Physics (PSE) often gets questions from beginner physics students that would easily be answered in person, and are basic physics contained in a text: "How do I calculate the potential 3 cm from a point charge?"

Unless PSE is trying to become a compendium of introductory textbook physics, I wonder if a better answer would be "go ask your teacher" because then the user could easily answer related follow-up questions without cluttering the comment stream. (Admittedly, I've never shifted things to a chat room because I don't like on-line live conversations.)

I don't really mind answering the basics of a first basic question, but when follow-ups begin flowing, and it's obvious the questioner needs a lot of help, I believe that in-person face-to-face interaction would be better for them.

Or an alternate response could be: That's a related, but separate question. Post it as a new question. But if it is a student, why aren't they asking their teacher?

I wonder if some students are uncomfortable with human interaction. Or maybe teachers don't like answering questions and "telegraph" that to their students.

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    $\begingroup$ Presumably you have read meta.physics.stackexchange.com/q/714 and meta.physics.stackexchange.com/q/6093 and perhaps some of the multitude of other "homework" and "beginner" questions questions on meta? $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2015 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ @dmckee Thanks. The issue to me isn't homework. The issue is beginners extending a initial basic physics question with follow-up questions. Usually the initial question is due having a poor understanding of overall topic. One answer leads to another question. At what point do we say "ask your teacher to explain it." I'm getting more comfortable with saying "that's a different question. Do a search first, then post a separate question." BTW, those questions didn't come up in my search because I wasn't searching on homework. $\endgroup$
    – Bill N
    Jul 27, 2015 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ Certainly, but I think the homework related questions can give you a sense of the diversity of opinion held by the regular users. Ranges from torches-and-pitchfork for anything you could get out of a first year textbook up to very welcoming of all possible question. I had hoped that we could at least not serve as stop one for pop-sci questions from people who haven't started trying to learn physics on it's own merits. But that train seems to have pulled away from the station. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2015 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ @BillN let me suggest not getting hung up on the word "homework". It's actually irrelevant whether the question is part of a homework assignment or not; we apply those rules and considerations to all questions that are based on a problem or task whose value is primarily educational. And I can easily see us expanding the scope even further to include all sorts of "calculate-for-me" type of requests as well. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Jul 28, 2015 at 14:07

2 Answers 2


A while ago a meta post clarified what we expect from members in the way of prior research. Armed with this very detailed and precise discussion I now vote to close questions if I think they show insufficient prior research. This has in the past raised some controversy, though more recently the site members have either come to agree with me or have got bored with telling me not to.

We all contribute our time and the sweat of our brows for free because we think it makes the world of physics a better place. In return all we ask is that questioners don't take the piss. When they do, their questions simply don't deserve to be on this site.

I don't apply this rule dogmatically because, well, we were all enthusiastic youngsters at one time and enthusiasm can lead you to post first and think second. I'm generally happy to answer a simple question if I think it's been asked out of a genuine interest in the subject.

  • $\begingroup$ "don't take the piss". Heh, I had to look that one up. I couldn't agree more. $\endgroup$ Sep 15, 2015 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ Also, and you know I have do this: "because we <understand that answering interesting questions improves our own understanding of physics which cannot help but> make the world of physics a better place." $\endgroup$ Sep 15, 2015 at 0:12

"How do I calculate the potential 3 cm from a point charge?"

Questions like this are the sort of thing we do not want to encourage on this site, for several reasons:

  • If that's literally just what the poster asks, it's quite lazy, and we don't want to encourage that. (This community has a strong sense of justice, in the sense that if you want someone to help you, you earn it by helping yourself first.)
  • If people ask a lot of these questions on this site, they'll swamp out interesting higher-level or more intricate questions.
  • As you said, often people who post these questions need more back-and-forth interaction than we are set up to provide. So they'll receive better help from their teacher, or at least from a traditional forum with a discussion-based posting model.

So yes, in many cases it is appropriate to tell someone to ask their teacher first, or to refer them to another site like Physics Forums which has a dedicated homework help section. If you're going to do this, I would suggest doing so before getting involved in the question. Ideally, flag it for closure, if it qualifies.

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    $\begingroup$ Ladies and gentlemen, I am a high school physics teacher. Please encourage the novice posters to seek tutorial help from their teachers. Many typical high school students want me to "tell them the answer", as if learning physics is all about memorizing facts ... and they don't learn the key concepts as a result. And the biggest "hurdle" involved with the higher performing students? That would be teaching study habits to those who have seldom had to work for their grade. "Googling" the answer, or getting a "throw-down" answer from an expert tends to reinforce such laziness. $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2015 at 0:31

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