Math Stack Exchange Homework Clipart

Update: November 2017

This is not a duplicate of A Consolidated Homework Policy . The latter states that its concern is the issue of: "how to consolidate and enforce our homework policy". My question is not interested in either consolidation nor enforcement; nor has it been interested in those issues for the last 3 years.

I realise that the issue of homework has been raised before. My reason for raising it again is the plethora of homework questions that are posed as "Questions" such as:

Some examples:

Joint density of two functions of random variable

Let $Y_1, Y_2,\ldots,Y_n$ denote a random sample from the uniform distrib... Help find finding $ \text{Var}\left[\hat{\theta}_{2}\right]$

Homework is plainly intended to be done by the student ... not 'contracted' out to anyone willing to do it for you on the internet. Sometimes, the same student poses question after question from the same assignment up here ... and what is then left for the student to do? To copy and paste???

And unfortunately, there are people here who are quite willing to do other people's homework for them, which (a) unfairly meddles with the university's ability to assess/mark the student, and (b) meddles with the ability of the student to learn to think for themselves. To the extent that this site has a structure that encourages and perpetuates such behaviour, math.SE is also responsible for such meddling.

None of this is new. What is new is the scale of the problem ... to the extent that this site appears to becoming abused as some sort of "Help Me With My Homework" repository, and many of the questions posed are not even of any genuine interest.

I would be interested if others have suggestions to circumvent same ... including thoughts on listing homework problems as unsuitable for this site.

Identification problems

Arthur Fischer asks:

"Exactly how are we to discern questions which come from assignments" ... from self-help assignments etc.

A similar issue has recently arisen in international banking with money transfers to Nigeria. It turns out that a large proportion of international transfers to Nigeria are from people who are being defrauded in various scams (from dating sites, phishing scams etc). Of course, some are legitimate transfers, and some are not ... and there is an identification problem. "How are we to tell?", say the banks, who have done very little to stop the abuse. And the solution that has been suggested is for Time Delays: the transfer is placed subject to a 7 day stop gap. So, in similar fashion, how about:


Homework-style questions could be marked with a time delay ... which means that answers only appear after say 7 days (a bit like the existing HOLD system). Thus, the person interested in a subject for self-help purposes still gets their answer (just with a short delay), but the student seeking to get someone else to do their assignment work done for them, or who is stuck on the tricky part of tomorrow's assignment etc ... will find it much more difficult to exploit the kindness of others, and sidestep the university's ability to assess the quality of the student's own work.

Policing is not our business

@BillDubuque says homework is antiquated, and policing is not our problem. This seems confused on several levels.
Nightclubs often argue: yup - people trade drugs here, but policing is not our problem. Similarly, ISPs often argue: sure, people use our services to host pirate sites, but policing is not our problem. Those views don't tend to hold up when contested in courts. Either way, it seems to fundamentally miss the point that it is not about policing necessarily for someone else's benefit (the university and/or the student) ... but a question of structuring the site to the site's own benefit, rather than being so open to abuse.

Because if the trend continues, and the ratio of interesting questions / homework questions continues to decline ... the smart interesting people will move somewhere else, and this site may end up like various other type sites filled with low quality questions and low quality answers.

Signal to noise ratio

@user7530 raises the issue of a declining signal to noise ratio. In particular, he notes:

"I've noticed that a larger proportion of non-elementary questions get 0 votes,0 comments, 0 answers than ever before"

On this very subject, have a look at this question which has just been PUT ON HOLD by 5 moderators/users who should know much better:

The question asked might look trivial ... but it is far from trivial, and indeed it is, I think, one of the few genuinely interesting questions posed to this site in this field in recent days. And yet these 5 moderators/users have placed it on hold, with the intention to delete it, while simultaneously leaving in place all the mediocre textbook rubbish that clutters up the place, while they delete the genuine gem of a question. What I suspect is happening here is that these particular moderators/users - presumably with the best of intentions - are simply being worn down by hundreds if not thousands of elementary homework questions, they see a question that appears elementary (when it is not) ... see a new user come along asking it, and immediately smack that person for not saying: 'I tried this or I tried that' ... when the latter is itself just more clutter. A most unpleasant outcome indeed.


I will answer the points in order:

1) I think it would be unreasonable to pick a particular difficulty of class and say that everything under that level is off-limits. It seems too arbitrary. I think a good benchmark for whether or not a question is appropriate should be gauged by the amount of effort the person has put into asking the question. If asking a question requires the person to put REAL work into asking, this will deter many people from just dumping their HW on here. For instance, a college algebra student doesn't know how to factor a cubic. If that student says "I have tried rational coefficients, and I got blah blah, I tried guessing a root to reduce down to a quadratic with long division but couldn't find a root blah blah. I also did blah blah" Then clearly the student has put some thought into the problem. This is what I would consider the absolute minimum required to help them. By encouraging them to think for themselves and ask robust questions, we will deter the kind of questions we don't want, and encourage those we do.

2) I think the answer should be very dependent on the style of question asked. If it is clear the question is not HW, answer in great detail. If there is a chance that it is HW, attempt to troubleshoot the issue they are having. Identify where they are going wrong/failing to see the idea and address that. Again, make them work a little for their info. If they really care about the answer, this will be worth it to them.

3) If it is impossible to address the question without a complete solution, or the solution is so trivial that it fits in a comment box, then why not just comment? The reputation for answering these questions shouldn't motivate you that much. Everyone should be their own judge if they "deserve" rep for an answer. Links to answers should always be comments, save the case when the question was a reference-request.

4) If they are doing self-study, they should be more than capable to make their question convey that they have put some effort in. Additionally, if they are motivated to do this self-study, they will be motivated to make their question better and get more interesting answers.

5) See 1)

answered Jul 21 '10 at 23:02

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