Sometimes I come across a homework-like question, like this one

Terminal velocity of a sky-diver

that is of little value to our collection, as any answer is only of interest and benefit to the original poster (OP). I know the question will be closed.

If I think the OP really wants to learn, however, I occasionally still answer such questions, in the hope that I might help someone. In these cases, I tend to make broad points and suggestions, rather than provide a solution.

Is this alright? Should I stop answering HW-like questions that will likely be closed? I know HW is a thorny issue on this site. I've read elsewhere that HW-like questions should be quickly shutdown and downvoted etc. Whenever I answer such a question, I'm (in a small way) undermining that strategy.

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    $\begingroup$ PS I agree that such questions aren't desirable/useful in our database. I'm not questioning that aspect of our policy. $\endgroup$
    – innisfree
    Commented Oct 17, 2015 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ I've argued before that answering in comments is not a Good Thing; I suspect that similar arguments to what I give can be made for actual answers. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 1:36

3 Answers 3


Should I stop answering HW-like questions that will likely be closed?

Yes, you should. This goes for all types of questions that will be closed; it's nothing specific to homework-like questions. The entire point of closure (a.k.a. putting on hold) is to prevent low quality, off topic, etc. questions from receiving answers, both so that people realize those questions should not be asked without improvement, and also because sometimes the question can't effectively be answered until it is improved. (If it's unclear what is being asked, for example.)

Consider this: if putting a question on hold is not meant to prevent it from receiving answers, what is the point?

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    $\begingroup$ The point is that not all homework questions are low quality. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie but I'm talking about all questions which are out of scope for the site, whether because they are low quality or off topic or other reasons. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 16:34

The tension here, as I see it, is between a general desire to help someone who is struggling (especially when it would be so easy for you), and the danger of rewarding behavior that we don't want (thereby encouraging more of it).

And of course every time you answer such a question you've ever so slightly undermined the "don't give them what they want" strategy for suppressing the homework rate (which only works so well in the first place). You have to weigh that against the possibility that this user could be nudged over the line to be a positive contributor to the site.

Rather than trying to stake out of bright line in that murky landscape I'll ask that if you do help them out, please frame it in a pedagogical way: ask them the question whose answer will help them find their own solution.


If someone appears to be genuinely interested in physics and is willing to put the effort into understanding it then I can rarely resist the temptation to answer them even when the question is teetering on the edge of the homework precipice. But I agree completely with the point dmckee makes in the last paragraph of his answer. if I yield to the temptation to answer it's because I want to help the OP to understand the principles involved. That means posting an answer that discusses the concepts involved, and not simply giving them the answer.

Take for example my answer to How do I derive the Lorentz contraction from the invariant interval?. This question could easily have been closed as homework (it got tagged as such) but I think my answer was worthwhile, and the OP (now an experienced member of the site with 192 answers to his credit) thinks so too.

Until I master telepathy it's impossible to know whether the OP will really benefit from your answer or whether they'll just transcribe it into their problem sheet then forget it. But if I'm going to err I prefer to err on the side of making the world of physics a slightly better place.


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