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It occurred to me today that I don't know what a good approach is for providing hints to homework-like questions.

I cannot find any clear policy on how this should work. The example that brought it to my attention is this question.

My initial reaction was to comment with a question to help point him in the right direction; as it didn't seem appropriate to provide an answer to that question.

That is usually what I do in these situations; I don't want to completely shun the person from this site. Often times it seems like it's a small piece of information they are missing; so I try to ask a leading question or two in the comments (if the question isn't just a straight up copied textbook question and seems to be a person seeking knowledge).

My issue is that I also need to make sure I don't clutter comments with discussion; so this is a somewhat delicate balance.

In the question I linked; I noticed someone else gave a hint as an answer. I do see some merit in doing that; as it would remove clutter from the comments, and the purpose is to help someone viewing the question understand it.

My issue is that obviously it doesn't really answer the question; and therefore I don't understand how it should belong as an answer. Adding to that, if the question was improved to be more in-line with the site policy; that answer would become very obsolete.

I saw that after I commented saying it was not an answer (and flagged it), the person who answered replied with their reasoning, and someone else upvoted that reasoning and their "answer".

The meat of my question is:

For homework-type questions, should we be using comments or answers if we wish to provide hints?

I apologize if it seems like I'm singling out a specific situation; I seem to run into this situation a lot but this is the first I've questioned my approach. (This is my first post to the meta so I'm also sorry if it feels too long winded or specific)

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The homework policy remains a contentious issue and feelings can run high about it so I'm reluctant to stoke the flames any higher.

However if we take the narrow interpretation of homework as the verbatim posting of a question set as homework or some other form of course work then I suspect most would agree we do not want to see such questions here. So we wish to deter the posting of such questions. Let me emphasise that:

We wish to deter the posting of such questions here

By answering or giving hints you encourage the asking of the questions instead of deterring them, and the end result will be more and more homework (as defined above) questions until we are swamped by them.

So when you see the more egregious end of the homework question spectrum please do not respond at all. Don't answer and don't give hints. Just vote to close the question and move on.

Where it gets difficult is when the OP has posted a homework question but it obviously trying to understand the underlying physics rather than just wanting to cheat. My judgement is that the question you cite falls into this category so I'd be sympathetic towards it, though it's a judgement call and not everyone is going to agree. In this particular case I don't see any problem with writing a detailed answer explaining how to calculate the horizontal component of a force.

I don't think you should provide hints in comments. If the question shouldn't be answered then it shouldn't be answered in a comment either. If it should be answered then write a proper answer.

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  • $\begingroup$ "We wish to deter the posting of such questions here" <- I think it would be fair only if it would be "officially" stated. The homework close reason ("should ask for a physics concept and show some effort") is a different one as a clear "no". In this case, for example, a site could be started on the A51 including physics homework questions. $\endgroup$ – peterh says reinstate Monica May 19 '17 at 20:14
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The way homework-like questions are supposed to work here is that the poster presents their homework problem, shows enough progress to narrow down on one specific part of the solution procedure that they are stuck on, and then asks about that specific part. As far as we on this site are concerned, the question is only about that specific part of the procedure. (We call this a "specific conceptual question".) The underlying homework problem is only there to provide context. Accordingly, answers should address only the specific part being asked about, not the underlying homework problem.

So the point is, you really shouldn't be giving hints for the underlying homework problem at all. Unless you would consider an answer to the specific conceptual question to be a hint - but even then, it does answer the thing that's actually being asked, so you should post it as an answer, not a comment.

For example, in the question you're asking about,

I did a exam to apply for a job in mechanics and there is some matter that I am not confortable with: which one of the boxes in Pic 1 is easier to push? Considering that the box is the same weight and so the sticks and the men and also the floor. And also of course the stick is in the exact same spot. Are they the same? Since they won't tell us the correction of the exam this little question is bugging me. Thank you.

[Pic 1 omitted for brevity]

The "underlying homework problem" (maybe it's not really homework, but that doesn't matter) is asking "which one of the boxes in Pic 1 is easier to push?" This is the thing that you should not be answering, nor providing hints for.

What we expect from the asker is that they narrow down a specific part of the solution procedure (a.k.a. "identify a specific conceptual problem") and ask about that. Now, as I look at this question, I don't see any actual question in it other than the underlying homework problem, "which... is easier to push?", or later "Are they the same?" which is really just the same thing in different words. Therefore I conclude that the poster has not identified a specific conceptual question. There is really nothing for us to answer. (Incidentally, that means the post should get put on hold under our homework policy.)

In contrast, suppose the poster had written something like this:

[...] which one of the boxes in Pic 1 is easier to push? Considering that the boxes are the same weight, and so are the sticks and the men and the floor, it seems that the boxes should be equally easy to push. How can boxes require different forces to push if they are the same weight? [...]

[Pic 1 omitted for brevity]

In this case, the poster would be asking a specific conceptual question, which I've marked in bold. This is a specific question motivated by this homework problem, but applicable to other similar problems. You can write an answer that addresses that specific conceptual question without giving away the answer to the underlying homework problem. (For example, you could write something about components of the force vector.) If you want to post an answer, that's the sort of answer you should post.


If you do want to give the poster extra help with their homework, beyond the specific conceptual question they're asking, I suggest leaving a comment inviting them to chat. (You can use the main site room if it's not busy, or create a separate room.) In chat you can give all the hints you want. Note that users do require 20 reputation to participate in chat, though that's a total of 20 across the whole network, so if they have some rep on other sites, that counts too.

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Some text from the help center about the differences between comments and answers. Emphasis added.

How do I write a good answer?

[...] Read the question carefully. What, specifically, is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that – or a viable alternative. The answer can be “don’t do that”, but it should also include “try this instead”. Any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful, but do try to mention any limitations, assumptions or simplifications in your answer. Brevity is acceptable, but fuller explanations are better.

Why and how are some answers deleted?

Answers that do not fundamentally answer the question may be removed. This includes answers that are [...] not even a partial answer to the actual question.

When shouldn't I comment?

Comments are not recommended for [...] answering a question or providing an alternate solution to an existing answer; instead, post an actual answer (or edit to expand an existing one).

I've always read this as advice that comments are not the place to provide complete answers, partial answers, or hints --- all of those things should be posted as answers instead. The way that real users actually use comments doesn't quite fit this ideal, but it's close.

If you see a question where a complete answer isn't appropriate, don't use the comments section to post a "lightweight answer." Responses which will help the asker solve their problem should be posted as answers. Questions that shouldn't be answered are not a good fit for a question-and-answer site and should be edited, downvoted, or closed.

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Sometimes a question may not explicitly ask about a concept - the OP may not understand the issue well enough to distill the problem that way. That doesn't prevent you from giving a conceptual answer.

In the question you link, this is demonstrated by John's answer. He shows that the underlying principle ("resolve the directions of the forces") provides insight that will allow you to solve this question, and other questions like it.

In short - the answer can be a "hint", but it's better if it explains the principle that allows you to solve it.

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