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Recently I had a somewhat enlightening exchange on the site about providing hints as answers to homework questions. The original homework policy had a section which encouraged and essentially enforced this practice:

Why don't you provide a complete answer to homework questions?
This is pretty well covered by a discussion on the Math Stack Exchange site.

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!

If someone posts an answer to a homework-type question that gives away a complete or near-complete solution, in most cases it will be temporarily deleted.

As a community member, what should I know?
Watch out for answers that provide a full solution. Downvote, comment, flag.

As time passed, it seemed that the general practice on the site has moved away from this. As somebody who reviews old questions often, I notice that many hint-answers were from many years ago, circa 2014. We have also had a meta discussion in 2017 on whether these should be flagged as NAA. Although I don't think we reached a sufficiently clear conclusion from that, it seems fairly clear that nobody liked the idea of having brief, incomplete hints as answers.

Based on this, as well as on general sentiments amongst the community (in chat), the quoted sections above were removed from the homework policy. Nevertheless, this was not communicated very explicitly. Thus, I want to use this opportunity to clarify our current thoughts on the matter as well as a proposed update to the policy:


(1) Hints should not be provided as answers.

To understand where we are coming from, it is important to understand that SE is not intended to be a tutoring website where we are concerned about how the student does in their exams. The aim here is to build a library of chemistry questions and answers.

As such, it does not matter to us whether the student receives a full answer immediately or how much they learn from it in the long run. From a pragmatic point of view, if they want to cheat on their homework, there are many ways of doing so, not just on SE. Lastly, hint-answers tend to spark unnecessary comment discussions which should not be the case: comments should be used for clarifying further detail and suggesting improvements, and not for finding out the actual answer.

If you want to answer a homework question, we much prefer that you give a full explanation of the method used to reach the answer. For an example of a bad hint-answer and a good answer to what is essentially a homework question, consider the initial and current revisions of this post.


(2) Retroactively, old hint-answers may be either deleted or edited.

We note that many hint-answers are given in response to zero- or low-effort homework questions, which were typically closed. These questions are often very specific and unhelpful to a broader audience. Furthermore, they are often unclear in the sense that there is incomplete information needed to answer the question properly, or contain multiple additional misconceptions which complicate the process of answering.

Currently, we are still focusing on cleaning up some of these old homework questions. In general, if we decide that the question is of lasting value and that it is worth editing into a better shape, then we will edit them; any incomplete hint-answers may then be expanded into a full answer. However, if they are not worth having around, the question (together with its answers) may be deleted. If you wish to have a say in the fate of these questions (and answers), I invite you to join us in chat!


(3) Going forward, answers which are merely hints may be flagged as NAA and/or deleted.

This follows on from point (1). If you want to avoid this, please ensure that your answer contains - at the very least - the final answer to the question, as well as the thought process leading to it.

Please do not simply offer a piece of information without explaining how to use it, or giving the answer that it leads to.


Finally, we recognise that changes to the homework policy are often controversial. As such, we are open to any input from the community regarding this, whether you agree or disagree with it.

As always, please consider posting answers instead of comments so that they can be voted on.

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    $\begingroup$ Related older meta discussion: When is it safe to answer homework questions? $\endgroup$ – Loong Aug 23 '18 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ Do you consider it appropriate to post hints as comments? There are often questions that can be addressed (as "hints") in a sentence or two, which I feel too short to qualify as a full answer, and I usually post these as comments instead. $\endgroup$ – a-cyclohexane-molecule Aug 23 '18 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ @a-cyclohexane-molecule, excellent question and one that is maybe worth a separate discussion. My own take is that if it answers the question fully, no matter how short, it should go into the answer section (e.g. chemistry.stackexchange.com/a/82691/16683). If it doesn't answer the question fully, i.e. if it's just a hint, then to the comments it goes. Although some other sites tend to discourage discussion in the comments, Chem.SE is a smaller site so moderation is much easier and there's a smaller chance of comment threads ballooning out of control, so I personally don't mind them. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Aug 23 '18 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ I might be in favor of custom flags for these, unless there are hundreds. For me, I'm possibly going to have to squint at something for a minute to realize that it's a hint answer and not an NAA for some other reason. $\endgroup$ – jonsca Aug 23 '18 at 23:39
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In the absence of any opposing viewpoints, I assume that everybody is on board with this!

The homework policy has been updated accordingly with a brief line about this and a link pointing to this post:

https://chemistry.meta.stackexchange.com/a/142/16683

Of course, if anybody still disagrees please do post an answer. All of these meta policies can always be changed, as long as there is a good reason to do so.

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