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I know, I know, it's yet another Meta post about our homework policy. Feel free to downvote and write abusive comments if you're heartily sick of posts about the homework policy.

If you're still with me: the homework classification for closing questions has never literally meant that your teacher or professor set the question as part of your homework. It's meant to cover basically simple questions where the OP can't be bothered to go off and do some work for themselves. But as you progress and questions get harder it's increasingly hard to Google useful stuff, and I think there comes a point where a question shouldn't be treated as homework even if it was actually set by your professor. I'm thinking of the sort of questions you'd find in a graduate level book. These, or at least the better examples of the breed, are intended to enhance your understanding of the subject and this is surely what we should be trying to do here.

So my proposal is that if a question is graduate level or above it should never be closed as homework. I think we should leave it up to site members to decide whether to answer. In any case only a small subset of site members can answer questions at this level, and since they are among the more experienced users we should leave the decision whether to answer to them.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly, and such higher-level questions should not even be tagged as homework, even if they involve LaTex and some equations/calculations. For example too many questions in the tag differential-geometry are tagged homework, even though they are non trivial and pretty high-level. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 28 '13 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ Do you have any examples of graduate level questions in mind that have been closed as homework? $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Dec 28 '13 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Qmechanic: I am conscious of having VTC'd such questions because that's what the site rules said, though I now repent of my close votes. If I can figure out how to make the site show me my VTC's I will dig out some examples. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 28 '13 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie There is a votes tab on your profile, though that may not show all close votes $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Dec 28 '13 at 15:43
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I had had some talks with Dilaton on this before, never got the time to formulate a proposal. It was also brought up here multiple times.

Basically, most high level posts that have been asked to the student by a professor are not homework by the policy. The tag/policy name "homework" is a misnomer, the origin of the question has no part in the policy.

However, this:

It's meant to cover basically simple questions where the OP can't be bothered to go off and do some work for themselves.

isn't entirely correct either, mainly the "basically simple" part. Not-so-simple questions can be homeworky too.

For example, this one or this one or this one or this one.

Admittedly, these are the minority. But I have seen a lot of questions that ask for a proof to be filled in or effectively need help with the mathematics of the question. Most haven't been closed, but they are on shaky ground at best.

The issue is, how many others will be helped by these posts? If you've ever compared the votes on a good high level question with the views, you'll notice that the views far outnumber the votes. This indicates that most of the visitors were not from the site. Even if we assume that a fraction of these actually understand the post1, the number of visitors who are helped by the post usually outnumbers the number of SE members. This is one rather important bit of the SE model; questions and answers are of the sort that should help the most people, and that means focusing on making posts useful for visitors. Most "homework" posts are of the form that only the OP is benefited -- the question is localized so it won't turn up in anyone's search, and only a couple other site members will get helped by the post.This can happen with grad-level questions too -- I doubt that there will be many people stuck on the same step of a proof in a textbook. Contrast this with questions like these which probably will be searched for by others, helping them.

Of course, just going by localized-ness might be a bit extreme and we would end up closing a lot of good questions if we had that strict a localized-ness requirement. We do want to help the OP too, and there are many good questions that would be rarely searched for but are very informative nevertheless.

So some compromise is needed. I did have a look at many high level homework questions before, and I came to the conclusion that most did not need closing (most were not closed in the first place). Most grad students would not willingly post a low-effort question, so that eliminates one kind of HW question. As for localized HW questions -- these were still found in my searches. Not that many, but there were some that were on the borderline of closeability (example).

I think that we should not be so aggressive for high level questions, but we shouldn't give them all a free pass either. The current and proposed policies both seem to be allowing most of the currently existing high level questions that are tagged homework, so I doubt this is a problem we need to worry about. If someone can find enough examples of high level posts that were closed as homework, then we might need to investigate further.

Note that I'm talking about the policy in this post. The tag is applied haphazardly — it always has been. The tag seems to be about the type of question (it was in the past policy too), but it seemingly implies something about the origin, so this haphazardness is understandable as each person tags with their own interpretation. We probably should get more objective guidelines for the tag and figure out a way to make the community use it consistently. But since this is a different issue and will probably cause a four-sided argument2, it's best if we don't investigate this on this particular meta post.

Update

I just realized this, one of the other reasons the HW policy was put up in the start was that users did not want this site to be seen as a place where you can get your homework done for you" (which accounts for the tag confusion as well).

  • Are people still concerned about this?
  • Will allowing low effort grad level hw affect this?

1. It won't be a small fraction, most of the higher level questions are of the form that a novice won't accidentally turn it up via Google.

2. Some folks want the tag burninated, some want it phased out, some want it only for low level questions, some want it for all types of questions, etc, etc. Best not to muddy the waters here with this discussion

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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, I thought all four of the example bad questions you linked were actually quite interesting ... $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 28 '13 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ It is natural for higher-level technical LaTex involving question to be of interest to a relatively small number of people. Nevertheless, they are of interest to the group of people who is interested in learning advanced physics topics at a deeper technica level. So they are useful and helpful for a smaller more specialized audience. But there is nothing wrong with this IMHO. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 28 '13 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton I didn't say anything about LaTeX. And I haven't used anything about high level questions being of interest to a smaller number of people in my arguments either. Read carefully, I mention that the views from visitors who can understand the post outnumber the views from those who are SE members, that's all. Nothing about the number of people interested in the post, only about the relative numbers of people interested, inside vs outside the site. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Dec 28 '13 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie Care to elaborate why? $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Dec 28 '13 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth would you mind unfreezing the MSO chatroom where I and Dimension10 listed the example questions? I need to look at some of them again, and I can no longer find that chat room ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 28 '13 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton I can't unfreeze rooms on MSO $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Dec 28 '13 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth: for me the principle purpose of the site is education and encouragement. This includes educating me! The first of your linked questions is mildly interesting because I'd like to see how it's done, and the last question is very interesting since the ADM formalism is still somewhat opaque to me. The third question is interesting because it's the only one I could answer :-) The second question I would have closed as unclear not homework so I don't think that's a fair example. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 28 '13 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie I personally find it a very major aspect, but not the principle one. I find that the posts can no doubt be learned from, but that is the case for any problem solving exercise, really. They seem a bit too no-effort for my tastes though the answers are interesting. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Dec 28 '13 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth: You say though the answers are interesting and this is a good reason for not closing them. After all, there's no compulsion to answer - site members can choose to just ignore the question. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 28 '13 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie "there's no compulsion to answer" -- we have to be very careful when applying that, because if we just left the site open to answering we would be flooded with homework. Of course, with the extreme low number of possibly-closeworthy grad-level homework we get, I doubt it's a problem. See update though. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Dec 28 '13 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth the example you give for a high-level borderline localized question has actually a very nice answer from Lubos Motl, and Lubos Motl never answers questions he deems not worthy ... IMHO such questions coming up from reading advanced textbook need further information and knowledge as Lumo's answer shows, and are therefore valuable and helpful for other people who study the same issue. Such a nice answer can be very valuable to people who did not stumble upon the exact question themself, but learn a lot from the additional information. So such questions add positive valuable content. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 28 '13 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton We're judging the questions here. I agree that the answers are informative -- but that is true for almost any correct answer posted by a member on any question, however bad. I have, in the past, seen some pretty good answers to extremely bad normal homework questions too. I agree that it's still useful though, and the severity of the homeworkyness is much less. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Dec 28 '13 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ Basically, I'm not seeing much of a problem here. We have very few closed high level homework questions. The ones which are closed are informative (which is true for any answered question) but obviously no-effort. And this goes to the second reason behind the HW policy -- the site should not be viewed as a place to get free answers for homework, at whatever level. Grad students can afford to (and usually they do, looking at all the other questions) put some effort into formulating a question. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Dec 28 '13 at 23:11
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I don't agree with this. Graduate-level questions are rarely homework-like, true, but not never.

The reason we close questions as homework-like is to make it clear that we will not help students cheat at this site. When I say "cheat" here, I don't mean only violation of explicit policies on seeking outside help set by an instructor. For purposes of this answer (and the homework policy in general), I take "cheating" to be anything that completely or almost completely negates the educational value of the problem. The homework-like close reason is for questions where, if we provide the OP with the information they request, we would be negating the intended educational value of the problem for them.

Our (well, my) de facto rule for closing questions as homework-like is

  • the problem is "artificially" constructed in a way that suggests its intended value is learning the method rather than getting the answer, and
  • the OP asks for the answer or to be shown the method in full detail, or fails to demonstrate a willingness to put some effort into the problem themselves.

These criteria are an empirical way of identifying questions where the OP is trying to cheat. The criteria are not necessarily perfect, of course, so there is some room to apply common sense. The ultimate goal is to close exactly those questions which satisfy the bolded statement in the previous paragraph.

Now, as to what this has to do with your proposal: graduate-level questions can still have educational value. And therefore, it is still possible for posters to try to bypass the educational value of such questions by asking for the answer outright, or just posting the question and saying "I don't know what to do," or so on. It happens rarely, and certainly when evaluating a question for closing, if the question is at a high level, I do think about it a lot more carefully before voting to close as homework-like (and I would certainly encourage others to do the same). But it has happened in the past, and it can happen again in the future. And that's why I don't think it's a good idea to make an absolute rule that graduate-level questions can never be closed as homework-like.

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    $\begingroup$ One problem is that the criteria you list for closing questions precisely describe questions that are good references, and that are helpful for future visitors. Questions that only ask about a conceptional stumbling block the OP encountered are less 'cheaty', but are unlikely to be helpful in the future. $\endgroup$ – jdm Dec 30 '13 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ @jdm well yes, the criteria describe questions which are helpful for future visitors who also want to cheat on the same homework problems. I don't see how they're particularly helpful for anyone else, though. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 30 '13 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ Another thing is that university is not school. People are there to learn not only facts, but autonomy. It's the student's responsibility to learn, and to work through the problems even though the solutions are available in books. And it's an important lesson to know when you've spent enough time trying, and to look up the solution or to ask for help... I agree that no one wants this site to be swamped by homework, but asking nice illustrative "canonical" quesitons and providing step by step answers is not "cheating", it's passing on knowledge in my eyes. $\endgroup$ – jdm Dec 30 '13 at 11:32
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, well, you're entitled to think that, but I completely disagree. Do you really believe that publishing full solutions to common homework problems (which can then be copied and submitted by students) is helpful to their education? And in any case, setting aside the moral issue, if we allow that then we will get a reputation as a place where people can get full solutions to HW problems, which means the less scrupulous students (who are out there in great numbers) will flock to this site looking for easy answers. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 30 '13 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ I had a cl. mechanics professor who would sometimes give out so much homework that is was humanly impossible to solve it in the given time. You were supposed to find out which books had the solutions. Students that really cheat and put no effort into their studies get filtered out soon enough at the exams. My university put a really big emphasis on the "we're all grown ups and voluntarily here" thing, but I guess there are some cultural differences... Also I agree that allowing all HW here would be a bad idea, but there's nothing morally reprehensible about HW questions IMHO. $\endgroup$ – jdm Dec 30 '13 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ physics.stackexchange.com/questions/91892/… for example. Do they not teach students to use Google these days? $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 31 '13 at 7:34
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie asking how a gauge theory can be built for gravity in analogy to how it works for qed, is a legitimate technical and even conceptual question. It should IMHO not be closed, if it is not a duplicate. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 31 '13 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton: the correspondance between GR and spin-2 QFT was first described decades ago. It's not that it isn't an interesting subject, but that I don't see the point of reproducing here what can be Googled in a moment. A good homework question enhances understanding by requiring an analysis that can't be trivially Googled. This isn't a good homework question - not even close. What would what just copying verbatim from any of the existing treatments contribute to the world of Physics education? I have more sympathy with your point of view than you give me credit for, but do you really think ... $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 31 '13 at 9:27
  • $\begingroup$ ... this is the sort of question that can be usefully answered here. Isn't it in the same category as the question immediately above it asking us to explain the FLRW metric? $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 31 '13 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie It is rather a conceptual question and among the things that are misjudged a hw IMHO. I dont see why it could not be concisely answered, it should be quite easy. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Dec 31 '13 at 9:44
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I strongly disagree with this. It's just as lazy and stupid to repost a problem from Jackson, Wald, Peskin & Schroder and the like as it is to repost your introductory high school level question. And when I see a question that I recognize, or a question that is of the same lazy sort of caliber without the effort to show why it is interesting or relevant, I at least tag as homework, and usually vote to close.

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