# When is it safe to answer homework questions?

The current homework policies of Chemistry and Physics were adapted from the FAQ of Mathematics. The first rule about answering homework questions is: you do not provide a complete answer to homework questions.

The rationale behind this rule is

Providing an answer that doesn’t help a student learn is not in the student’s own best interest, and if a solution complete enough to be copied verbatim and handed in is given immediately, it will encourage more people to use the site as a free homework service.

The policy of Chemistry even includes drastic measures:[1]

Watch out for answers that provide a full solution. Downvote, comment, flag.

Hence, homework questions usually just get hints and comments. And many homework questions remain technically unanswered.

However, this conduct contradicts the general philosophy of this site, which is to build a library of detailed answers to every question about chemistry. In particular, such unanswered questions are unlikely to help future visitors of this site. The significant number of unanswered questions might leave a bad impression; the site might seem not really useful. Furthermore, the restriction might be frustrating for users who like to answer homework questions. Also note that duplicate homework questions cannot be properly closed as duplicate when no reference answer is available.

That’s not the way it should be. Actually, a lesser-known rule of all three above-mentioned homework policies expressly permits complete answers – after a suitable amount of time:[2]

In the spirit of creating a lasting resource of mathematical knowledge, you may come back after a suitable amount of time and edit your response to include a more complete answer. Or even better, the student can post his own correct answer!

However, it remains unclear how long a suitable waiting period should be. Users may be hesitant to give any answer at all.

Therefore, it seems advisable to try to formulate a community guideline that clarifies when a complete answer to a homework question may be provided and encourages users to do so.

Notes
[1] Note that this part is not included the policies of Physics and Mathematics. The FAQ of Mathematics read: “Don’t downvote others who provide complete answers to questions just because you think it might be homework. It’s not always obvious at first glance that a question is homework, especially when you’re not expecting to see it. Instead, suggest editing the response in a comment.”
[2] Note that “mathematical knowledge” is a remnant of the original FAQ of Mathematics.

• FWIW, I never saw "downvote and flag complete answers" practically at work. The problem is, the difference between a hint and a complete answer isn't clear-cut and most answers fall into that gray area. Oct 31 '15 at 18:07
• (Disclaimer: I have not yet had time to read comments and answers.) I want to throw that out there: How about a complete overhaul of the homework policy, instead of amending it? Nov 1 '15 at 6:12
• @Martin-マーチン I'd be very interested to hear what you think. I've been having a nagging feeling that something is not right with the homework policy, although I can't quite pin it down.
– orthocresol Mod
Nov 1 '15 at 12:21
• @Ortho "$\ldots\,$something is not right with the homework policy$\,\ldots$" -- Hint: It's hints. Nov 1 '15 at 16:29
• @Martin-マーチン Basically what I attempted to do with my answer. Screw me for not reading comments O:)
– Jan
Nov 2 '15 at 0:38
• I needed to change these horrible, horrible sub-superscript passages. Do you have eagle eyes? If you do not agree, please roll back. Nov 2 '15 at 11:15

Since you mention Mathematics as the origin of some of these rules, I'll point out that they

• did not stop the site from getting swamped with homework
• led to proliferation of lazy one-line answers ("$\large{\mathbf{Hint}}$: use induction.") that hardly add any value. Posting lame answers to lame questions doesn't seem a recipe for building a high quality site.

Also, all this dancing around for 30 days is just so that 1 (one) user doesn't get a complete solution quickly. Others who were assigned the same exercise from the same textbook (perhaps with different numerical values) will get the solution directly via search. So what's achieved by waiting?

you may come back after a suitable amount of time and edit your response to include a more complete answer. Or even better, the student can post his own correct answer!

Yeah, right. Doesn't happen in practice, because neither the asker nor the answerers care about those questions next day after they were asked. New day, new homework.

I'd rather see very complete answers to homework questions, those that answer the specific instance as an illustration, but also go beyond that to explain how one should approach this sort of problem in greater generality. Then close other similar questions as duplicates.

• +1. This whole proposal is doomed to fail, since people rarely treat their answers like their children. Nov 1 '15 at 12:16

tl;dr

In general I agree, that there is an issue with the homework policy. I don't think it is done by including waiting periods and/ or new rules. I think we have to rebuild homework guidelines from scratch.

This discussion smoothly (or maybe not) outlines some of the problems with our current homework policy.

I have so far refrained from touching the policy, because I know that when we go down this path we have to go full throttle. It's not done by just amending it with more rules or guidelines, as this is probably just one more way we would confuse ourselves. Once we touch the subject it must be something that is thoroughly discussed and finally led to a consensus among the community. This will be a terribly long and difficult journey. But it might be necessary to be done.

Right now I do not want to propose anything, because I have not yet made up my mind fully. In my opinion there are some very obvious points and a couple of hidden problems. Some of them have previously been discussed here and died down after a while, some of them never have gotten the attention that would probably be necessary to make the really valuable for the site.

We should and we can all talk about anything and everything related to homework. We should probably not talk about everything at once and we should very much start at the top.

I would like to put the following into the hat of consideration:

How do I ask homework questions on Chemistry Stack Exchange?
How do I ask and answer homework questions on Chemistry Stack Exchange?

And whoops I am at the proposal I did not want to commit to. Well, here we go...

First and foremost, the current policy is mainly directed at users that ask questions. It offers only few guidelines for answering users. I hence would suggest to split it up completely, offering concise guidelines for all of the community.

This might already be one key problem, we should tackle first and I have a few (read: many) more to come.

Meta-meta:
I have no recipe for dealing with this situation. I do not want to tackle all the problems I see with the policy all at once. I also do not want to create too many meta-posts to discuss these issues. Please leave a comment about which strategy you would advise.

• After a quick chat with Mart in the chat, we can't discuss the plans today but will do so soon in Chemistry Chat.
– Jan
Nov 2 '15 at 14:22
• +1 because you want to build from scratch. It's a cool expression. Nov 2 '15 at 17:32
• Mart I wondered -- Maybe we could write a post and ask all of the community what policies they expect to be enforced. I'm thinking of writing a meta post, asking people what being a homework question means to them. Whaddya think? Drop (a) line(s) in chat. Nov 9 '15 at 18:56

# Proposal

I feel that we should also touch our original homework question guidelines and modify them. All my proposed additions are bolded, proposed deletions are stiked through, stuff in brackets is meant as my comments unless otherwise indicated.

• Watch out for answers that provide a full solution. Downvote, comment, flag. If you feel the answerer does not know our homework policy, comment to point them towards it.
• Watch out for long comment discussions—conceptual ones are OK, but advise the users to take it to chat. Homework posts are quite prone to a lot of back-and-forth clarification in the comments. (Screw this bullet point altogether. New users cannot enter chat with less than 20 reputation.)
• Downvote/Comment on/flag/vote to close as offtopic questions which are "bad" homework questions.

In addition, it says in the paragraph above that one shouldn’t give a complete answer immediately but should do so later — what a load of rubbish (excuse the strong word here, please). I suggest rewording that paragraph in the following way:

Providing an answer that doesn't help a student learn is not in the student's own best interest, and if a solution complete enough to be copied verbatim and handed in is given immediately, it will encourage more people to use the site as a free homework service. In the spirit of creating a lasting resource of mathematical knowledge, you may come back after a suitable amount of time and edit your response to include a more complete answer. Or even better, the student can post his own correct answer! Thus, attempt to phrase your answer so that they clearly lead towards the solution, but still require independent thinking by the student to ultimately reach it. In the spirit of creating a lasting resource of chemical knowledge, all questions should eventually be answered. (Emphasis only to differentiate it from the original maths phrase.)

Askers should generally be encouraged to post self-answers if they managed to solve their own problem. (Emphasis to be carried over.)

(There is a two-liner there that says complete answers may well be temporarily deleted — I cannot see deleted posts (yet?); has that actually ever happened? I didn’t see it happen.)

## The most important addition I wish to make:

Once a specific problem has been well answered, further occurances of the same question should be closed as duplicates of this specific problem. Let’s be frank: Proper googling would have found the answer anyway. (Emphasis to be carried over.)

# Discussion

• The most important implication of these changes would be that we no longer discourage quick answers. Because, let’s face it. The questions will be abandoned after 48 hours at the latest; there is hardly any gain in giving late answers only, except for being bitchy towards the OP by not answering their question immediately. (Cui bono?)

• Secondly, this allows us to encourage a specific type of answer, namely the one that helps the user learn.

• Thirdly, of course this should not stop us from closing and downvoting bad homework questions immediately. There is no reason to treat bad homework questions in any different way than bad non-homework questions, namely downvote, flag, close them. Please however do feel encouraged to point the OP towards our homework policy and hint that they can improve their question to prevent closure/gain upvotes.

• Of course, this won’t stop new (or less established) users from immediately posting a quick-and-dirty complete answer that can be copied and handed in. But neither did the old policy. We should be aware to not upvote this type of answers and maybe comment, but flagging and downvoting sounds to strict. It is an answer after all (and I am very hesitant about NAA flags after two of mine for blatantly misleading/bad/absymal answers were declined).

• The internet will always supply a number of answers between misleading and extremely helpful to any homework question. Stack Exchange communities strive for high-quality questions and answers. If the high-quality question is here, we should feed it with a high-quality answer. That way people might come back and think ‘Oh yes, this site was helpful, I can ask them about things that really interest me.’

• My suggestion emphasises the self-answer more. It should be encouraged more not only for the self-learner badge but also because it helps the student learn the most. (You learn much more if you try to teach others, which is what an answer should be doing, than by just repeating or reading.)

• The dupe-closing approach should allow the writers of great homework answers to get a steady trickle of reputation from those further encouraging writing great homework answers. It might also hint the OP towards ‘Oh, maybe if I ask my next question in this manner, it might get even better answers.’

• I feel we are far away from ‘being swamped with homework’ that this type of solution will not create an immensely higher workload than the existing one does. And it prevents 15k NAA flags for ‘Hint:’ answers.

• Finally, this approach does not require us to add an arbitrary time-limit, that would only serve in making the revival badge less rare.

• Seeing @Martin's answer, I feel ready to withdraw this proposal and repropose it at a later stage.
– Jan
Nov 2 '15 at 12:33

Draft proposal:

• You should not provide a complete answer to a homework question within one week after the question was posted.
• You may provide a complete answer after one week at the earliest.
• It is recommended to wait at least 30 days before providing a complete answer.
• These waiting periods do not apply to the original author of the homework question. The author of the question may post a complete answer at any time.

Rationale:

The minimum waiting period of one week is considered to prevent that the answer is copied verbatim and handed in when the homework is due; i.e. to prevent people from using the site as a free homework service.

I made some preliminary tests and posted a few ‘complete answers’ to old homework questions. The youngest question was 18 days old. In my experience up to now,
– the original author does not come back and accepts the answer

• Uh, no. I don't think anyone will follow these and we'll only be adding something to the help center. Usually the peak of the activity in an answer is 2 days at most. It will be so hard to keep track of what was and should be done for anyone that answers a lot and anyone that answers rarely. Oct 31 '15 at 18:10
• @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. I think it doesn't hurt to at the very least have a policy. Broadly speaking, there are three types of people who are likely to answer homework questions: 1) Regular users, who will follow whatever policy is laid out; 2) New users who might happen to read the policy before answering, and decide not to answer - yay for having a policy; 3) New users who don't read the policy and give the answer right away - in which case we can link them to an actual policy that isn't the rather abrasive line "downvote, comment, flag" - again, yay for having a policy.
– orthocresol Mod
Oct 31 '15 at 18:57
• @Ortho no no no no no, the majority of the posters aren't interested in reading the finer details of the "manual". Sure, some regs will follow the policy, but I don't think having 0.5% of the site follow a rule is something we want. "Don't clutter and over-complicate the rules" is what I say. That give-only-hint part isn't being followed in almost all of the homework Q answers we have these days. Oct 31 '15 at 19:01
• @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. The reason why the "give-only-hint" rule is not followed is because those people who actually answer HW questions are those who will not read the preexisting policy on not answering HW questions. The problem is not that people are giving full solutions. It is that there are very few answers to HW questions to begin with, and as Loong said, this is not a good thing (and I agree fully with his arguments). Status quo is not the way forward. We should have something which encourages people to answer HW questions in a way that is in line with the philosophy of the site.
– orthocresol Mod
Oct 31 '15 at 19:24
• @Ortho my biggest nitpick is not with people not following the rules where they should and answering when they shouldn't, it's with the fact that this "one week" rule would be extremely hard to follow. And people won't follow it for that reason. Regs will die till counting days of the week till when they could provide an answer, and non-regulars will come back much later. Furthermore, the question will disappear from the 'newest' list and bumping it won't get much attention since the boost in editing. We have only 113 necromancer badges$\,\ldots$ Oct 31 '15 at 19:34
• @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. "Regs will die till counting days of the week till when they could provide an answer" Yeah, I do agree that that is an issue. I still believe that something should be done though, so let's see if anyone else has some ideas or an alternative solution. By the way, props to you for using the correct ellipsis :D
– orthocresol Mod
Oct 31 '15 at 19:41
• Suggested addendum: ‘If you are the post’s original author and figured out the answer by yourself, you are strongly encouraged to answer your own question.’
– Jan
Nov 1 '15 at 0:31
• The SE philosophy is to be a source of knowledge, right? To make such strict rules about homework questions, just so we don't provide the answer to single persons asking, seems to not adhere to the philosophy. The only thing we should care about is providing great answers to chemistry related questions. Chemistry SE is not a tutoring service, right? The greater good here is to have a vast collection of chemistry questions with great answers, and if individuals don't get the full benefit of working out the answers themselves, is that something Chemistry SE should care about? (...)
– Yoda
Nov 1 '15 at 12:54
• (...) I like better Normal Human's approach that we instead make the answers more complete, better, and in greater detail. That way we not only answer the question, but facilitate the student to obtain a deeper insight into the problem. Making these homework-specific rules seems to be a lot of work just to prevent individuals from getting the full benefit of working out the solution himself/herself.
– Yoda
Nov 1 '15 at 12:57
• @Anders note that most of the time the OP doesn't need this knowledge. The philosophy of the HW policy, I reckon, was to stop the lowest quality questions from flooding the site, but we're twisting it way too much and increasing the learning curve with this proposal, in addition to other problems. I will angrily flip a table if this gets implemented. Nov 1 '15 at 16:34
• Which proposal are you referring to? Loong's or Normal Human's? I just think the fear of "doing the work" for a student is too large. My understanding is that Chemistry SE exists not for individuals to be tutored, but for the greater good: increase chemistry knowledge and insight for all interested. So what if someone spell out the answer to a HW question? Though the OP may not benefit as much, future visitors will. Forcing the person to post his/her own attempt is smart, though, and enforce the criterium that the question is well-formulated.
– Yoda
Nov 1 '15 at 16:52

However, this conduct contradicts the general philosophy of this site, which is to build a library of detailed answers to every question about chemistry.

The contradiction here is due to literal interpretation of the goal that is set for Chemistry.SE according to its Tour page, not because of a relatively big number of unanswered homework questions. My opinion is that one shouldn't take the goal literally in the first place, since it is obviously unreachable then: it is practically impossible to answer every question about chemistry. Alternatively, I could argue as well that homework questions are more about homework than about chemistry: in the absolute majority of them there is so little chemistry, or it is so trivial, that completely answering them isn't worth it.

In particular, such unanswered questions are unlikely to help future visitors of this site.

True, but even when answered such questions are unlikely to help future visitors of the site, unless they have exact same or very similar homework problem, in which case I would say that it is not help, rather a disservice. You know: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.1

The significant number of unanswered questions might leave a bad impression; the site might seem not really useful.

Then delete them. Easy as 1-2-3.

Furthermore, the restriction might be frustrating for users who like to answer homework questions.

Those who like to answer homework questions already have their site, and no one forces them to participate here.

1) Note that this rule of thumb in no circumstances should be applied to cats: just give us a fish and step back! =^.^=