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During yesterday's Physics Chat we had an, erm, lively discussion about the evergreen subject of homework questions, and I think we reached as near a consensus as a motley crew of physics nerds is ever likely to achieve. I thought it would be worth posting (what I think is) the consensus view here in case anyone who missed that chat wants to comment.

For anyone who just wants to get on with their lives the tl;dr version is "no change".

The key concern everyone has is that once students get the idea they can post homework here and get answers we'll be swamped by homework questions. All the interesting questions will be lost in the flood and all the most active answerers will get bored and leave. And that will be the end of the site as a useful and authoritative source for physics. We all agree this is a bad thing.

On the flip side, many (not all) of us feel that where a student is showing some effort it would be nice to post an answer giving hints and discussing the concepts involved.

The problem is that if a homework question is not closed immediately someone will give the sort of explicit answer we want to discourage. Once this happens it doesn't matter if the question is subsequently closed, because the student will have the answer they want and we'll have exactly the problem we started with.

So there really isn't any alternative to closing homework questions ASAP. This doesn't mean we're being nasty and unhelpful, it's just the only way to avoid us turning into yet another homework help site.

Several of us have an unofficial strategy of voting to close homework questions then providing hints as comments. This doesn't seem an ideal solution to me, but it's probably the best solution.

If anyone has views on the above I'd like to hear them, but please bear in mind the subject has been discussed to death, so please only post if you have a point that hasn't been raised in any of the previous discussions of the issue.

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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't possible to delete those answers as they appear. Or to make all such questions wiki. If they don't bring reputation people will not write full answers. $\endgroup$ – MBN Mar 25 '15 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @MBN It requires moderators to delete them and so it would require near-constant monitoring by them to act quickly enough. The problem is if an answer is posted and sits for 15 minutes such that the person asking the question can see it, then they already got what they came for and may return with more, similar questions in the hopes it will work again. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Mar 25 '15 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ Working through the transcript now -- one thing to note, @JamalS said we could put an explicit banner on the question alerting people to the HW policy. I proposed the same not long ago and it was not viewed well then. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Mar 25 '15 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 I floated the same idea in chat a couple weeks ago, and wasn't shot down at least. I would be willing to support that idea $\endgroup$ – Sean Mar 26 '15 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114, I'm thinking of something like "If your question even smells of homework, the homework police here will mercilessly mock you and swiftly close your question - judge your actions accordingly!" $\endgroup$ – Alfred Centauri Mar 27 '15 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ I'd go along with some obvious warning at the point a question is being written. It doesn't have to be unfriendly. Something along the lines of "we welcome all questions about physics, but we won't do your homework for you". $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Mar 28 '15 at 6:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie, the flaw is that those that post homework questions generally fall into three broad categories: (1) those that will ignore any warning since they don't give a damn, (2) those that will ignore the warning since they don't think it applies to their question, (3) those that will ignore the warning because they've gotten away with it before and might get away with it again. In other words, I don't believe that a warning, even one like I wrote above, will have much if any effect. $\endgroup$ – Alfred Centauri Mar 28 '15 at 12:25
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Several of us have an unofficial strategy of voting to close homework questions then providing hints as comments. This doesn't seem an ideal solution to me, but it's probably the best solution.

After the 2nd time of reading this post (shortly after it was posted), the above pair of lines are what I stared at and couldn't get out of my head for a couple days. At first, it was because I wanted to find the best solution. Then, as I thought about it some more, I realized that "hints via comments" was not actually a solution, but a problem.

The way I see it, a person who is not really interested in physics and just wants an answer to their homework probably also doesn't give two $%^&$ about rep on this site or what we want to do on a volunteer basis. They just want their answer. We do our best to deny that undeserved answer, but we cannot close unilaterally (a good thing) and so, sometimes, answers slip in. I'm okay with this process.

What I've come to realize is this: Giving a downvote is saying, I don't like this question. Voting to close is saying, Your question should not have the opportunity to get an answer (because it doesn't fit our site). And giving hints in the comments is then saying, We want to help you. The third action entirely contradicts the first two; in some stretch, it is probably worse than posting the answer because it is giving an implicit approval to something that is readily rejected from us answerers.

And once they get their answer via the comments, guess what's the next thing they'll do: tell their friends about the "Great homework help site" that they found. Consider this comment after a high-rep member of our site gave a hint about solving their homework question, and then commenting about the lack of OP's question with the site:

A friend told me about the site told me I'd likely be able to get help with physics on here. Thanks for the help tho.

This isn't the first time I've seen comments like this. And any bets on the commenter ever asking a question again? Or fixing their question?

TL;DR If we really don't want to become a homework help service, we really ought to stop helping. Which means hints via comments really should stop.


Sorry this is coming so late, I've was a tad busy the last few weeks but that's almost all over and done with now.

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  • $\begingroup$ Kyle, I've commented in an answer. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Apr 11 '15 at 11:28
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This is really a comment to Kyle's answer, but I decided to make it an answer because I wanted to give site members the chance to downvote if they disagree (and please do so - I'm genuinely interested in people's views on the subject). The key points I want to make are:

A) My view is that if a student solves a problem as a result of hints we've given then we've left that student a better physicist because they will have learned something. And that's a good thing for the student, the future of physics and of course our karma :-).

B) If we just give a student the answer we will have left them a worse physicist because all they will have learned is to be lazy.

The reason I (now) always vote to close all homework questions is to avoid (B) i.e. to stop someone coming along and (innocently) supplying an explicit answer that leaves everyone worse off. I have no problem with (A).

I don't believe the site will be swamped by homework questions if we require students to work for their answer. As long as we can deter the more parasitic life forms I think we'll be fine. And actually I have no problem with Floris' comment to the question you link. I think it was well judged, and the student clearly doesn't feel they've just been handed the answer.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that this site has or shoulde have a pedagogy order. It shouldn't concern a Q&A-site if there are questions comming out of lazyness. $\endgroup$ – image Apr 11 '15 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ By giving hints we are effectively saying that homework is okay here, even though we reject it at every juncture. I think that that is contradictory & should stop, regardless of "karma" or embettering future physicists. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Apr 12 '15 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ Well, +3/-3 for my answer and +8/-1 for Kyle's, so I guess Kyle's views prevail. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Apr 12 '15 at 15:09
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I really don't like the notion of students asking for help on a homework-problem or similar problems being a plague for this site (in the sense that if "we don't eradicate homework questions there will be a huge flood incomming"). Everybody has the opportunity to just ignore certain tags in questions. If one does not choose to ignore the "homework-tag", that's his or her personal issue. I'd say it comes all down to tagging a question the right way. Therefore I propose this:

  • If a new user joins this site, the homework tag is defaulted on all his questions until he reaches a certain reputation score (something high, that would account for at least a month of real activity).
  • The new (!) user can choose to untag the homework-tag, but if this causes a retag by moderators or closing of the question there should be a reset of his reputation score or maybe even deletion of his account. Something severe, that tells the user: "You didn't play by the rules, therefore you're out!"
  • For all users, there should be a reputation penalty if a question was not taged as homework but got edited/moderated to add the homework-tag.
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    $\begingroup$ There are plenty of first posts that are not homework, so your proposal does not seem like a good one to me. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Apr 11 '15 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos: see the second point on my list. $\endgroup$ – image Apr 11 '15 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ Making the auto-tag superfluous. What would be the point if they can just take it off. If a user asks enough bad questions, there is a question ban for them. No need to introduce something like this, IMO. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Apr 11 '15 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos: There's a difference between passive non-tagging and active un-tagging. The active part can (morally) be punished (harder) to accomplish a certain policy about homework questions. As far as I understand, the only concern is that "good" questions are overflooded by homework questions. This can only be caused by flase tags. $\endgroup$ – image Apr 11 '15 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ "I really don't like the notion of students asking for help on a homework-problem or similar problems being a plague for this site" I don't like the idea either, but it has been the fate of other places where expert congregate that are willing to provide that kind of help. To see it at work in a Stack Exchange context look at Mathematics. Blech. Not liking it is all well and good, but the data trumps wishes. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Apr 11 '15 at 16:56

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