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We have a very good homework policy outlined for the site with some good and bad examples of homework problems.

Over the last few weeks, there have been several cases when users have added a line or two with a formula or concept, but haven't gone one step further to try to plug in what they have been given or find out how the concept fits into the bigger picture. I won't pick on anyone in particular, but those who follow the site regularly can probably figure out the questions to which I'm referring.

I think we need to amend out homework policy to spell out how much effort is required, at least in broad terms, as I think there's a distinct difference between:

I know it has something to do with mols

versus

Given the conservation of mass, I know that the mols of the first reactant are proportional to those of product X. I'm stuck on how I can relate the mols of the first reactant to product Y.

As I mentioned in my other post, I think users are in general providing something more along the lines of the the latter effort than ever before. It's a question of whether the "I know it has something to do with mols" is a sufficient enough "attempt" to keep the question open.

In a related homework note, I have featured the meta question about the homework tag and whether we really need it. I would like to hear more opinions on that.

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    $\begingroup$ After five months from the time you asked this question, when I first saw the homework policy, I thought that, "wow, people are really relentless in here! :)" But after I got a member of ELL.SE, I realized how important and great our homework policy is. Homework policy is the very thing that holds SE sites like these in their regular form and purpose. $\endgroup$ – M.A.R. Jan 2 '15 at 16:51
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Original Post

I think the key is to decide what the point of asking the user to "show their work" is - are we encouraging them to do it themselves, or are we trying to understand where they are stuck?

If we want them to prove that they have put in a significant effort towards working the problem themselves, then your second example is more appropriate. Where the "enough" line should be drawn is a matter of debate, but it will be objective once it has been decided and can clearly be explained in the homework policy.

If we just need enough info to find out where they are stuck, then this becomes a very subjective issue. "I know it has something to do with moles" would tell me (as an experienced general chemistry teacher) enough to make a good guess about where they are likely to be stuck. However, that statement might not have much meaning to a person who isn't used to teaching such concepts at a basic level. In other words, how much information is "enough" will depend on who is answering the question - and it can't really be set in stone as an objective policy.

I suggest that we choose one of these two goals:

  1. "Encourage" the poster to demonstrate a commitment to solving the problem on their own
  2. Get enough information to be able to answer the question effectively

If we choose 1, then we need to make the requirements very clear in the HW policy. For example "You must provide the equation and show that you can plug the appropriate numbers in" or "you must demonstrate that you can work through at least one step of the problem." The downside to this is that we will likely discourage many people who are completely stuck and don't even know where to get started. That might be a desired outcome, but I believe there is value in providing "how to" examples for common problems, in that it will draw many more users to the site, who will (hopefully) in a few years become experts themselves.

For the second option, we would have to let those who answer the questions decide how much information is enough. Obviously zero effort would not be acceptable, but for something like "I know it has something to do with moles," rather than voting to close, it would be better to just ask them to elaborate if you are interested in answering the question and they don't provide enough detail to do so.

We could try to achieve both goals with one policy, but the subjective nature of the second goal means that the 1st would have precedence by default. Using your example, if the person is unable to show any work because they don't understand the connection between moles, mass, and reaction stoichiometry, they will never be able to satisfy the 1st requirement - which means that even if the second were met, the question would have to be closed.

More thoughts

Based on the discussion in the comments below, I have a new suggestion. What if we were to adopt a policy of editing specific questions that showed no evidence of work into more general "how do I?" questions? As an example:

Find the amount of $\ce{CO2}$ in grams that is produced when 150 grams of ethanol combusts in oxygen

could be rewritten into:

How do I find the amount of $\ce{CO2}$ produced during a combustion reaction?

The question could then be answered with step-by-step examples, (using different numbers - or no numbers).

This would have some key benefits:

  • We could refer future similar questions to the generalized one
  • They would turn up more frequently in searches
  • A person who honestly had no idea where to start would still get help and not be run off by people who are tired of answering obvious homework problems
  • A person who dishonestly wanted to use the site as a homework service would instead have to learn how to solve the problem (or at least work through the steps with different numbers)
  • We would eventually develop a collection of the best answers to common types of homework problems

For people who ask questions where it is clear that they mostly understand what they are doing, but are stuck on one key point, we could keep the same HW policy that we have now - don't just give them the answer, but help them through the "sticking point."

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  • $\begingroup$ @jonsca, could I ask you to expand on what you mean by "rife with abuse?" I'm guessing you mean that what might be trivial for one person could be decidedly less so for another and/or that triviality itself is not ipso facto a good reason to close a question in the absence of other problems. Am I understanding you correctly, or is there some other dimension to it? $\endgroup$ – Greg E. Aug 8 '14 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ @GregE. It's mostly what you have outlined here. The answers to most general chemistry problems can be found in a textbook or study guide somewhere. I know it may seem like we are against homework problems, but we're really not. One site in particular on SE has a reputation for "here is my homework problem, please solve it step-by-step," and we really wanted to avoid having that be the case here. I think that if people either a. conceptualize their problem ("Why is molality the quantity used in calculating colligative properties?") or b. write out their reasoning, the question has the $\endgroup$ – jonsca Aug 8 '14 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ potential to be useful to someone else down the line, and that's what SE is really about. In my mind, I'd like to see some more canonical questions (like the one in my prior comment) that are easily searchable rather than 100 of "I have 50 g of NaCl ...", but we can only do so much. $\endgroup$ – jonsca Aug 8 '14 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ There's a lot of good stuff on EL & U that gets closed because some users people believe that "the root word of X is enough to draw a straightforward conclusion about its usage over hundreds of years," even though there may be nuances to the word's evolution that are important. Just a (largely) made-up example, but you can see what I mean. $\endgroup$ – jonsca Aug 8 '14 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ For anyone following the above comments, the comment that spurred the discussion was converted to this answer. I had replied that I found the "general knowledge"-type closing reasons were often abused. $\endgroup$ – jonsca Sep 14 '14 at 5:35
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Another point to note is that if the stumbling block of the asker is truly elementary, then the answer is likely easily available spelled out for them from other sources (as it would be in your example for molarity, they merely have to throw moles/molarity/similar into google along with an optional what is/how to/what are etc to find something that will explain how to use the formulae to relate the quantities).

I think that a policy similar to English Language & Usage.SE might be appropriate, where below a certain level, unless it is clear that the person has specific questions as a result of searching for such, answers are easily available from references like Wikipedia, ChemHelper etc.

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I've accepted thomij's answer for this question, but I don't want this dialog to die down, as there's still a bit to be hammered out. I'm going to try to incorporate the highlights from my comments above as well.

Where the "enough" line should be drawn is a matter of debate, but it will be objective once it has been decided and can clearly be explained in the homework policy.

I suggest that we choose one of these two goals: - "Encourage" the poster to demonstrate a commitment to solving the problem on their own - Get enough information to be able to answer the question effectively

I think we need both goals, honestly. We'd like people to show an effort so we don't become a homework service (this has happened to another high profile SE site, so it's not just an empty consideration), but we'd also like to understand where the OP has gone wrong, which speaks to your second point.

I've said this in the past, but I have a hard time believing that someone has "nothing" to go on, so even saying "well, I think the pressure of a fluid is found by PV = nRT, so if I have the temperature" it's easier to let them know they are way off base and why, rather than guessing about what they know or don't know. This works for the answers as well, since you could start all over from the very beginning, but the OP might only have one inconsistency in their knowledge that's further up in the hierarchy.

For the second option, we would have to let those who answer the questions decide how much information is enough. Obviously zero effort would not be acceptable, but for something like "I know it has something to do with moles," rather than voting to close, it would be better to just ask them to elaborate if you are interested in answering the question and they don't provide enough detail to do so.

You have brought up an important point, that you can prompt the user for more information. This is a great idea, and I encourage anyone who comes along to do so. Even if we end up closing the question, the user can still edit the details in and it can be reopened.

I would welcome people to vote to reopen and flag the post at the same time (which can be accomplished through using the "other" option) so that we don't have to accrue the full number of votes to reopen. We're not trying to prevent homework assignments (though we secretly wish that people would ask more conceptual questions instead!), but it's important to incorporate people's common misconceptions into the body of their question in case users come along later with the same problem. Bonus if the OP puts a good descriptive title on the question, but I have to choose my battles. That way the question can be found through search.


Much of the above comes from my comments on the other answer, so here's a bit of an expansion on those and something of a recap.

My feeling at this point is to say that anything better than a verbatim copy and paste of a question is fair game, with the provision that our more experienced users will prompt the user for more information. This is to the questioner's benefit, really, not a chance for us to be curmudgeons who have paid our dues already. I am, though, inclined to be a little less lenient with users that have been around for a while and who habitually engage in this behavior.

In the past, in certain borderline cases, I have given users a few hours to come back before closing, which we can do for all but the most egregious cases. Of course, other issues may crop up and can be handled on a case-by-case basis. If you think that a question has been left open or closed unfairly, speak up in the comments and/or bring it to meta if you start to see a pattern. I'm not inclined to discuss each and every question that's closed on meta, but general patterns can and should be brought here.

Based on the discussion in the comments below, I have a new suggestion. What if we were to adopt a policy of editing specific questions that showed no evidence of work into more general "how do I?" questions?

As mentioned above, I would love to have a site with conceptual questions that can be applied to any homework problem, but some people do learn better with examples.Frankly we don't want to shut everyone with a homework issue out since a lot of people are turning to the internet these days, and we'd like to retain some of the good new talent out there for when all of us get too old.

So, if you see something that would do better as a conceptual question (this particularly applies to those mini-essay type homework problems), give it an edit with every attempt to keep the original intent of the question intact.

Along the same lines, if you see a title like "chemistry problem 27" or "mols question", jazz it up a little bit. Bonus points if you can formulate it into an actual question in the title, but sometimes that makes the grammar awkward.

As usual, I want to hear some opinions on this in the comments, so don't be shy. Aspects of this that you'd like to refine further can be made into their own meta questions.

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There are several sites that are specific at assisting homework questions (such as Yahoo Answers).

What exactly is the purpose of this discussion list?

Is it to promote discussions on high level chemistry, or is it to assist anyone with questions about chemistry? If we have a clear statement, then there wouldn't be this question.

If we don't allow homework questions, then we should at least point the people to where they can get assistance.

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    $\begingroup$ Why not both? Most of the other successful stack exchange sites do both. Also, I don't agree that Yahoo answers is specifically meant for homework questions. I think the intent of yahoo answers is to be a resource for all types of questions, but it has acquired a reputation over the years of being a place where you can get bad answers to bad questions. I think we should strive to be a site where you can get good answers to good questions. $\endgroup$ – thomij Aug 11 '14 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ @thomij There's nothing wrong with doing both. For the homework type questions, we need a clear statement on what is expected of the poser and how much information we can provide. $\endgroup$ – LDC3 Aug 12 '14 at 1:25

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