The help message that comes up when asking a question says:

Homework-like questions should ask about a specific physics concept and show some effort to work through the problem.

I see a lot of homework questions that show a huge amount of effort. Sometimes, they even have disclaimers attached, like, "look! I showed absolutely everything I did, please don't close". We even get questions on meta where people are confused about why their homework question was closed (see 1, 2, 3, 4) when they read the policy and showed effort just as it said.

I think this is a problem with wording. The 'show some effort' clause comes second, is shorter, and sounds more final, making it stick in people's heads better. But our actual homework policy (i.e. the de facto community standards, not the blurb) emphasizes the first clause a lot more.

I propose a rewording of the blurb to something like this:

Homework-like questions should ask about a specific physics concept. Don't just tell us you're confused; tell us why you're confused, and what you've tried.

This wouldn't change anything about our policies, but I bet it would decrease the amount of questions we have to close. Does this sound effective?


4 Answers 4


I doubt this would have any effect on the number of questions we have to close, because most of the people who ask those questions have never seen this banner in the first place.

It may change how often people try to argue for reopening of their question despite not really understanding why it was closed. But I suspect the reduction in people complaining that they showed effort would be offset by an increase in people complaining that they asked a specific physics question, where in many of those cases it will turn out that they didn't show any effort at all.

I believe alternatives without the "show effort" clause were considered when we first formulated the homework-like close reason. A lot of discussion went into it, and although I don't remember the details, there were reasons for deciding on the wording we came up with as opposed to any of several alternatives. I'm not saying we got it right, just pointing out that this has probably been considered.

Anyway, we're throwing out the whole homework policy (and close reason) soon, when I get time to get back to guiding the process, and replacing it with something else. I don't think it's necessary to change the wording in such a well-entrenched close reason so soon before we scrap it entirely. We can definitely take this feedback into account when coming up with whatever will replace the current homework close reason.

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    $\begingroup$ "Throwing out the whole homework policy soon ... so soon before we scrap it entirely"? I don't think either of these are true, are they? You are going to replace (not scrap) it - probably with something not very different. Views on the current policy seem "well entrenched." And your call for views on Apr 5 was only Stage 1 of the process. So I doubt any change is going to happen "soon". $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2016 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ Scrapping the homework policy is a part of the process of replacing it. And we are going to replace it with something that is not a homework policy. I guess it's a matter of opinion whether you consider that very different. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Jun 25, 2016 at 4:53

Yes I agree. The stock reason given for putting questions on hold - viz. that "homework-like questions should ask about a specific physics concept and show some effort to solve the problem" - is confusing.

It is not that the 1st phrase is being overlooked because the 2nd is distracting, but that many users (even those with > 2k rep) do not appreciate the very literal meaning which is intended for it. The 2nd phrase is not distracting but misleading and confusing if (as in your examples) it does not in fact apply. And the meaning of "homework-like" is obscure and inconsistent.

So I agree with your removal of the 2nd phrase if it does not apply. These are 2 distinct reasons for closing and should not be lumped together unless both apply. The criterion of "asking about a specific physics concept" should surely apply to all questions. I don't see any justification for discriminating against "homework-like" questions.

Your amendment does attempt to explain what is meant by the 1st phrase, which I still find ambiguous after 3 months as a very active user. But does it fully express the meaning of the policy-makers? Judging by your examples, it seems to me that it does not.

The way that I (and probably most newbies) interpret the 1st phrase is that there must be some identifiable physics within the question - ie it must be clearly within the standard physics syllabus and answerable by the application of physical concepts and principles. Thus a question about solving a system of pulleys or the static equilibrium of forces on a ladder is presumed implicitly to "ask about a specific physics concept."

The responses to the Meta questions which you cite show that the policy-makers expect this phrase to be interpreted literally - and to a varying extent also rigidly. The question (and answer) must be confined to asking for (or providing) an explanation of a physical concept. The OP must identify what his/her own conceptual misunderstanding or confusion is. As Chris White says in (1) "We cannot read your mind about what you do or do not understand." And if there are multiple sources of confusion in the question, instead of one, it might be rejected for that reason.

  • $\begingroup$ The wording "ask about a specific physics concept" is meant to exclude questions like "how do I solve this problem?" or "where did I go wrong?" or "what should I do next?" From the way you describe it in this answer, it sounds like you might be interpreting that phrase incorrectly. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Jun 26, 2016 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ : I agree - I interpreted that clause differently from how you intended. Note the contrast between my last 2 paragraphs. $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2016 at 22:32

I think that the respondents in some instances simply do not appreciate the effort that the original poster has put into their question, or otherwise assume that no effort was made due to its apparent simplicity. Of course, there are many instances in which there was none, so judgement plays a role in one's approach.

In many homework-type questions, the OP simply does not know where to start for lack of understanding of the underlying concepts. This does not necessarily imply that he or she has not done due diligence in trying to understand them.

The bottom line is that what might be simple or obvious for one person is not necessarily obvious for another. Furthermore, many of the most simple physical concepts are explained in textbooks and the Internet in a manner that is unclear, presumptuous or even obfuscating. It takes little effort and costs nothing to provide a quick introduction to the theory or a hint at the process to get people going.

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    $\begingroup$ Here's the thing: this is not a homework-help site. It's never been a homework-help site. Helping people with their homework is not and never has been the purpose of this site. Random people on the internet don't have a claim on our help, and they don't have a claim on how this site should be run. I know that you (and a lot of other people) are used to thinking that sites do homework help as a default, but this one doesn't. $\endgroup$ Jun 24, 2016 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee : I think what you really mean is that this is not a problem-solving site. I don't see how or why you can distinguish some problem-solving as "homework." You say random people don't have a claim on our help, but that is surely a matter for those who decide to give it - if they are allowed to decide. You say they don't have a claim on how this site should be run, but you tell me that all users have a say in how this site is run and that it is not run by an elite. It certainly has the appearance of being run by an elite. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2016 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ @sammy People who stay and contribute to the site have a say in how it is run, but that doesn't mean that every passer by gets a say. Nor do we attempt to distinguish actual homework from things that only look like homework. Site policy is set by consensus where possible and by plurality when there is not a real consensus (which has always been the case with homework-like questions) and is subject to change, but we do rather expect new uses to play by the current rules until they are changed. Anyone can be a part of the 'elite' if you stick with it and can win support. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2016 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee : In that case I hope you don't mind if I do stick with my unorthodox views and try to gain support for them. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2016 at 2:58
  • $\begingroup$ That's how the process works. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2016 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ @POD : Sorry but I think you have misunderstood. Insufficient effort was not in fact the reason for closing in these examples. Giving it as a reason for doing so was misleading and confusing. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2016 at 3:11
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee : Firstly, there is a tag 'homework-and-exercises', and there is a written policy pertaining to such questions. If homework is disallowed or discouraged on this site, they would seem rather redundant. That they exist ensures that people continue to use them. Secondly, I never spoke of any claim. The community is at liberty to comment on or ignore whatever they will. But if we choose to, why would we not do so constructively? Finally, who is to say what is homework and what is not? A concept is a concept. If we do not wish to respond to that which we have deemed 'homework', we need not. $\endgroup$
    – POD
    Jun 25, 2016 at 4:09
  • $\begingroup$ If the OP doesn't know where to start on a problem due to a lack of understanding of certain concepts, then those concepts are what they should be asking about, not the original problem they were trying to solve. If they can't separate a concept from the larger problem, that's a skill they should master (it's an important one) but they can still strongly emphasize the part of the problem that confuses them. $\endgroup$
    – Wouter
    Jul 8, 2016 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ I completely agree @Wouter. That was always my understanding of the policy based upon its wording. If that is indeed our policy, then it would seem to me to be most productive to offer the OP gentle guidance to reword the question to address the underlying concept that he or she is struggling with. $\endgroup$
    – POD
    Jul 8, 2016 at 15:09

It's my impression that the ones that show least effort are the ones that don't get closed. Posts with 1, 2 or 3 sentences, either why? how? or what?

Why do we want the 2-form ω to be closed? What if it is not? (quoted in full)

"Why is there no factor of 1/2 in the lagrangian ..?"

"What is the irreducible decomposition of the tensor product of left and right weyl spinor...?"

"From Goldstein's Classical Mechanics (2nd ed.), problem 38 of chapter 9 ..."

We're not supposed to help kids with their homework, but papers for university students, that's ok? That they live on a campus doesn't mean it's not homework.

Questions about pulleys and weights, about velocity and acceleration, about momentum and collisions, etc.. are also physics. Wouldn't be too much work to sort them, create a decent overview, and display a prominent message when people want to register, telling them such questions are no longer accepted because there is a complete overview available, with link. But a collection of questions without clear and complete answers is useless, so that's not an option...

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    $\begingroup$ I think that you're missing the point. The purpose of the HW show-some-effort policy is to prevent the do-my-hw-for-me questions. The fist 3 questions you quote are nothing like this, even though they are admittedly bad questions $\endgroup$
    – Bosoneando
    Jun 29, 2016 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Bosoneando I admit, I picked the first questions with no effort I came across. I can however not exclude the possibility that those are part of an assignment, paper, or anything else that might earn them points at some school, university, college, academy, institute of higher learning, or whatever, and a question like "Why do we want ...? What if it is not?" would very likely be labeled homework when the topic was highschool level physics. And besides, everything has been said before, I have read the previous discussions. So I'm a bit cynical. $\endgroup$
    – Previous
    Jun 29, 2016 at 12:28

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