Homework questions have such a confused reputation on this site (or it could just be me or my perception) that I thought it worth posting this question after revisiting the subject. This post is partly a response to comments at the end of this post on possible changes to the homework close option, as well as recent discussions with user theorist surrounding closure of posts he answered. It would be beneficial to have clear, succinct, easily and quickly accessible documentation (guidelines) for closure, in no small part to avoid repeated lengthy back and forth discussions after a post is voted closed.

For instance, it's ok to post homework questions, but you have to know how, and that information is largely buried in meta. Different parts of the documentation use language that can result in a confused understanding of what is appropriate for the site. To improve clarity, I would like to see a summary of where guidelines/documentation is posted, and a summary of what makes a homework question acceptable (realizing of course that there is already a post that explains at some length what is expected of a homework question). Based on this information one might make further decisions on how to change the closure options or associated documentation, in order to increase clarity and also to ease the burden on those who assist with the review queues and/or make comments to assist OPs.

  • $\begingroup$ Note that most 1st time users might not know of the existence of meta, of closing, of the homework definition, etc. Getting to the existing definition of homework on meta is a bit of a trek when you are starting from the question drafting page on chem SE. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 16 '20 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ I would welcome as an answer a compilation of links to additional posts that address the "homework" question. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 16 '20 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ So... what is the point of this post? $\endgroup$ – Mithoron Jun 16 '20 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Mithoron I edited for clarity, it is an opening for discussion. You can give your opinion on whether the closure system is working, for instance, and what points you see worth changing, including the documentation. It is worth attempting to put yourself in the shoes of other users, including people who post questions, and thinking about what might be worth reconsidering in the design of the site. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 17 '20 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ Also, let's get it out of the way, the homework name sucks. I am fed up of saying "it's not homework, it's homework". $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Jun 17 '20 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ You can't reasonably have "documentation" and discussion in one place - too many things at once. $\endgroup$ – Mithoron Jun 17 '20 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Mithoron please read the comments to the answer I posted. The point of this is to serve as a starting point for discussion. I am making due with the format of the site. Obviously if we were sitting in a conference room we could have some documents before us to discuss, or someone would open a laptop. On the internet we have to use some other mechanism to share information and discuss. We could instead use a chat room and exchange docs some other way. My question and answer provide some of those documents in summary form and as links. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 17 '20 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @orthocresol a lot of time has been spent discussing alternatives to homework. Are we any closer? $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 17 '20 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ I still think that "effort" is the closest thing we have to the original intent. It is not perfect, but I think it is better than homework. That way we entirely circumvent the silly discussion over what kinds of homework are ok and what other kinds of homework are not. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Jun 18 '20 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ I'd also say that, of the conditions you've listed, the only real condition is having an attempt to solve it. The rest, although they certainly do make people more inclined to close, are technically not grounds for closure. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Jun 18 '20 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ @orthocresol your last comment is confusing, what do you mean with "technically"? I basically just repeat what I found in the documentation. Admittedly some of the conditions listed as ground for closure as inappropriate homework are repeats of other options for closure such as "lack of focus" etc. I address that in my answer. One could drop the label homework label and avoid the ambiguous "effort" label (I suppose this means effort to solve the question?) and rely on a duck test based on the list of conditions in the answer I posted. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 18 '20 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ The duck test being that if the question does not satisfy the stated conditions, then it is worthy of a close vote. You could use the label "effort" to represent the duck test, implying that the violation of a condition suggests the OP lacks sufficient effort. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 18 '20 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ Basically, I don't think that "not having a descriptive title" is a valid reason for closure by itself. Same with "not referenced". I am pretty sure the only valid reason for closure is "does not include attempt to solve the problem". So, it's not actually necessary for a homework question to have a descriptive title, etc. even though the homework post suggests that this should be done, it's more of a suggestion rather than a rule per se, if that makes sense. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Jun 19 '20 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @orthocresol I've made edits to my answer. Please see the top of the answer. The close statement might read "Questions must demonstrate an effort to solve scripted problems (show your work)". I propose "scripted" instead of homework. There are other synonyms ("canned", etc) that are surely better than "homework" $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 25 '20 at 20:03

I propose the following as the "homework" close statement:

Exercise questions must demonstrate effort to solve the underlying problem. For help asking a good exercise question, see: How do I ask exercise questions on Chemistry Stack Exchange?

The first encounter a visitor has with the concept of "homework" questions on this site is probably through a close vote on a question they have posted. Here is the text accompanying a post closed as homework:

Homework questions must demonstrate some effort to understand the underlying concepts. For help asking a good homework question, see: How do I ask homework questions on Chemistry Stack Exchange?

The link will take them to a meta page with a somewhat convoluted explanation of the homework concept and its enforcement. Note that the requirement to "demonstrate some effort to understand the underlying concepts" is not repeated anywhere in the meta page (arguably it is implicit).

Now, based on the documentation and comments to the OP and this answer, the following recaps my updated understanding of what minimal conditions are satisfied by an acceptable homework question:

  • Includes the OPs attempt to solve the problem (shows work)

The documentation should emphasize this point.

Note again that "demonstrating some effort to understand the underlying concepts" is only implicitly suggested in the idea that the OP should show their attempt to solve the problem.

The current documentation describing what is meant by homework would appear to be unnecessarily lengthy and unclear.

The fulfillment of other conditions listed in the meta doc page is (again, based on comments to this post and answer) encouraged but is not (in my understanding) considered essential (might even be considered cosmetic) and should not lead to a homework close vote.

The above needs to be made clearer. IMHO that meta page and/or the message supplied when posts are closed as homework needs editing/clarification.

The following recaps (my prior understanding of) what minimal conditions are satisfied by an acceptable homework question, summarizing current documentation:

  • Satisfies the following conditions (covered by other vote-to-close options):
    • Not a duplicate
    • Focused on one question (narrow in scope)
    • Clearly worded for others to fully understand
    • Complete, explained with sufficient detail to allow solution
  • Includes the OPs attempt to solve the problem (shows work)
  • Not a picture of the question or notes.
  • Includes a descriptive title.
  • Referenced (provides the source of the problem: textbook, teacher...).

The following is how I think the above policy should be implemented:

If one of these conditions is not satisfied, a vote to close is justified until further edits are made to address the issue(s).

Use one of the alternative vote-to-close conditions (duplicate, completeness/clarity or focus) if there is only one flaw with the post, even if the post is a homework question. If there are multiple flaws it is convenient to use the homework option if the post can be classified as a homework question. Note the definition of a homework question:

A “homework question” is any question whose value lies in helping you understand the method by which the question can be solved, rather than getting the answer itself. This includes not just questions from actual homework assignments, but also self-study problems, puzzles, etc.

The following is a review of some sources of documentation on available close options and what criteria determine whether a post is a homework question and whether it is an acceptable homework question.

Starting from the question draft page, it is after clicking on three links that you arrive at a (quite thorough) definition of what is considered homework and how to ask an acceptable homework question. I do not copy the entire text from that answer since it is pretty long, but it is worth copying some excerpts:

  1. What kinds of questions are considered homework questions?

    A “homework question” is any question whose value lies in helping you understand the method by which the question can be solved, rather than getting the answer itself. This includes not just questions from actual homework assignments, but also self-study problems, puzzles, etc.


  1. Can I ask a homework question here?

    Yes, but there are a couple of things you need to make sure of first.

    As a general rule, we do not discourage homework questions, as long as they are related to chemistry. But do keep in mind that Chemistry Stack Exchange is not primarily a homework help site; it’s a place to get specific conceptual chemistry questions answered. The list in the following section will help you ask questions about your homework in a way that fits in with the site’s philosophy.

  2. How should I ask a homework question on this website?

The following is a selection of the more relevant stuff from the answer to that last question ("How should I ask a homework question on this website?"):

  • See if an existing question helps you.
  • Show your work and ask about the specific concept that gives you trouble. We expect you to narrow down the problem to the particular concept that’s giving you trouble and ask about that specifically.
  • Write down your question. Write your question in the Body box. Your question should be clear even without the title. Write your question out in full; do not post a picture of the question or your handwritten notes.
  • Write a descriptive title. Do not use a clickbait title.
  • Reference the source.

For reference, here is another copy of the text accompanying the close as homework option on any post:

Homework questions must demonstrate some effort to understand the underlying concepts. For help asking a good homework question, see: How do I ask homework questions on Chemistry Stack Exchange?

For the record, below are the official general criteria listed for closure. The following can be viewed by navigating to the What does it mean if a question is "closed"? page from the side menu on the "how to ask" page:

Why are some questions closed?


These are the categories of questions that may be closed by community members with the close/reopen votes privilege. The quoted text below reflects what is shown to close voters when voting to close a question:

  • Duplicate of... - the fundamental goal of closing duplicate questions is to help people find the right answer by getting all of those answers in one place. There’s more information in our duplicate questions help center article.

    This question has been asked before and already has an answer.

  • Off-topic because… - each community decides which specific topics are and are not allowed on their site. You can see this list of off-topic subjects for this site by viewing this help center article.

  • Needs details or clarity - sometimes we need more information in order to help solve your problem.

    Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

    Edit your post to be more specific about what you're looking for, and be sure to address any concerns that other users brought up in the comments.

  • Needs more focus - if your question has many valid answers (but no way to determine which - if any - are correct), then it probably needs to be more focused to be successful in our format.

    Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

    This can often be fixed by breaking the question into multiple questions or focusing on a specific part of the problem.

  • Opinion-based - discussions focused on diverse opinions are great, but they just don't fit our format well.

    Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than on facts, references, or specific expertise.

    It’s often possible to rewrite opinion-based questions to focus on a more fact-based line of questioning. If you see a way to do this, consider editing the question.

The following explanation for deciding what is considered off-topic within chem SE is provided in a page linked from the What does it mean if a question is "closed"? page. This leads through a further link to a detailed explanation of what is considered homework.

What topics can I ask about here?

Chemistry Stack Exchange is for scientists, academics, teachers and students of chemistry.

Questions may be of any level, but should be of the following types:

  • Questions asking for explanation of a chemistry concept
  • Questions relating to observed chemical phenomena
  • Questions about experimental techniques and technology
  • Questions about nomenclature, standards, et cetera pertaining to chemistry.

Some kinds of questions aren't allowed here:

  • Do-my-homework questions: Homework questions are OK, but they must follow these guidelines. Please don't ask "do my homework for me" type questions – we only clear conceptual doubts in homework questions and will not do your work for you.

  • Pitches for your own personal theories or work: We deal with mainstream chemistry here. Anything that couldn't be published in a reputable journal is probably not appropriate at this site.

  • Computational questions: If your question is purely about numerical methods you are using in a simulation/etc, it is probably more appropriate at Computational Science.

  • Personal medical questions are off-topic. We cannot safely answer questions for your specific situation and you should always consult a doctor for medical advice.

  • Legal questions relating to chemical substances and techniques are off-topic. Laws can vary significantly by jurisdiction. You should consult a legal expert in your jurisdiction instead of a random person on the internet.

Please look around to see if your question has been asked before. It’s also OK to ask and answer your own question.

  • $\begingroup$ It might be useful to use a minimal bullet point list describing properties of appropriate homework questions, in order to inform OPs challenged with closure. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 16 '20 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ I know most of it is excerpting, ergo not your fault, but this is too long for the average user to read. Obviously, the actual advice is way too long as well. I think that there needs to be a dedicated Q + A: "My question was closed as $CLOSE_REASON_NAME, what can I do about it?" $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Jun 17 '20 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ @orthocresol I could add a TL;DR but it's basically the top of the post up to the pair of lines. Everything after that just recaps other documentation I found. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 17 '20 at 7:16
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry if I'm not clear. My problem isn't with your post; it's with how the current system is basically so many walls of text spread out over multiple different hard-to-find links. Your post, mostly being quotes from these posts, kinda inherits the same problem. I agree with the direction you're going in, I just think ultimately we need to write something from scratch that is a bit snappier, giving them the extra links if they so desire. Also, sometimes those extra links are not entirely consistent between themselves, so... :/ $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Jun 17 '20 at 8:10
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    $\begingroup$ @orthocresol I completely agree with you, I think we are echoing the same points. This post is not intended as a substitute for previous documentation. It's intended as a possible launching point for further discussion that might lead to what you suggest. Of course you have chat rooms for discussion but I find this kind of format a little easier to digest, and for people to stumble upon. Not everyone frequents the chat rooms (I don't). $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 17 '20 at 9:15
  • $\begingroup$ Sadly, the longer or more specific the rules are made, the more people will want to go all rules-lawyer to argue their post is not homework even though it is a picture of a problem in a book. Ultimately one is left with 'I know it when I see it' as a pretty good indicator of what is homework. $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Jun 25 '20 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @JonCuster Thanks for joining the discussion :-) There are many potential points for discussion, and one thats been argued plenty is "why close homework (at all)". First and foremost, it is ok to post homework. What is not ok is to not show any work done to solve the problem. The documentation is too complicated and should reflect this fact. I think it important to have a consistent closure policy. For instance according to comments by others posting a picture of a homework question is ok (if strongly discouraged), but I doubt we all agree on this (I don't have a strong opinion) $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 26 '20 at 5:26
  • $\begingroup$ Also, it is important that close votes not be seen as punitive, but rather as incitement to edit/fix a post. Close votes can be retracted and fixed posts can be reopened. Visitors might not understand this point and it is worth reminding them. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 26 '20 at 5:27
  • $\begingroup$ @orthocresol It would be good to arrive at a consistent closure policy. What this ultimately means is proper documentation that clearly states grounds for closure (and what is not: posting a picture of a homework problem? Not having a proper title or posting the source of a problem?). Documentation is essential to this site because of the decentralized nature of the community and haphazard means of communication. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 26 '20 at 5:34
  • $\begingroup$ Another point is what synonym to use in place of "homework". Perhaps "exercise" is a better word. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 26 '20 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I agree that there are lots of problems and that clear guidance is very important (and has been lacking for years). I am a bit hesitant to write something substantial about the way forward, though. There are a lot of competing... considerations. I have a preference, but there are issues with it, too. (I don't really want to go into what it is, because it's too idealistic and I don't think it's workable in practice. I don't want to pollute the discussion space with pointless ideas.) $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Jun 26 '20 at 6:30
  • $\begingroup$ What I can do, though, is to make that meta post I've been promising to do for a while now. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Jun 26 '20 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ @orthocresol I prefer to refer to it as "brainstorming" rather than "polluting" :-) You can always delete comments and posts after the fact. Also, opinions can change with experience, time and circumstance. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Jun 26 '20 at 6:43

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