes, we can tag then ignore homework questions, but (a) that requires us to be continually editing tags and (b) it makes the site look rubbish for anyone not au fait with filtering by tag.

I have no problem with anyone trying to learn and using the site as a teaching aid, but just copying and pasting homework questions isn't going to achieve either.

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    $\begingroup$ Technically, homework is banned, just that it's not clear from the wording. What parts of the policy do you think still encourage HW? (also, what do you think of my proposed wording change? That would be one practical way of banning homework without losing out on the good stuff) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 1 '13 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ Also, I fear that there may be a lot of people opposing the removal of the tag. Almost all of the current HW questions get closed too, just not fast enough. (and people don't downvote even though that leads to them disappearing from the front page). So they may want to keep the tag to hide away the transients. But I guess that's a different problem. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 1 '13 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth IMO the very existence of the HW tag encourages HW (specifically, unconceptual questions). Simple as that. $\endgroup$ – JSQuareD Nov 3 '13 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @JSQuareD You're right. However, in the current state, HW questions flood the main page for quite a while before they get closed, and most of the community prefers to not see the transient questions. I'd prefer the tag to be gone, too, but it might be best to phase it out -- ban homework, improve the way we handle closeable questions, and finally get rid of the tag if we ever reach a state where HW is quickly dispatched with. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 3 '13 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth I agree that removing the HW tag on the short term would probably cause more problems that it would solve. But I think it should be a long term goal to get rid of it. Changing the tag-description and the HW-policy to reflect this might help us move in the right direction. $\endgroup$ – JSQuareD Nov 3 '13 at 13:29
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I thought it would be worth distilling my thoughts into a concrete proposal. This is essentially what Manishearth already proposed - I'm just hoping to make the idea clearer.

In many ways it is not a big change to the current policy, but it is a big change to the way the policy is presented, and I think it would have a lot of benefits.

The current homework policy is formatted something like this:

Q: How can I ask a homework question on Physics.SE?

A: You can ask homework questions, but you have to do a couple of things to make it OK. (Show some effort and ask about a concept.)

My proposal is to change it to something more like this:

Q: Can I ask a homework question on Physics.SE?

A: No, we don't accept homework questions here. However, if you can identify the concept you're having trouble with and ask about that, then it won't be a homework question and we'll be happy to help you.

I think it would be best to keep the homework tag, at least at first, so that people can continue to filter it. It would become similar to the big-list tag, in that any question that's legitimately tagged with it would almost certainly be closed (hopefully by the community). Later, if we're successful in stemming the tide, perhaps it could be phased out.

I see this change as having two main benefits.

  1. It's less encouraging to people considering asking a homework question. It doesn't give the impression that just adding an attempt at the working, or asking "what physics concept do I need to solve this problem?" will make it okay. On the flip side it does encourage doing enough work to turn the question into a genuinely concept-based one.

  2. Perhaps more importantly, it gives the community a stronger mandate to close non-conceptual homework questions. I admit that I'm one of the high-rep users that doesn't participate much in this. This is partly because I find the review queues to be generally depressing places to hang out, but more saliently, it's also because I often don't quite feel justified in casting a close vote. I tend to find myself thinking "well, the policy does say homework is allowed, and this person's made a bit of an effort to show some working, and you can see they've kind of tried to ask about a concept, even if they haven't really done a good job, so maybe closing it would be a bit mean." Under the new system it would be much simpler: "this is a homework-like question, so it should be closed". There would be no reason to feel bad about it, which would make it much easier to do.

I think this relatively small change would make the policy much clearer, and could potentially result in smaller numbers of low-quality homework questions, while also encouraging participation from the community in closing them.

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    $\begingroup$ -1 you copied my proposal, +2 I support my proposal so I support this :P $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 5 '13 at 9:01
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    $\begingroup$ Agree very strongly on #2, currently too much time is spent thinking over whether or not a question is closeable. I remember reading through questions as a 3k non diamond and not being sure if they should get closed. Of course, with a 1/5th vote, it didn't really matter much if I voted so I used could afford to be a bit more aggressive with these. It's best if users don't need to go through this long thought process. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 5 '13 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth I've edited it to give due credit :) $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 5 '13 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, no need, I was just having some fun :P. This answer does indeed go a long way in justifying the proposed change, good work :D $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 5 '13 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ Re: being mean... I think that's why it was changed from "closed" to "on hold," I don't really consider it mean anymore. It's more like "Hey, this has to be cleaned up a bit before it can be answered so we'll hold it until you can do that." Mean would be just deleting the question... $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Nov 5 '13 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ Well if you do eventually decide to kill the homework tag, at least you've only got about ~2400 questions to kill. When the tag was nuked on StackOverflow last years it was around an order of magnitude higher; which should at least keep relatively low rep users from getting an almost free gold badge (marshal). whistles innocently $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely Nov 13 '13 at 16:39
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The homework policy would be changed to say that we can only help with homework-like questions if you can phrase them in a way that they're only about the concepts and not about the actual assignment.

Actually, that's exactly what the current homework policy does say!

There are a couple of reasons you might have thought otherwise: first, the homework policy is probably not as clear as it could be on this. But the quoted bit is definitely the intent, and I'd certainly approve of a rewording to make that more clear.

Perhaps more importantly, no matter what policies we put in place, we can't actually stop people from posting homework questions. It's the nature of a physics Q&A site that lots of people will show up asking for help on their homework without bothering to check whether doing so is appropriate. The best we can do is use the policy as justification to close such questions as quickly as they come in. The moderators (well, some of us) try to do this, but we're only a few people, and it gets exhausting. We need more community involvement, specifically close voting and flagging (and not answering) low-quality homework questions. (There has been a significant increase in flags over the past few days, which is great, but more is still better.)

Now, something we could consider is removing the tag, thus making it considerably more explicit to new posters that homework questions are not welcome here unless they can be reformulated in such a way as to make them conceptual. You wouldn't be the first to suggest this, but each time it's been brought up, the community has come out in support of keeping the tag.

Some historical context may help explain why that happens. In the early days of the site, we didn't have a homework policy, and thus people posted homework questions and got them answered. The tag became one of our most popular tags rather quickly. There were several discussions about whether this was okay, and largely people thought that it was, for a few reasons:

  • One of the founding principles of the site was that we did not want to reject questions for being too low-level. In other words, we didn't want to be the physics version of Math Overflow. Now, there's a difference between being low-level and low-effort, and in particular excluding homework questions is not the same as excluding low-level questions, but in those early days our standards for homework-related questions were perhaps not as strict as they are now precisely because we wanted to show that we were inclusive of all levels of questions.
  • We were taking cues from Math.SE, which already had a homework policy that seemed to be working well. You'll notice that the wording of our homework policy is closely based on theirs. Since they accept homework questions on Math, our default position was to do the same here. Of course, it emerged over time that their policy is loosely enforced (at least, that seems to be the case as far as I can tell).
  • Honestly, we were worried that the site would never reach critical mass if we put a blanket ban on homework questions. Currently, I'm fairly sure this is not something we have to worry about, because we have a steady stream of non-homework, conceptual questions, but in the early days it wasn't so clear.

As time went on, the tag became more and more well established as a feature of the site and of the homework policy, and people who wanted to see higher-level questions grew accustomed to using it to filter those questions out. At this point, it has a tremendous amount of inertia, in the sense that we've grown accustomed to a certain way of operating which does involve use of the tag, and as much as there are some of us who would like to see it (and its associated questions) go, there are probably more people who want to keep it.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe we can keep the tag for easy hiding purposes but still "ban" homework? It's tag abuse, but it seems like a good way out. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 2 '13 at 7:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth in what sense would we be banning homework then? Would we say that anything with the homework tags gets closed? $\endgroup$ – David Z Nov 4 '13 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ I think that would be my preferred solution. It would be similar to the current status of the big-list tag. Without the homework tag there would always be some low-quality closed or not-yet-closed hw questions on the front page, with no option to ignore them. (Though on the other hand it would lead to edit wars even more than the current system.) $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 4 '13 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ @david Pretty much. We can phase it out later if we manage to stem the influx of HW and/or get them closed quickly. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 4 '13 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ OK, but then I would say, why not just close the questions that would get the tag, and not bother with actually applying the homework tag at all? That's basically how we treat big-list currently. $\endgroup$ – David Z Nov 4 '13 at 4:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth Wikipedia has a similar feature: hidden categories. (See this). Is there such thing available here? $\endgroup$ – Mo_ Nov 4 '13 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Mostafa no, there is not as far as I know. $\endgroup$ – David Z Nov 4 '13 at 21:16
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Just to put this out there, here's an idea:

  1. Nuke questions that are "Solve this problem for me" type questions that should be nuked even under the current policy. This will take some work to go through the roughly 2600 questions tagged homework to evaluate which are good examples and which are bad.
  2. Nuke the HW tag (not the remaining questions themselves, just the tag).
  3. Change the FAQ: "Can I ask about homework here? No, this site is not intended to do homework for users. We are here to educate about concepts in physics" or something along those lines. That way it makes it clear we don't want to do anybody's work for them but if they can formulate it as a conceptual question we'll answer it. In other words, it's the same as what we have now but we say "No but" instead of "Yes but..."
  4. Users need to step up and help close things down that violate the "we won't do your work for you"

It won't be fun to do it, and to enforce it, but it has to be done by the users and not just the moderators if it will ever work.

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Actually, as I understand it, that is already the case. Almost. But we can improve it somewhat to make it more effective.

Thoughts on the current policy

See, the way I see it is that a post that follows the homework policy really doesn't need the tag in the first place. My thoughts resonate with what you say:

I think this is because if you've put the effort in to identify the concept you're having difficulty with, it's then easy enough to take the "homework" part out of the question and just ask about the concept itself.

Instead of making the primary focus of the question the homework problem, it's easier to just ask for the concept and maybe include the problem to exhibit your thought process.

As I once said in chat,

IMO an on topic HW question is indistinguishable from a normal question when the "this is HW" part is excised.

I also think that the "show some effort" bit of the homework policy is much less important than the "ask about a specific concept", though it is more objectively determined:

It's not enough to just show your work and ask where you went wrong. If you just need someone to check your work, you can always seek out a friend, classmate, or teacher. As a rule of thumb, a good conceptual question should be useful even to someone who isn't looking at the problem you happen to be working on

The current state of questions

From what I see on this site, the majority of closed HW questions don't get improved. Some people add effort, but most of these still aren't conceptual, and arguably never will be as many are essentially asking for help with algebra or some such.

I think 1 in 30 HW questions get reopened, and that too usually because they become borderline (not because they get improved significantly). Some stats on this would be good, though.

You mentioned that you ignored that tag and it felt nicer. I'm pretty sure that the questions you missed seeing were eventually closed, at least most of them. It's just a matter of speed, and that's a different issue.

So, what can we improve?

Like I said at the top, this is almost already the case. Almost. We can still improve:

Currently, there still are some HW posts that get reopened because they added effort. We can try to be more strict when it

Besides this, from the policy POV, the semantics of the current policy is that "Homework is OK, just read this long post to learn all the caveats". Changing it to "Homework is not OK, but here is how you may be able to convert your HW question to a good one" may lead to some good results. Ditto with the close reason.

Basically, we consistently change the semantics of our hw policy across the site, and instead of telling users to improve their hw question (the wording means that it will most probably still stay an hw question), we tell them to convert it into a conceptual question (which brings home the point that the question needs a major change of POV).

I don't have a way to conclude this post at the moment, I may do so later after thinking about it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Where in the home work policy does it say homework questions are almost banned? It says: "Can I ask a homework question here? Yes, but there are a couple of things you need to make sure of first. As a general rule, we do not discourage homework questions, as long as they are related to physics". This looks like a well thought out sensible policy to me. $\endgroup$ – Larry Harson Nov 1 '13 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ And according to David Z, the main point of the homework tag it to ensure the site isn't being used by students to cheat on their graded assignments. So any question that looks that it could be given as a graded assignment should be tagged as homework. $\endgroup$ – Larry Harson Nov 1 '13 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ @larry When I say almost banned, I mean to convey that they aren't banned, but the restrictions in the policy make the effectively banned. If you read it carefully, we basically only allow conceptual hw. Which, as I mentioned, isn't really hw at all. I feel that since the policy implicitly bans nonconceptual hw, and conceptual hw can be converted to non-hw, a change of language to make this explicit will put us in the state asked for by Nathaniel's question. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 1 '13 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ Re:cheating: that's part of it, but now afaict the focus has shifted to conceptualness. Questions aren't really useful to anyone but the OP when they just want a problem solved. When they want a concept clarified, the post is useful to others. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 1 '13 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ 'Changing it to "Homework is not OK, but here is how you may be able to convert your HW question to a good one" may lead to some good results.' I like this idea. $\endgroup$ – David Z Nov 2 '13 at 1:34
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ I think that kind of change is really what I had in mind. Semantically it's not much different from the current policy, but it could potentially be very different in terms of the impression it creates. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 3 '13 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ I think we are in a really weird split when it comes to homework questions. On the one hand, the meta-post about the policy basically bans unconceptual hw questions (and as such really all pure hw questions). On the other hand, the tag description on the main site, implicitly encourages unconceptual hw questions (see my answer). After all, the tag really only makes sense for unconceptual questions. It seems like getting rid of the tag is the only sensible way forward. $\endgroup$ – JSQuareD Nov 3 '13 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel Exactly. The current policy is like "Hey, don't run away, just jump through this neverending series of hoops and your question will be fine". People find it encouraging, and keep improving questions which, strictly speaking, probably can't ever be made conceptual. Changing it to "Homework is not allowed" and converting (or encouraging conversion) of conceptual questions disguised as HW may scare these folks away from wasting too much time on a hopeless case and retain the good ones. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 3 '13 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ @JSQuareD Well, we could keep the tag and change the wiki. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 3 '13 at 13:23
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I would say that our ultimate goal should be the burnination of . But I agree with several others who have said that that is unworkable in the short term. My experience with questions tagged is that they fall into a few categories:

  1. "Please do my homework for me. I have put no effort into it at all." example
  2. "I have completed this homework problem. Please check my work and/or where did I go wrong?" example
  3. Possibly not a good question as written, but the OP is trying. There might be a conceptual question somewhere. example, example
  4. Hard problems that come either directly from the research literature, or from upper-level courses. These usually have an easy to identify conceptual question. example example

1 and 2 are easy; we just want to close them and get on with real questions. 3 is probably the most difficult category, both to identify, and to actually address. I think we want most of the questions in 4, but it is sometimes difficult to separate out the physics and the math in those.

I've just favorited , sort of in the spirit of Manish's suggestion and have been going through those questions (if anyone has seen a lot of homework questions in the review queue recently, that's me). I haven't seen a single question yet where the tag actually helps the question: they're all either on-topic or off-topic. It really is a meta tag.

The best argument I can come up with to keep is that people can use it to filter out questions they don't want to see. I have two replies to that. First, it's not a very good filter. I suspect people who want to ignore are trying to filter out categories 1 and 2, and possibly 3. But they're also ignoring questions that fit into 4, and I'm not sure they want to do that. My other reply is that we really do need everyone's help to close the really bad homework questions when they come up. I feel a little conflicted about saying that; it is essentially telling other users how they should use the site, and the low-level BS homework questions are exactly the sort of things that drives away the higher-end users we're trying to keep/attract. On the other hand, I worry that part of the problem we're having with closing the bad homework questions is that not enough of our 3000+ users are seeing them.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the categorisation, -1 for the burnination request. Those who actually ignore the tag ignore it because they are not interested in answering any category of homework problems, and that they think that any homework problem is bad. There are many such users. $\endgroup$ – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Nov 8 '13 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ @DIMension10 that's not true in my case. I don't really want to ignore category 4 questions, but I ignore the homework tag because it gets rid of the huge volume of category 1, 2 and 3 questions, which I'm not at all interested in. I suspect many other users ignore the homework tag for the same reason. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 8 '13 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel: Maybe. If I ignored the tag, I'd not want to ignore Category 4 questions. A plausible solution is to not tag Category 4 questions as homework. $\endgroup$ – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Nov 8 '13 at 6:20
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @Nathaniel here, if we can fix our mechanism for dealing with the bad HW (1,2,3), we won't really need the tag. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 8 '13 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ Also, you favorited [homework]? Good luck with preserving your sanity ;-) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 8 '13 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DIMension10, that's why I was trying to include examples for each category. I found it harder to find good examples for category 4. I was hoping for questions that are tagged as homework under current policy, but have enough high-level interest that we don't want to actually tag them as homework. I can try to look for more examples to flesh out this idea. $\endgroup$ – Colin McFaul Nov 8 '13 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth, I'm planning for using homework as a favorite tag to be temporary, as an assistance in helping me flag the really bad questions. I will probably un-favorite it eventuall. :) $\endgroup$ – Colin McFaul Nov 8 '13 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ @ColinMcFaul I know, just joking :) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 8 '13 at 16:07
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As much as I sympathize with the move to ban homework-like (HWL) questions because of front page clutter, we should realize that people will never stop posting HWL question. They are sometimes desperate, say, with an upcoming exam tomorrow. Realistically, the only thing we can do is to minimize the time that such HWL posts appear open on the front page.

Fast closing requires help from the community to flag around the clock, and especially +3k users to review and cast votes-to-close. It is possible that HW policy formulations should be strengthen to provide people with the necessary mandate/tools for closure.

But closure is not all. The posts still appear on the front page for a while unless it is downvoted to -4. Note however that traditionally, the unwritten rule is to not massively downvote new posters, but rather leaving constructive comments. If you decide to downvote a HWL question, please first check OP's userpage, to see if he has a repeated pattern of posing bad HWL questions.

Finally, in the search of methods to stop HWL questions, the status of the tag will unavoidably be questioned. The pros and cons of the tag have been discussed many times before in other meta posts, e.g. here and here. Here I will only address what potential benefit the retirement of the homework tag would have on the incoming stream of HWL questions.

I would be against removing the tag for various reasons:

  1. It is instrumental in identifying HWL questions in the first place that such posts are tagged with tag.

  2. People will never stop posting HWL questions, no matter how many policies that we write, no matter how many tags that we ban, and no matter how many duplicates of the question that there already exist.

I sincerely doubt any broken-window theory that the homework tag causes more HWL questions to be asked than without the tag, cf. point 2 above. On the other hand, the tag helps the community to quickly identify and close HWL questions, cf. point 1 above.

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I've been noticing another trend that brings up a counter-point to my "let's nuke it" answer I posted previously.

Many homework-like questions are answered by lower-rep users. It would be a case of beginners helping beginners, which actually means that the answerer does in fact get something out of helping -- the best way to learn is to teach after all.

It also means that the budding physicists who start out on the site by answering homework questions learn as they go along; not just about how to teach and the basics that (at the time) are not so basic to them but about how to interact with the site and with the community at large.

In other words, homework-like questions may not be so bad because, just like the goal of giving homework, it's training both questioner and answerer alike to be better members of the community as they progress through the study of physics. Maybe what we need is not a decrease in homework questions but an increase in advanced questions -- let the beginners work together on the homework-like questions and the experts work together on the expert questions. And while the experts may not learn much from the homework-like questions (although everybody stands to learn from attempting to explain things in different ways to different people), the beginners get experience with the easy questions and can learn advanced topics by reading the advanced ones.

Everybody wins, right?

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree in part ... but ... basic questions which are not HW fulfil this already. There's no need for the tens of HW we get per day to satisfy this. Also, unlike other posts, HW only helps the asker and the answerer. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 4 '13 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ (I personally do resonate a lot with the "when you teach you learn" sentiment -- it's why I participate here. But I don't think it fits well in the big picture; if just two people are helped, that's not that great and not worth the loss of other prospective users) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 4 '13 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ So perhaps a compromise between the 2 states - a middle ground between teaching while they learn style hw questions but with the quality bar raised. $\endgroup$ – user29350 Nov 4 '13 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @UV-D I would say the middle ground is to leave the policy as is (but actually have people stepping up to enforce it rather than just the mods) and those questions that do make it through, experts leave alone unless they're really bored or feel compelled to answer because they want to or to clear up a common misconception or whatever. In other words, nobody who is an "expert" should feel compelled in any way to answer homework questions. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Nov 4 '13 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 yes, that makes sense - and I am happy to flag any truly basic etc questions. $\endgroup$ – user29350 Nov 4 '13 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ These are good points, but I would also note that we have no obligation to allow certain types of questions and answers just because they're useful to somebody. $\endgroup$ – David Z Nov 8 '13 at 17:29
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I don't think there is a need for a ban on even basic homework questions, because the system we have in place at the moment seems to be working well IMO. A recent example is the question cylinder on an inclined plane held in equilibrium. This was flagged, and put on hold with the message:

put on hold as off-topic by tpg2114, Crazy Buddy, Sklivvz♦ 49 mins ago

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

"Homework-like questions should ask about a specific physics concept and show some effort to work through the problem. We want our questions to be useful to the broader community, and to future users. See our meta site for more guidance on how to edit your question to make it better" – tpg2114, Crazy Buddy, Sklivvz If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question or leave a comment.

As long as users flag bad homework questions, the system in place should be adequate.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you are nailing down the problem. The community can already happily nuke all homework questions. The rules and the tools are there. What's preventing the community from being effective? $\endgroup$ – Sklivvz Nov 1 '13 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Sklivvz I think it's hard to get 5 votes, most homeworks get nuked by 2 or 3 + moderator; The better question is how can we get >3k rep users reviewing the queue or policing the homework questions. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Nov 1 '13 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ I think that what we are doing now was a noble attempt to be as nice as possible to beginners and I would still like to think that we can accommodate them somehow, but I am less convinced that just "more and better than we are doing now" is the answer. None-the-less I am willing to try if there is the political will. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Nov 1 '13 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 Then, doesn't that mean the community doesn't feel strongly enough about the problem to do anything about it? $\endgroup$ – user31346 Nov 4 '13 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Sancho It's hard to say what that implies really, aside from the degree of caring is less than the willingness to be a janitor and clean it up. It could be an education problem (they don't know to use the review queues), a motivation problem (it is time consuming to do correctly), etc.. I think in a large enough community there are enough people willing to do the janitorial work that the "experts" don't have to be bothered with it. I know I have no problem doing it, but it seems hard to get enough others involved. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Nov 4 '13 at 23:53
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I can understand the motivation behind this well, and if this is the majority's wish, then so be it of course. However, I personally believe this is a big mistake. Let me try to explain.

  • As someone who is about to complete his PhD, I consider myself to be already a good physicist in my field, but an expert only in homework and problem sheets :-). I have been spending a large fraction of the past decade doing those! I believe I am in good company there.

    By banning every kind of homework, we don't necessarily increase the quality of contributions to the site. We just reduce the audience.

  • We should distinguish between bad and good homework questions. I wholeheartedly agree that the kind of bad questions that tend to swamp the front page should be banned:

    • Badly worded, confusing questions, Grammar/spelling mistakes, no caps, no TeX.
    • "Give me the solution / check my calculation / I'm stuck" kind of questions
    • Really specialized obscure calculation details a la "how do I solve this integral"

    Good homework questions in my opinion would be canonical, polished, clear problem sheet excercises, that we all have encountered at some point, and that can teach you a lot by going through them. Examples from the top of my head: "Calculate the gravity field inside a hollow sphere", "Reflection/Transmission of a wavefunction on a potential", "Calculate the density of states in a nucleus / a metal".

    A good answer would be more high- than low-level. (#1: "The problem becomes much easier when you choose spherical coordinates. Or compare the mass in a cone behind and in front of you.") Maybe one could put calcuational details in a spoiler box (as used on other SE sites).

    I believe the old policy has been encouraging the bad kind of question. Don't post the whole problem, but break it down into small steps. Ask about the specific step where you are stuck. Ask about specific concepts that give you difficulties.

    The problem is that a physics learner doesn't know yet which concepts to apply. If they don't understand the problem, of course their questions will be bad! They would benefit much much more from a bird's eye view of the excercise solution, than from help in the gritty details. This brings me to the final point:

  • We have to consider how physics is taught at universities. There are lectures, which are more for exposition in my experience. You don't learn much by just consuming lectures. There are textbooks for working through the topics in detail. But you learn by far the most by doing the excercises (and lab courses); ideally in a study group with your fellow students. By doing lots of excercises again and again, you develop a feeling for which concepts and techniques to apply when. And I believe there is value in not just finding the solution, but learning a canonical, elegant way of solving the problem.

    If physics is martial arts, problem sheets are kata. As such an integral part of physics, I believe they have to be a part of a physics Q&A site.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd be quite interested in seeing a policy proposal along those lines. I would want it to be very dissuasive, though, on the bad homework questions. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 21 '13 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty: That is indeed the trouble. We already have concrete guidelines banning "bad" questions, but they still come in trough the homework channel. So from that point the blanket ban on homework is very understandable (though a bit unfortunate). Maybe a new policy could generally ban homework, but allow problem-solving techniques, derivations, "canonical examples" of calculational methods, etc.. You see, it's very hard to phrase what these good questions are. $\endgroup$ – jdm Nov 22 '13 at 12:26
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I think it makes a lot of sense to ban homework questions. It's not that we shouldn't help students who are having trouble with their assignments. But we should help them to grasp the concept, we should NOT be doing their work. If the student actually identifies the concept he's having trouble with and asks a conceptual question about this concept, then everything's fine, that's what the site's for. The existence of the homework tag, and the nature of the questions associated with this tag, simply invite students to ask their assignment flat out. Eliminating the homework tag might help fix this issue. After all, a conceptual question really doesn't need to be tagged homework.

Think about what the homework tag is really there for. The tag description reads:

Applies to questions of primarily educational value - not only questions that arise from actual homework assignments, but any question where it is preferable to guide the asker to the answer rather than giving it away outright.

If I were to ask a proper homework question - that is a question which focuses on the concept I'm having trouble with rather than the details of the assignment - I DO want an outright answer; I shouldn't be led on when it comes to understanding the concept. So 'guiding the asker to the answer rather than giving it away outright' really only applies to questions which simply restate the assignment. So implicitly, the tag description is encouraging unresearched, unconceptual, dumb homework-assingment-questions. The homework tag only makes sense for those types of questions. Getting rid of it would in my opinion be the correct course of action.


If the above would go too far for some people, this might be an alternative:

  • All questions tagged as homework will appear in a review queue, and will be hidden from the main page by default. They will only be shown on the main page when the question has been reviewed and accepted by several users.
  • All homework questions that are not tagged as a homework question will be immediately retagged to a homework question (thus becoming hidden and entering the review stage), or closed right away.
  • Delete all old homework questions (and their answers) that are not up to the standard we expect.

Together, this should ensure that the main page isn't flooded by low-quality questions, thus discouraging prospective users from asking such questions. Deleting old low-quality questions will go to some length to discourage low-quality questions as well.

Instead, the main page will be populated by interesting high-level questions, and some high-quality homework questions.

Of course, this approach does require some new features in the SE website(s), and makes the homework question a very special tag (even on a merely technical level).

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