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It was proposed recently on meta that, as part of a broader programme of increasing the site quality, we ban homework questions altogether. This proposal seems to have really quite strong support. On the other hand, it was pointed out quite persuasively, mostly by David Z and Manishearth, and mostly well upvoted, that the current policy is already much like this in that the questions that stay open tend to be conceptual questions that don't really need the tag. This means that the final change will mostly be one of documentation and presentation. Finally, it's pretty clear that we need to keep the tag itself, as an aid for users who ignore that tag.

Given the really-quite-settled state of that discussion, it seems to me that it's time to move forward on it. This involves generating a consensus that we do want this, and developing the corresponding documentation.

To begin with, then, I think the consensus on what the core of the policy should be is something like:

Homework questions are not allowed on this site, but it is acceptable to ask conceptual questions which are based on a set assignment.

Please vote this question up if you agree with the change, and vote it down if you disagree.


As I mentioned above, it seems the main change that needs to happen is one of documentation. There are a fair few pieces of documentation relating to this issue around the site, and they would all need to be changed. Specifically, I can identify the following:

  • The homework policy on this meta site: the question and its answer
  • The How to Ask sidebar on the Ask a Question page
  • The tag wiki
  • The tag wiki excerpt
  • The homework close reason

I am posting answers to this question with proposals for each of these, so they can be discussed independently. Please vote each answer up or down according to whether you agree to the change to that specific wording. I am making all of them community wiki: if you have suggestions for improvement, post them!

I must note that I came up against quite a few rough edges in writing this documentation when it came to describing the tag itself. I believe this is because it is pretty inconsistent to keep and actively use a 'homework' tag if the front-line message we're sending is that homework is off-topic. I'll post a separate thread about it shortly. For now, I propose we use the tag much as we're using it now: it should describe questions based on set problems (homework, textbook, etc.) as well as the old "questions whose value lies in understanding the method by which the question can be solved, rather than getting the answer itself", though that seems weird now (are those not just... questions?). I propose, to begin with, at least, that we keep the tag and the close reason separate, as described in the documentation below.

Finally, I'm also adding an answer with some thoughts on enforcement of this policy, which is the truly crucial ingredient of driving down the amount of low-level homework questions on this site.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was planning to post something similar, but real life has me by my neck right now and I don't have the time. Thanks for posting this! $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with banning homework, but I think the problem is with not having enough high quality questions, and banning homework will not affect that. $\endgroup$ – Mo_ Nov 13 '13 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ I see a lot of votes on the shorter bits of documentation, but I see very little activity on the meta answer and the tag wiki. I understand that those are the longest and hardest to read, digest, and form an opinion on, but please take a minute to voice any concerns you have. The purpose of this thread is to develop this documentation as a community, and input - downvotes, upvotes, comments - is crucial. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 14 '13 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ Would proofs be considered homework to be banned, such as physics.stackexchange.com/questions/37919/… and physics.stackexchange.com/questions/37846/… $\endgroup$ – Kenshin Nov 14 '13 at 1:41
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks so much for doing this - definitely a big +1 to the proposal. If it was me I think I'd go slightly further and say that you can ask a conceptual question, but it shouldn't be based on an assignment in an obvious way. In other words, if you feel the need to quote the assignment itself then it's not enough of a conceptual question to be allowed. This gives us a very objective criterion for closing hw questions, which in my view should be one of the main goals of the new policy. But if the consensus favours your proposal then I'm happy with that. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 14 '13 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ I would also not try to separate the tag from the close reason. Instead I'd just change the tag wiki to "Do not use this tag. Homework questions are no longer allowed on this site. See [link to the policy]." Anything that does legitimately get tagged as homework would be closed. I think this would just make everything a lot less confusing. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 14 '13 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ A meta-meta question: what's the best way to suggest changes or alternative versions? Should I post answers to this question, or just stick to comments on your answers? I don't want to end up splitting people's votes just because I'd prefer a slightly different proposal. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 14 '13 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps it would be best to ask people to vote on the question according to whether they support any kind of change along these lines. Then I (and others) could post alternative proposals in the answers, which could be voted on separately. What do you (and others) think about that? $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 14 '13 at 8:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Chris I would be opposed to that becoming off-topic. They do have a slight hw-like tone but that can be edited easily, e.g. my recent edits. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 14 '13 at 9:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel I would encourage you to post alternative versions of the core policy and any documentation you think should go along different lines. On the other hand, weneeda separate thread to discuss the tag. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 14 '13 at 9:27
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Homework questions are not allowed on this site. You should ask about specific concepts. See our homework policy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Shouldn't there be additionally something like "If you ask a non-conceptual homework question, your question will most likely be closed, so that no new answers can be given." $\endgroup$ – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Nov 13 '13 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ This is a snippet and it should be kept as short and to the point as possible. Consider where it is! $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 13 '13 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ What about "Non-conceptual Homework questions will be closed immediately." $\endgroup$ – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Nov 13 '13 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with Emilio here, short and sweet is good. Peole don't like to read longer things. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 15:47
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  • The close reason

Homework questions are not allowed on this site. See our meta site to help you convert your post to a conceptual question that is useful to the broader community and to future users.

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  • The homework policy: the answer

The short version:

Homework questions are not allowed on this site. If you can identify the concept you're having trouble with and ask a question about it, then we'll be happy to help.

What kinds of questions are considered homework questions?

A "homework question" is a question about a set problem instead of the concepts behind it. This includes questions from actual homework assignments and textbooks, as well as self-study problems, puzzles, etc.

Other questions whose value lies in helping you understand the method by which the question can be solved, rather than getting the answer itself, may also be considered homework, though this is somewhat of a judgement call.

Some problems come up in the course of doing a homework or self-study problem, but are separate from the main point of the problem. There's a bit of a judgement call on whether such questions are homework or not, but as long as you stick to asking about a concept you should be safe.

Can I ask a homework question here?

This site is for specific conceptual physics questions. It is OK to ask a conceptual question if it comes up while doing a homework or self-study problem, but questions about such assignments are generally off-topic. Keep in mind that Physics Stack Exchange is not a homework help site, and it takes more than just showing your working for your question to be on topic.

What should I do if I want to ask a homework question?

  1. Identify the concept you're having trouble with

    It is crucial that you ask about the specific concept that's giving you trouble. Questions asking us to check your work, asking for hints, tips, or how to solve a homework-like question, or which simply re-state a textbook problem, are not well received and are very likely to be closed. If you ask about the concept, instead, you produce a resource that is more relevant to others who might have the same problem later, and additionally you provide grounds for a more interesting answer.

    If you find you can't change your question into one that's about the topic you're studying, rather than the specific problem you're trying to solve, you may need to go back to your textbook or teacher to look for a general explanation. If you just need someone to check your work, you can always seek out a friend, classmate, or teacher.

  2. See if an existing question helps you

    Check and see if someone has already asked a question that gives you the information you need. The search box at the top right corner of the page will be pretty useful here. You can also try looking at tags that are relevant to your question.

    If you find a prior question that seems relevant but doesn't clear up your confusion, mention it and provide a link when you write your own question. That gives the people answering a better idea of what kinds of explanations don't work for you, and what might be more effective.

  3. Reference the source

    If you have a conceptual question that's based on a homework problem, you should still provide the original problem. This is to provide context to your question, and makes it easier to answer. If this comes from a textbook you should include the book and the problem number. Quote the original problem in full, as it may provide crucial information that you might have missed. Again, this should not be the entire content of the post, but rather a useful piece of context for your real question.

    It is OK to ask a conceptual question that is embedded in your solution to a homework problem and depends on that context. You should provide your working to the problem, and you should ensure that you make clear what your conceptual question is. Do this visually as well: it will do wonders in helping answerers navigate your question.

    If your question is about a homework assignment, or any sort of work under a honor code, you should check with your instructor and with your learning institution (middle school, high school, college, etc.) whether it's OK to consult other people before posting your question. Your institution may also have an honor code or rules and regulations, as well as specific class policies, on whether you can post the exact question on the internet, and you should check before you post.

  4. Use the homework tag

    After adding the tags that identify the kind of physics involved, add the tag to your question. This helps answerers understand where you're coming from, and it makes it easier for us to help you improve your question.

    If you don't include the tag, someone else might add it for you. (Other people can edit your posts.) If this happens, don't take it too hard. We're not accusing you of lying about whether your question comes from a homework assignment! The tag describes questions based on set problems, as well as problem-solving questions whose value lies in helping you understand the method by which the question can be solved, rather than getting the answer itself.

    Having the homework tag does not mean that a question will be closed. Instead, it will helps us help you bring out the conceptual parts of your question to make it more useful for future visitors.

What should I do if my question was put on hold, or closed, as homework?

If your question was put on hold, or closed, as homework, you will see the message

Homework questions are not allowed on this site. See our meta site to help you convert your post to a conceptual question that is useful to the broader community and to future users.

This usually happens if the conceptual question you're having trouble with is not clear, or if it looks like you're asking us to 'do your homework for you'. In this case, you should do all you can to make it crystal clear what concept you're struggling with. It can also happen that it simply isn't clear what you want us to answer, in which case you should make that clear as well.

If you don't understand why your question was put on hold or closed, you can leave a comment below your question asking for clarification. (You can always comment on your questions and any of their answers.)

Examples

Good:

These questions are based on homework problems but they make it clear what the specific conceptual question is that they're about.

Bad:

These questions are simply restatements of homework problems, don't show any effort put into solving the problem, and don't go beyond obtaining a solution to the set assignment. They are too specific to be of use to anybody except the person asking, and that makes them inappropriate for this site.

Parts adapted from https://math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1803/how-to-ask-a-homework-question

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  • $\begingroup$ While we're at it I think we should change "They show they've done the necessary calculations for the problem" because that implies that you have to solve the problem before asking a question. $\endgroup$ – David Z Nov 13 '13 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, you're right. I'm striking the whole sentence: we only really need the first one, and simpler is better. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 14 '13 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not a fan of the judgement calls referenced in the first section, and I think we should give some thought to how to remove them. I think the need for judgement calls is a problem with the current policy, since it adds cognitive load when deciding whether to cast a close vote. Since we need to close a high volume of homework questions it's best to make the process as automatic as possible, psychologically speaking. Right now I'm not sure of the best way to do that. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 14 '13 at 9:50
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  • The tag wiki excerpt

This is a crucial part of the policy. This is what gets seen by users who try to tag a question as :

enter image description here

Upon mouseover, a link saying learn more appears, which leads to the homework tag wiki. This is, I think, a crucial place to catch potential low-level homework questions and stop them being asked in that form. My proposal is:

HOMEWORK QUESTIONS ARE NOT ALLOWED unless they're about a specific concept. If you have a homework question, please read the guidance in meta, the tag info, or click 'learn more' to help you convert it to a conceptual question. Use this tag for questions based on set problems as well as questions whose value lies in understanding the method by which the question can be solved, rather than getting the answer itself.

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  • The homework policy: the question

Are homework questions allowed on Physics Stack Exchange?

What is the policy on asking homework questions on Physics Stack Exchange?

  • Are homework questions allowed?
  • What kinds of questions are considered homework questions?
  • What should I do if I want to ask a homework question?
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  • The tag wiki

Homework questions are not allowed on Physics Stack Exchange

This site is for specific conceptual physics questions, and not a homework help site. Questions about a specific concept that originate in homework problems are OK, but questions asking us to check your work or asking for pointers or hints about a problem are likely to be closed. Please see the details on our meta site.

What is considered a homework question here?

A "homework question" is a question about a set problem instead of the concepts behind it. This includes questions from actual homework assignments as well as homework-like problems from textbooks, self-study problems, puzzles, etc.

What should I do if I want to ask a homework question?

It is crucial that you ask about the specific concept that's giving you trouble. If your question originates in a homework assignment, you should provide the problem in full as well as all your working so far, to provide context. Please see the details on our meta site for more information.

What is this tag used for?

This tag describes homework-like questions based on a set problem, such as textbook and self-study problems, puzzles, and actual homework assignments. It also covers problem-solving questions whose value lies in helping you understand the method by which the question can be solved, rather than getting the answer itself.

This includes on-topic conceptual questions that are based on such problems, as well as off-topic questions which are purely for homework help. Having the homework tag is independent of being on-topic. If you see off-topic homework questions, the appropriate action is to flag the question for closure or vote to close it.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm a bit uneasy about tagging on topic, conceptual problems as hw. As I've mentioned before, removing the problem statement from these makes them indistinguishable from a normal question. Since the HW tag is primarily used for ignoring (and secondarily for moderation -- which these posts don't need), it doesn't make sense that a post with more information than a regular on topic conceptual question suffers. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth I mostly agree with you. I struggled the most with this wiki and the excerpt. I think it is logically inconsistent to "ban homework" and still keep a tag for it. However, it seems important to quite a few people to keep the tag. This is my best attempt at reconciling the two. I'll post a separate question on the role of the tag if this change of policy goes through. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 13 '13 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ This is why I propose a phase out policy, we treat the HW tag as a transient that has to be eventually gotten rid of as our response time to HW improves. Phasing out may take a year, or two, or forever, but that way it no longer is logically inconsistent :P $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ The main motivation for this wording is this: If we restrict the tag for off-topic HW questions, then the tag becomes synonymous with closure and would be, I think, redundant. On the other hand, there seem to be people who want to filter out all homework-based questions, even if they're conceptual. The tag scope, as proposed, gives the tag a specific purpose separate from closure, and caters for these folks. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 13 '13 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ Except that any user can apply the tag (well, almost), and it's a quicker process. Are there really people who want to filter out all HW (including conceptual)? I'm not too sure. A separate question makes sense; but take your time (I may ask it myself if I get time) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, small improvement suggestion: The policy probably should include "homework-like" problems (people like to complain "But the question is NOT homework!!"). I think there's a bit in the old policy on this that can be copied. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth I had the old policy side-by-side when writing this. What bit do you want to incorporate where? The heading 'What is considered a homework question here?' describes off-topic hw questions if it's under a huge heading saying 'Homework questions are not allowed on PSE'. The bit from the old policy which I think you're talking about is the "questions whose value..." bit which is currently under 'What is this tag used for?'. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 13 '13 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. Basically, try to weasel in the wording "homework-like" or similar in there, and maybe some explanation of what that means ("questions whose value..."). That way we don't have to repeatedly explain "it doesn't matter if the question is actually homework given to you by a teacher, the policy applies to homework-like questions as well" to newcomers, and instead just say "the question is homework-like, and if they complain, just ask them to read the policy" $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth How about this wording? $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 13 '13 at 17:09
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  • Some thoughts on enforcement

As was mentioned in Manishearth's, QMechanic's and David Z's answers in the recent discussion on banning homework, the current policy is already pretty close to "homework is banned", and the real changes that need to happen are (i) changes in semantics and documentation, and (ii) an increase in community moderation. The latter is the part that's actually important, and what determines how many low-level homework questions are there to clutter the front page of the site.

It is important to realize that regardless of what the homework policy is, there will always be users who post homework questions anyway. (Users are very myopic!) It is therefore up to us to make sure that the clutter is swept away quickly.

If you see a homework question which you think is off-topic and does not ask a conceptual question, then:

  • Tag it as . This will make it easier to detect and it will help other users know what to look for.
  • Flag the question for closure, or (if you have 3k+ reputation) vote to close it. It is very, very, very important that people flag questions if they're off-topic. It pushes them onto a review queue in which users with 3k+ reputation and moderators can see them and close them if appropriate. This works fairly well, but the main thing is getting low-level homework questions into the review queue quickly.
  • Consider downvoting it. Questions with a score of -4 are hidden from the front page, and no longer contribute to the clutter. (On the other hand, if it's already at -4 consider the impact on the OP of further downvotes.)
  • Think twice before answering. In any broken windows theory of homework questions, answers play a crucial role. If open low-level homework questions invite other low-level questions, open low-level homework quesitons with answers do so much, much more.

You should also tag on-topic, conceptual questions that follow the tag wiki as as soon as you see them if they're not already tagged as such. (You can always edit posts, though they will pass through a review queue until you have 2k rep. As a bonus, you get +2 reputation!) This helps other users detect and help improve homework questions more easily. It also improves the user experience of the users who choose to ignore all homework questions, the possibility of which I think is an important selling point we should keep in trying to retain and increase our expert user base.

Finally, use the review queues as much as you can! Community moderation is the name of the game here. There isn't really all that much to be done (compare e.g. with SO) but it's important that this moderation be done as fast as possible and that it requires as little moderator input as possible. It sends a much stronger message of off-topic-ness if a question is closed by a mass of five different people (example) than by a single moderator (example). There's good documentation on what the review queues are and how to use them at this MSO thread. There's also three badges to be had per revision queue!

Using the close-votes queue requires 3k+, but there is a ton of useful community moderation you can do before that. You can access the Late Answers and the First Posts review queues at 500 rep, and these contain many of the low-level homework questions that we want on the close-vote review queue and off the front page.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with everything here but I don't want to upvote yet because the other "answers" are actual policy changes and I don't want this to pop above them in case people see a wall of text before the actually "vote" topics... $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Nov 13 '13 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ "You should also tag on-topic, conceptual questions as homework as soon as you see them if they're not already tagged as such" -- wait, what? Could you elaborate on this? I think I know what you mean here, but it seems a bit misleading right now. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth (and others with similar comments): The details on the tag are in the tag wiki proposal and its comments. I'll write a question on the role of the tag under a "no homework" policy shortly (i.e. when I have time). $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 13 '13 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ OK, edited for clarification, and take your time on this :) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Nov 13 '13 at 17:01

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