User student has, quite impressively, recognized that all of user6560's questions are homework questions from the ongoing course Math 620 at the University of Buffalo. I just went through, downvoted all the questions and left an explanatory comment on all of them.

It is theoretically possible that user6560 is not enrolled in the course, but simply is independently studying from the course website. In that case, I would say that user6560 hasn't done anything wrong, although they1 would have done better to explain the situation. However, in the more likely event that user6560 is enrolled, they are violating our policies on how to ask homework questions. Moreover, if they are not disclosing to their professor that they are seeking help here, then they are most likely in violation of the University of Buffalo's plagiarism policies.

My question is, should we take further action? Is it appropriate to retag the questions? Close them? E-mail professor Badzioch? UPDATE: User student has e-mailed Badzioch. Pointing this out here so that we don't flood his inbox.

On Mathoverflow, I would immediately close these down, and quite likely e-mail the professor, but I am not sure what the community norms are here. None of the meta discussion on homework seems to have a consensus on how far we will go on this issue.

Finally, let me give a word of warning from my Mathoverflow experience. We had a lot of unpleasant flame wars early on because user X would ask a question, user Y would answer it, and user Z would vote down Y's answer because Z thought that X's question looked like homework. Let's focus on X's misbehavior here, not on whether Y was acting as a sufficiently vigilant cop.

1 Yes, I sometimes use "they" for a singular person of indeterminant gender. If it is good enough for the King James Bible, it's good enough for me.

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This is exacerbated by the fact that even when a question is clearly tagged as homework, yet a complete solution may appear out-of-the-blue, for example math.stackexchange.com/questions/21630/…. –  Yuval Filmus Feb 13 '11 at 20:06
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It seems that most of the traffic we get is HW anyway, so there's no need for an explicit tag... –  Yuval Filmus Feb 13 '11 at 20:07
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@David: is there a reasonable argument against emailing the professor teaching the course? If it were me, I would be at least interested to know that someone was posting my homework problems, whether or not "they" are formally attending my course. –  Pete L. Clark Feb 13 '11 at 20:24
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@David: Downvoting the questions is not an optimal solution since it is not the question itself that is the problem. This will cause good answers to undeservedly get little exposure (e.g. if they are merged when a duplicate question is asked in the future). –  Bill Dubuque Feb 13 '11 at 20:33
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@Yuval: I disagree with the lack of need; at least I try to behave differently when facing a homework question than when facing a curiosity-driven/self-study question. Just like I behave differently when a student comes to ask me for help with a homework problem (mine or someone else's), vs. when they come to ask me about something they are wondering about. –  Arturo Magidin Feb 13 '11 at 23:19
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@David, @Peter: I have, on rare occasions, contacted professors when students were posting homework questions on sci.math; I've always been thanked (apparently sincerely). I don't think there is any reasonable argument against emailing the professor, we just don't want to have several dozen users e-mailing him all about the same thing at the same time. A single person e-mailing and pointing is likely a good idea. –  Arturo Magidin Feb 13 '11 at 23:35
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Just for my better understanding: His behavior would have been ok, had he tagged his questions as homework and shown that he tried to do it on his own first, right? –  Stefan Walter Feb 14 '11 at 0:03
    
@Stefan Walter: as far as I'm concerned, tagged it, made it clear that the problems came from homework assignments. Two questions from each assignment does not seem excessive to me, though if we'd had, say, four or five in quick succession, that might have been a problem for me even if clearly labeled. –  Arturo Magidin Feb 14 '11 at 0:09
    
@Arturo: acknowledged. Don't worry -- I didn't email the professor myself. –  Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '11 at 1:25
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@Arturo: I believe Yuval was just joking. But there is some truth: we seem to have been overrun by homework problems... –  Aryabhata Feb 15 '11 at 2:28
    
I was joking, but at the same time I do believe many of the questions derive from homework, and most of the rest are "coursework related"; that would explain the apparent drop in question rate in the off-months. –  Yuval Filmus Feb 15 '11 at 4:05
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@Yuval Filmus, I am sorry that you didn't like my answer to 21630, as you indicated above; I thought actually it led to some interesting mathematical issues in the comments, and I think the OP learned from my answer. So why do you object? Do you really think it would improve the site to have fewer such answers? (Please see my answer to this question below.) –  JDH Feb 15 '11 at 4:50
    
Another indication of course-related questions is when waves of group or ring theory questions arrive from group-first or ring-first algebra courses. –  Bill Dubuque Feb 15 '11 at 4:59
    
@JDH My feeling is that something like double induction can only be "really" understood if one works it out by oneself. A hint like "the two variables should be the two digits" is probably enough (if not too much), leaving the student with some missing details. A complete solution, on the other hand, is something that can be copied without full understanding. –  Yuval Filmus Feb 15 '11 at 6:53
    
In this particular instance, the students were supposed to put it in some formal form, so perhaps even a complete solution wouldn't do without the requisite understanding. Moreover, that particular course is "enhanced", i.e. intended for the serious students, and so we shouldn't worry so much about students doing as much as they can to avoid learning anything. This could be hinted by the uncommon remarks accompanying the actual question. –  Yuval Filmus Feb 15 '11 at 6:54
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5 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

This is definitely not what MSE is for. I've emailed the user asking them to stop. If the behavior continues, they will be suspended and their questions closed or locked.

To David and student: thank you for your diligence.

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be sure to use the moderator contact facility provided from the mod menu on the user, unless you are comfortable sharing your personal direct email address with this user. –  Jeff Atwood Feb 14 '11 at 6:59
    
@Jeff: Dear Jeff, that's what I did (though I've made my personal email address public). –  Akhil Mathew Feb 14 '11 at 12:52
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My opinion is that there is nothing wrong at all with posting homework questions here, particularly interesting ones, and I find much of the negative reaction to homework-question posters to be somewhat strange, alien to my way of learning mathematics in a give-and-take exchange of mathematical ideas. Surely posting questions here and studying the answers is not much different than studying hard in the library, talking mathematics with one's colleagues at math tea or talking to one's professor, which are all excellent ways to learn mathematics. In particular, I expect that students who post questions here might learn just as much if not more from the resulting answers as from their professors---we have a number of talented mathematicians, who are very good at explaining things---and that math.SE provides a valuable service to students having unapproachable professors, having professors who do not explain well, or who have few colleagues able to help them. Furthermore, the math.SE community strongly benefits from the questions and the insightful answers that might be posted.

So my opinion is that there is no homework issue to speak of.

In particular, I hereby give all of my own students complete permission to post any and all their homework problems here, and indeed I encourage them to post their questions here and to study the answers well and thereby to learn some mathematics. I will be testing them on their understanding at the exam.

I would also encourage all mathematics professors to adopt a policy of encouraging collaboration on homework among their students, as talking about mathematics with one's colleagues is assuredly one of the best ways to learn mathematics. Indeed, I recommend that all professors should actively encourage their students to form study groups in order to work on their homework problems together. Learning as a group, they will go very far.

Finally, let me say that the policy of encouraging weasily half-answers to questions that have been deemed to be homework, consisting of obscure hints only, amounts to an annoying policy of encouraging bad answers here at math.SE, and I am completely opposed to it. For this reason, I think we should abandon or ignore the homework tag. If we are to answer mathematics questions, then let us answer them well, with solutions exhibiting such clarity and elegance as we can muster.

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You're ignoring the fact that many math classes are taken by unwilling students of other disciplines. Those students are after a solution to the exercise, not understanding. If not forced to tackle the questions by themselves (or with fellow students), they will never learn anything. This is especially true in regard to questions "phrased in the imperative". –  Yuval Filmus Feb 15 '11 at 4:03
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I'm not ignoring that fact. Such students will benefit from understanding the answers posted here. How is it different from learning from a book or from talking to their professor? Would you object to such students going to the library for the same reason? –  JDH Feb 15 '11 at 4:09
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@Joel I disagree that incomplete answers or hints are automatically bad answers. I have often given hints that were subsequently accepted and I claim that the students got more out of the exercises. Here are some examples: tinyurl.com/5szyuqc, tinyurl.com/62h5z8x, tinyurl.com/6huofk8. Also, your comparison with a conversation with a professor gives further support to the policy of "no complete answers to HW", since most professors I know would much prefer giving a hint a letting the students struggle with the problem, instead of handing them a solution on a silver plate. –  Alex B. Feb 15 '11 at 6:18
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Alex, I stand by my remarks. As a mathematician, I could never prefer an obscure half-answer to a mathematics question here, when an insightful discussion of general strategies or extensions and an enlightening solution might be available. –  JDH Feb 15 '11 at 14:12
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@JDH: I think whether or not a hint is a proper answer heavily depends on what is being asked. If the question is asking for hints or suggestions as to how to start a problem or how to progress from a particular point in a solution, a hint isn't an obscure half-answer. That is, the question being asked and the problem being discussed are not necessarily the same. –  Isaac Feb 15 '11 at 14:24
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@JDH: Hi, Joel. I think there are some good points you make; but I will point out some differences between learning from a book or getting a problem worked out here. The student who goes to the library will have to be somewhat active, locate applicable results, realize that they are applicable, adapt them, and then use them, except perhaps on the rare occasion in which he finds the exact assigned problem worked out in a book. If the specific problem is worked out here, this requires much less initiative and action on the part of the student. Likewise with group work or asking a prof. –  Arturo Magidin Feb 15 '11 at 14:34
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@JDH: Dear Joel, I see nothing wrong with collaboration (which has encouraged in most, if not all, of the math and science courses that I've taken, and many others whose syllabi I've read). However, in many of these courses, it is emphasized that students' write-ups should be their own, and for that reason I think writing a fully fleshed out (and easily copiable) answer to a question that is homework is sub-optimal: the student both gains an unfair advantage over her classmates (especially in classes where the grading is based almost entirely on homework) and does not get the same practice... –  Akhil Mathew Feb 15 '11 at 14:51
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...of thinking through a solution in sufficient detail oneself to produce a coherent submission. As @Arturo observes, it requires less effort for a student to copy (with perhaps some touch-ups) a solution posted here than to flesh out a hint provided by anyone else. I understand that the current policy of encouraging people to post hints to questions that are definitely homework is not perfect, and there may be both false positives and false negatives to people's guesses whether a question is homework, but I do not see how giving full solutions to homework questions would be a better one. –  Akhil Mathew Feb 15 '11 at 14:55
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(Incidentally, the student may even find herself in an awkward position --- at least according to course policies --- if she asks for a "hint" to a question and gets a full answer. Granted, the OP in the present situation made no such request.) –  Akhil Mathew Feb 15 '11 at 14:56
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The answers can always be edited to provide the fully clear and elaborate answers after the student has done the work. I have seen people willing to put in the effort to guide the student and then later modify the answer with a fuller better version of the answer. From what I have seen, people who provide hints are usually almost always willing to clarify any comments from the students (in fact, I have seen other people jump in too!). It would not be too much of an additional burden on them if we encouraged them to add the full answer later, IMO. –  Aryabhata Feb 15 '11 at 17:40
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@Akhil: I dislike the argument that students who are able to easily copy homework answers are given an “unfair advantage”. Presumably homework is assigned to give those who work through and understand it an advantage over those who don’t do it or just copy it, right? –  ghshtalt Feb 15 '11 at 17:53
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@ghsh: What about a take home exam? To give an example of the unfairness, and not just to other students: I wouldn't want to be operated upon by a doctor who got through college without actually understanding the subjects. Of course, this might be a failure of the education system, but that is not our concern right now. –  Aryabhata Feb 15 '11 at 20:35
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YES. +1 for a great answer, +1 for being reasonable as a professor, +1 for "test them at the exam", +1 for knowledge doesn't come out of thin air and discussion is a great way to learn. All too often, a professor will adopt a DADT policy on how his students get the assignments done, (i.e. "turn a blind eye" to forums altogether). Your perspective is extremely healthy and I'm sure your students will be a lot more comfortable with this straightforward policy. –  bobobobo Feb 16 '11 at 16:36
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As a teacher I generally encouraged collaboration on homework, albeit with the proviso that students write up their solutions in their own words. However, your final paragraph is throwing the baby out with the bath. Well-crafted hints can be excellent answers. It would make more sense to encourage good hints, and perhaps to encourage answerers to go back after a few days to flesh out their hints, if they've not already done so. –  Brian M. Scott May 8 '12 at 22:21
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+1: To commenters including @YuvalFilmus, who suggests we should concern ourselves with students who don't have willingness to learn. I don't agree. I prefer to assume that a student does have a willingness to learn and deal with this case properly - for these students, a complete answer is far more helpful than a hint that may or may not hit the source of their misunderstanding. Educationally, it's much preferable to provide a complete answer. –  Ronald May 10 '12 at 11:44
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Mainly directed at user6560's answer.

The answer on when using someone's hints or ideas becomes frowned upon is up to the professor on your class. The problem here is not whether or not you are using the hints in your write-ups, but the fact that you failed to disclose to us that you were seeking answers (or hints, or help, or whatever) to homework. My main problem is that it makes any action I take on your question a potential accessory to academic dishonesty, while keeping me in the dark about it (and, to some degree, makes me feel used). Had you disclosed ahead of time that these are homework problems you are working on for a course, I doubt it would have caused any problems.

Let me also say that I think you are misunderstanding the point of giving credit; it's not because we need or want the credit. You aren't insulting us by not giving credit. The problem is that you are potentially appropriating the work of others as your own. Even setting aside the issues of academic honesty, let me point out a few of the problems with this that you may not even have thought about:

Say I'm teaching a course, assign homework, including some problems that I know are challenging. My students turn in wonderful solutions, well-written, clear, often insightful, sometimes even clever, without having to ask me for help, essentially indicating that they are coming up with these solutions on their own. Not only will I get the impression that I have really good students (good for them), I will also get the impression that I am doing a truly wonderful job teaching the material (which may not be the case at all!), and that the material is easy for the students, so I can go faster, cover more advanced material, and spend some time on the more obscure but interesting bits since the students are getting the basics so well. If it turns out that the solutions are being obtained by asking for help from elsewhere, that the students are not getting the material as well as I think they are, then they are going to be very ill-served by a course in which I am going faster, with less detail, and not going over the basics as well as they need.

In a sense, the homework is not just for the students, it's also for me to gauge how things are going. If my students turn in work obtained from others without acknowledgement, then they are giving me a false impression of how things are going, which can be very bad for them in the long run.

In that same vein, I may construct exams that are too hard for the students, because I think the problem was so well understood given the results I was given. During the exam, they will not have the benefit of coming to the website to ask for questions, resulting in bad grades for the student. Not a good outcome at all.

So it's not about me expecting credit for the help, it's about you giving your professor an accurate picture of how things are going. In fact, if I were to give you an answer I would not require, request, or expect to be thanked by name in your write-up, though in order to abide by the plagiarism policy of your school you would need to mention that you obtained help/key ideas from this website (you could do so without mentioning me by name). I'm not sensitive because I'm annoyed at "missing a citation" (I don't even report citations of my work in journals when I file my annual work report). It's about being unhappy at being part of actions that will make someone else's job that much more difficult (a job with which I can sympathize, since I also have it).

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I see, I had not looked at it from that point of view. I did, actually, get something out of this though. If one reads my responses to the questions, I was not just trying to "get the answer." I guess I'm learning more than just math on here. –  user6560 Feb 14 '11 at 12:17
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This is well said. I wonder what percentage of modern grad students do their own work. –  Carl Brannen Mar 23 '11 at 1:28
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At what point does using someone's hints or ideas become frowned upon? I have been made WELL AWARE that my recent actions are not accepted here. I am trying to understand why. Do not get angry with me please. I am not trying to steal someone elses original ideas here... These exercises are somewhat elementary to those who have far surpassed this material, just as the calculus questions tutors who help with homework in a math help room run into.

The solutions to these questions must have been around for some time, and there is little possibility any of the "hints" given to such questions are original. It was even stated so in one of the questions. I'm am NOT saying they are not original, and I appreciate all the help I have gotten, and I WAS helped. The responses have aided in my understanding. And I thank you for that.

In addition, the material is elementary to many of you here, and I do not expect credit for helping someone with a proof in elementary set theory. I did not even THINK that something would be so sensitive here, but I am wrong, and again, am trying to understand why.

I am sorry for offending this community.

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@user6560: granted, the following is buried a bit and slightly hard to find in the FAQ (some time in the future I'll get around to cleaning it up); but we do have a policy on homework questions. Please follow it in the future. –  Willie Wong Feb 13 '11 at 22:59
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+1: Thanks, user6560, for posting here for to ask for clarification of the problem. –  Jonas Meyer Feb 14 '11 at 0:03
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@user, here we have the luxury of italics... Writing words in CAPS is usually a bad way to emphasize, seen by many as a for of shouting. –  Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Feb 14 '11 at 3:19
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Arturo has given a great explanation. Here is another aspect: many teachers spend a considerable amount of time coming up with nice problems that are supposed to make their students think and enjoy finding the solution after a serious expenditure of time and effort. If you simply ask for a solution on the web, you ruin your professor's work. While I encourage you to not do that at all (it's much better to spend several days stuck, than to ask for a solution), the problem would be much smaller if you described the situation, since we could take care not to spoil your professor's work. –  Alex B. Feb 14 '11 at 7:23
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@Jonas: for future reference, moderators do not have the power to migrate comments to another thread. In this particular case certain (not generally available) work around was used. User6560 likely could not comment on Arturo's post because he/she has fewer than 50 rep points at the moment. –  Willie Wong Feb 14 '11 at 12:20
    
@Willie: Thanks. I asked because it looked like the answer had been turned into a comment (which I've seen done before), but on the wrong thread. I realized the rep$\lt50$ thing, but didn't know what powers you have for moving comments. –  Jonas Meyer Feb 14 '11 at 12:54
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Just a comment more than an answer, professors need to change the way they teach and not award marks for take-home assignments, unless the assignment can be marked by some kind of stamp of uniqueness (like ISU type assignments).

This will change in coming years, as professors brought up in the Web age start teaching.

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any suggestions as to -how- to do this change? no grade at all for take-home assignments? –  Mitch Apr 19 '11 at 21:04
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In my opinion non-unique take-home assignments shouldn't be graded at the university level. Frequent in-class quizzing can be used instead (for the purpose of checked participation). –  bobobobo Apr 23 '11 at 19:33
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