# What should our position be on homework-type questions?

This comes around as a direct result of this question, but I'm sure there will be more questions of a similar nature in the future. As commenters have noted, it sounds like a homework problem, but unless the OP explicitly states that, it's hard to know, unless someone else recognizes it out of a textbook or happens to be in the same class.

There certainly some potential issues as I see it. First, and foremost in my mind, is that if people are asking for answers to problems or questions, there are ethical issues at play; essentially, providing them the answer outright, even if the work is explained, is cheating. Second, there are other resources for students to use when they have homework issues, and they should probably be looking there first. Third, I think the lines defining our scope could suffer. The question I linked is probably more accurately defined as a physics question, but it's a concept that is fundamental to multiple engineering disciplines, and could even be covered in an early engineering class.

On the other hand, there could be little to differentiate between a homework question and a very similar issue encountered by a hobbyist or someone else who might not have taken a full slate of engineering classes. I wouldn't think we want to scare off these people simply for asking questions that were taught to trained engineers. Also, in response to the second point above, those resources are not always helpful or approachable, and in that case, I think it's up to the student to decide where they go for help.

These are just the first issues that come to my mind, but I'd love to hear of any other concerns on either side that others have as we come to a consensus on how to treat these questions.

Edit: Since I first posted this topic, another question has appeared which falls under the category of "copy and paste from the assignment."

• One way to differentiate between homework questions & questions from hobby people is to consider how realistic is what is being asked. In that truck question, a 190 kg tip truck on a 38 degree slope doesn't sound like something a hobby person would be involved with. It's a very light tip truck and a very steep slope - 78%, 1:2.8 – Fred Feb 4 '15 at 8:30
• Another homework-like question has appear: engineering.stackexchange.com/questions/442/… <br/>I've asked the person posting the question to re-write it so that it is not a maths question but and engineering one & to write in a way so that it cannot be interpreted as a homework question. If I was heavy handed in what I did please let me know. – Fred Feb 4 '15 at 11:28
• Unrelated to this question: I nominated you for moderator. – Trilarion Feb 4 '15 at 12:35
• Please see the stance of Stack Overflow on the topic of homework questions. I think much of that applies here as well. – Cory Kramer Feb 4 '15 at 12:52
• I believe the current (edited) version of the Soil Deposits Question (aside from the title which is worthless and needs to be fixed) is a good example of the type of homework question we do want on the site. – Rick supports Monica Feb 4 '15 at 17:22

A problem is a problem, regardless of whether it is homework or not. So I don't think we should exclude questions simply because we think they come from homework.

But we're not a homework completion service. Dumps like the one you cited don't make for quality Q&A. And dumps can be characterized by phrases like "I don't know where to start" or the equivalent of "Do my work for me." Another litmus test is if you read the question and the first reply that comes to your mind is "what don't you understand about the problem?"

The example question could have been workable if there was a specific question about the problem itself. For instance, if the student had a problem understanding how the forces could be split into differing vectors and they laid out a solution to the rest of the problem, then it would be an okay question.

I'd suggest voting to close as "Unclear what you're asking." It's probably the best close reason as it reflects back "We, the community, don't understand what you don't understand about the problem you asked."

As an aside, many SE sites have had to deal with this issue. One thing I do not want to see us attempt is only allowing "Hint" answers in an attempt to guide the person to solving the problem. Either the question is answerable and worth keeping around or we should close it off.

Programmers has an epic open letter that addresses many of the broader concerns you raise. The author of that letter cares deeply about the education process and I suspect he'd be quite happy to see us borrow that letter for use on our site if we so chose.

• That letter expresses my concerns perfectly, and I think it's fantastic policy. Questions that simply ask for solutions can be closed as "unclear" or "too broad," but questions that ask for an explanation of a specific concept should naturally fit well, assuming the question is asked well. – Trevor Archibald Feb 3 '15 at 16:19
• @TrevorArchibald - let's see how the rest of the community responds to this question. If there is strong consensus, I'll happily contact the author of that letter to let him know I'm borrowing it and I'll tweak it for here. – user16 Feb 3 '15 at 16:21
• This feels right to me as well. However, I have one concern. On Stackoverflow, there is a tendency for people to hammer a new user who asks such a question with downvotes. This chases people away, and many many questions that could have been tweaked into an acceptable state never get there because of the downvoting. It would be nice to find a solution to this dilemma. – Rick supports Monica Feb 3 '15 at 16:35
• @RickTeachey - Down votes on off-topic questions are a difficult problem to tackle and it has been covered many times on Meta.SE. I think we'll have to see how the community reacts to them. – user16 Feb 3 '15 at 16:38
• Yes I suppose we're not going to be able to solve that on our own. – Rick supports Monica Feb 3 '15 at 16:40
• Downvotes are justified in my opinion if the question really shows low research, i.e. if you can google the answer easily. On stackoverflow it seems that most see a minimum of search, not actualy understanding, as necessary to have an upvoted question. – Trilarion Feb 3 '15 at 17:13
• @Trilarion I don't think the issue is that the downvotes are unjustified, it's more the effects that they cause. It really should be a statement that says "This question is not good, you should fix it." But if they come without comment, it can feel to the OP like "This question sucks, you suck too, get out." But it's hard to eliminate that unless every voter gives a reasoned, thoughtful, helpful comment on every question they downvote. – Trevor Archibald Feb 3 '15 at 17:33
• Crazy idea: maybe downvotes on questions for people below a certain rep level should require an explanation in the comments before it is recorded. Stackoverflow does this sort of by encouraging people (in a popup) to explain their downvote, but people hardly ever do in my experience. – Rick supports Monica Feb 3 '15 at 17:37
• @TrevorArchibald Yes this is a problem but with any kind of downvote anywhere on a stackexchange. I guess/hope that a high enough percentage of people downvoting give explanations so the asker knows what is wrong and how to make it better the next time. Asking a good question is actually not that easy. But then downvoting is an integral part of stackexchanges.. – Trilarion Feb 3 '15 at 17:40
• @RickTeachey I thought about that, although that could lead to just really pointless, or worse, mean comments that are ultimately more negative. Another thing I considered was preventing a negative score from showing any more than a certain number. I don't know how possible that is, but I think -2 gets the point across about question just as well, if not better, than a score of -10. – Trevor Archibald Feb 3 '15 at 19:20
• Instead requiring people to write a comment for such down votes why not require them to justify the down vote from a limited list, ie: off topic, vague or poorly expressed question, looks like homework, etc. – Fred Feb 4 '15 at 8:19
• That's a good idea, too; better than mine, I think. – Rick supports Monica Feb 4 '15 at 16:54

Physics.SE has what I think is an excellent policy on homework questions, which has also been adopted by the beta earthscience.se site.

It's nuanced, and worth a read, but in summary it requires that the asker doesn't simply copy/paste the question, but identifies the specific concept that they are having trouble with, so that answers can address that concept rather than the actual homework question. This means that answers are likely to be useful to others (already a SE requirement) and that the asker needs to put some effort in first.

I suggest that Engineering.SE considers adopting the same policy, or adapting it if necessary.

• I think that's a much more applicable homework question policy to this site than the open letter on Programmers. I suggest any policy put in place use elements of each, but the physics.SE policy is probably a better starting point. – Rick supports Monica Feb 4 '15 at 17:02
• This addresses my main problem with this question. The exact problem was copied (via a photo no less!). The poster did describe the problem that they were having, but rewording the question to be more general would have served better as a question that others could refer to. – hazzey Feb 11 '15 at 19:11
• I agree with this perspective. I gain a lot more from reading answers to questions that address concepts. It can sometimes be quite hard work trying to work out the principle involved (I hang about on stack overflow where things can get truly esoteric...) where the answer is provided without explanation. – Robert Seddon-Smith Oct 17 '16 at 8:47

If you answer a non-homework question you help someone understand a problem, come to a solution, learn something new. That's good.

If you answer a homework question you do not help the asker at all. He will learn less, not more by others doing his homework. Not answering these questions would be better. A free homework-doing service would be nice but is not very meaningful to anyone.

But if the asker actually has already invested some effort (calculated a bit himself, searched for some specific terms) and has demonstrated that by writing down what he has achieved so far - why not helping? Then people will probably learn from it.

So:

• Close if off-topic (nothing to do with engineering, too broad, ...)
• Downvote if not enough (re-)search (and leave a small note explaining why if nobody else did it before)
• Do rather not answer if clearly a very specific homework question without any effort on the side of the asker

Otherwise:

• Answer away and upvote happily

With my response, I want to address some of the concerns and opinions expressed by the other answers.

Hint styled answers for homework questions. Math Stack Exchange is using this style very often. Because it has a lot of advantages for homework exercises.

• I often here that people saying they should ask these questions to their teachers. I can only talk from my experience. Sometimes your teachers are incompetent in explaining crucial concepts. And the education system in every country can be quite different. There are many countries in which you cannot simply write the teaching assistant (TA) an E-Mail or get an appointment.
• Another important aspect is that the internet allows to quickly get an answer/hint to a problem you are trying to solve at the moment by that I mean right now. Imagine you are trying to learn something on Friday afternoon and you don't understand it. Will you wait until Monday or later to get an appointment/answer from the TA or if you are lucky from the Professor? So answers/hints do provide a method to increase the chance that someone doesn't give up on the problem.
• Another problem is that English is not the native language of many people, including myself. Writing a detailed question in a another language can be very challenging. A hint like answer also lowers the barriere of intercation and expresses to the op, that we are ready to help, but he will need to show some efforts.
• The hint style answer also encourages the OP to get started with the problem. Instead of telling, give more details. If you believe it or not sometimes you simply don't know how to start the problem. Because of that, you will not even be able to express the problem in such detail which is necessary.
• The hint style answer also encourages other users to write an answer, without beeing required to completely explain each step. The answer can be refined, if the op still needs further assistance.
• The following point is an observation that I have made on different SE sites. I am a user of Math Stack Exchange (MSE), Physics Stack Exchange (PSE), and Engineering Stack Exchange (ESE). All these sites have homework questions. And only at MSE (which is the only site that uses hint like answers) I often see how the OP interacts with the answering users and at the end really understands how to solve the problem. On PSE and ESE the OPs (most time first timers) get discouraged and don't respond anymore. I also tried this method in this post and the OP really tried to work on the problem until the question was closed. One could create some statistics to see if my concern is really based on statistical evidence.
• Another concern on hint like answers was raised because they do not actually provide the full answer the question. I do not agree with this position. For example, if someone asks how can I solve this equation $x^2+x-6=0$ then giving the full answer by stating $x_{1}=2$ and $x_{2}=-3$ is a complete answer to the problem but it will be less helpful for the future, so the hint "For $ax^2+bx+c=0$ the solutions are given by $x_{1/2}=\frac{-b\pm \sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}$" does provide a more useful answer.

If you answer a homework question you do not help the asker at all. He will learn less, not more by others doing his homework.

I also ask sometimes homework questions on other sites. And I learn a lot from the answers and it encourages me to further study the subject. Additionally, it is very efficient because I do not have to waste hours of trial and error.

Another aspect that was totally omitted in this discussion is that. Some people, including myself, are visiting this site to learn new things. So it is not only about the OP to be able to learn new stuff but also other users who are interested in the problem, even if it is not very well posed.

Sometimes I see homework questions and I would be glad If someone could answer them so that I see how it is possible to solve such problems. But to be quite honest I only rarely see such answers on PSE or ESE. In most cases, the first timer op asks a question receives very negative feedback and does not try to correct his question.

• The problem with "giving hints" is that it is against the purpose of StackExchange. This site is about questions and answers. Both should be specific and self contained. Giving a hint usually only helps the original poster and no one else. Also, hints lead to massive edits/updates and questions in comments. Neither of those are good for the site. – hazzey May 9 '17 at 16:51