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Recently, I have been drawing some flak for answering would be closed homework questions. For example, this one. Now, how should I determine if a question is going to be closed? I refrain myself from answering homework questions that are downvoted, but at the time when I answered this one, it was not downvoted and also edited by a high rep user. So, how to determine if a homework question is gonna be closed?

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  • $\begingroup$ Under the question in which you linked to an answer I have commented and asked for effort. Either the comment was before your answer, or after it. If the former, then my answer applies. If the latter, that means we weren't competent enough in indicating that ASAP. Apologies. $\endgroup$ – M.A.R. Jul 25 '15 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ "I know it when I see it." $\endgroup$ – Wildcat Jul 26 '15 at 15:11
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Please take a look at our homework policy to see which homework questions we deem appropriate on the site. @santiago has already outlined that, so I don't see a need in repeating it. I separate different parts of my answer with lines; whoever is bored can read only the parts they want. I'll try to make this as engaging and riveting as possible.


Recently, I have been drawing some flak for answering would be closed homework questions.

Let me tell you why this is frowned upon. Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which we allow all of the homework questions starting today, no rules, no frowns; what would we get? The newest page would readily turn from this into also containing these:

Homework problem - I do not know how to solve this. Please help.

Then, after 1 week, we'll get

HW problem - I dunno how solve dis. Please halp.

Which would in one month turn into

i HAZ NOT KNOW WHO SOLVE DIS FOR ME - URGGGNNT NOW NOW PLZZZ HALP TANX BAI

And what would that do? If you think downvotes will deal with that efficiently you're terribly, horribly wrong. Because the loss would be immeasurable: We'd start driving away experts from this site. No one really enjoys having to downvote and VTC stuff all day. People aren't janitors.


So, we have to identify homework, obligate OP's effort and then attempt to answer or VTC.

Identify homework:

Well, for people like me who eat three meals of chem.SE everyday identifying them is pretty easy. IIRC there was also a semi-guideline in the almighty homework policy. Basically, anything that says

Calculate the amount of product produced/ Write down the reaction/ identify the rate-determining step etc etc.

is homework. Note that it's sometimes subtler, like

How do I go about answering this question?

Now, for the not-so-much-obsessed-with-chem.SE people, identifying usually goes as following:

  • Check the comments. Usually if there's something homework-y there, we'd comment indicating the existence of the homework policy and ask for the OP's effort.
  • Check the tags. Very desperate newbies actually won't look at what tags are available; but see that there's . People a little wittier than that would leave this out, but usually the editors (most of the time @santiago) would edit and add the tag.
  • Check the votes. Typically the -1's are an indication of a problem in the post. 1And that's sometimes their being with-no-effort homework. A -2 is indicating hardly anything other than homework in case the question isn't spam, blatantly off-topic, or obviously unanswerable.

Ask for effort:

Well, the hard part is over. (Yay!) We appreciate it if any of our community members step in, and ask the OP for effort. Let's not forget the Be nice policy, no matter how crappy the question and how demanding the OP. I typically add a comment from my template, as writing the same thing over and over is cumbersome. This is my template comment:

This is a homework question. We ‎have a policy which states that you should show your thoughts and/or efforts into solving the ‎problem. It'll make us certain that we aren't doing your homework for you. Otherwise, this ‎question may get closed.‎

The final steps:

Obviously, from there it goes two ways:

  • OP says: OK, I'll give you my effort. Here, here and here.
  • OP doesn't respond, or gets angry.

After the OP's effort is shown, the question is likely to get upvotes and answer(s), and people sleep well at night. Unfortunately, in the second case, there's (sometimes urgent) need for moderation, ranging from a VTC to possible mod suspensions. Well, that's the gist of it. However, note that a lot of originally problematic homework question OP's choose to go the first route.


Now, why would we get all grumpy when you're answering a bad HW question?
Because, if you answer them, this could mean to the OP that

  1. They can get their answer here for their future homework dump.
  2. They look at chem.SE as a Homework completion service.
  3. The other people who asked them for effort are jerks/<censored>.
  4. You're an angel.

Now, while 4 is really nice2, the other ones are clearly not nice. So can you please stop that?


There is a counter-argument, however, that homework questions can be useful. And this was the very reason we accepted them in the first place. Homework questions aren't a bad thing. They sometimes raise our praise. After a lot of bad-mouthing from my side, here are some really good homework questions:

How is Vanadium (III) paramagnetic?

Propose a chemical formula$\ldots$

Cis trans stability of cycloalkenes


1: Note that sometimes they're just drive-by, revenge game, someone misunderstanding the question, severe eye-jarring formatting (which'd be easy to notice) or Tim Post in meta.SE losing his keys again.
2: And triggers my jealousy$\ldots$No, not really.

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  • $\begingroup$ Side note: Meta is my favorite diary. $\endgroup$ – M.A.R. Jul 25 '15 at 11:22
  • $\begingroup$ KILL THE BUZZWORDS!!!! $\endgroup$ – Martin - マーチン Jul 26 '15 at 5:57
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah$\ldots$That's what one's to expect when @Martin comes back. $\endgroup$ – M.A.R. Jul 26 '15 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ @ans that itself requires a passage to answer. Math.SE had the homework tag, but the big cities' problems hit 'em so they burned it down. Also, recognizing a math homework problem is way harder than a chem homework problem. Furthermore, call me biased or whatever you may like; IMHO chem.SE has averagely better answers than math.SE. And that opinion is based on experience$\ldots$ We had a problematic user who wanted to apply those norms to chem.SE and their VLQ-flagged answers got them suspended. $\endgroup$ – M.A.R. Jul 27 '15 at 14:51
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If the homework question shows some effort in solving the answers themselves, then there is a very good chance that they will stay open - for example this one, though brief, the question does contain a clear account of their thinking and working.

However, if the homework question is just a 'homework dump' - meaning, just the question without any attempt, then these are very likely to closed.

It is all outlined in the Homework Policy that is usually included in a link under a homework dump.

Basically, we are not a homework completion service - your downvote on the answer you linked was probably due to answering a homework dump with an answer.

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Short answer: Answer any question you think you can answer well. You can and should be rewarded with rep for providing quality answers, even if the question was lower quality.

I sometimes answer questions that I know will be put on hold.

What's the future of an organic and/or analytical chemist?

What are the magnetic quantum numbers for the three real p orbitals?

I sometimes answer questions that I thought were going to close, and then didn't.

Finding equivalent weight of acid

Heck, I often answer questions that I then vote to close:

Functional Group compatibility in organic chemistry

Final concentration ... How to calculate it?

Note that for most of these cases, I have upvoted answers for downvoted questions, and most of the upvoting came after the question closed. You can and should earn reputation for providing good answers, even if the question gets closed.

I'm not advocating answering every homework question regardless. You can see by my vote record that I am pretty aggressive in voting to close homework questions with no effort included. However, sometimes I get a sense of how to provide an answer that gets to what the OP needs without giving them exactly what they want (the answer). In those cases, I will absolutely answer a question that I suspect might get closed.

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  • $\begingroup$ I concur. Giving a hint is an ideal alternative. However, blatant copy-paste homework dumps better go without an answer. I'm guessing people refrained from giving hints; as it's a gray-scale difference between a hint and the very answer rather than a black-and-white vivid difference. $\endgroup$ – M.A.R. Jul 25 '15 at 13:54

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