How to ask a homework question?

  • Can I ask a homework question here?
  • How do I ask a homework question on this website?
  • What information should I include in a question about homework?
  • Why don't you provide a complete answer to my question?
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Since there has been no proposed changes in a while, I've gone ahead and made this an FAQ. (Some discussiony comments were removed, so as not to distract.) –  Willie Wong Apr 9 '11 at 18:43

1 Answer 1

up vote 80 down vote accepted

Can I ask a homework question here?

There are actually two factors involved here, one is on your end, and one over here on this website.

As a general rule, we do not discourage any specific category of questions, as long as it is mathematical. But please do make an effort to search through the list of previously asked questions. In our experience homework questions are usually not very imaginative, and tend to fall in one of the abstract categories of commonly asked questions. We will close duplicate questions, especially if they are of homework type.

On the other hand, whether your learning institution (middle school, high school, college, etc.) and your teacher or professor allows you to consult other people, or to post the exact question on the internet, is something that is usually addressed by your institution's honor code or rules and regulations, and any specific class policies. You should ask your teacher whether asking a homework question here is appropriate before posting your question.

How do I ask a homework question on this website?

Please use the homework tag. This serves several purposes: the most important of which is to let the answerer know to give an answer that more clearly explains the underlying concepts. In other words, we believe in the "teach a person to fish" philosophy.

Also, please put some work into formulating your question. Please do not just copy and paste the exact question text from your homework sheet. In particular, when you are asking for help, writing in imperative mode ("Show that...", "Compute...", or "Prove or find a counterexample: ...") is at the very least impolite: you are, after all, trying to ask a question, not give an assignment. It also turns many people off.

If you feel that it is somehow just so much more straightforward to copy and paste, then it is generally good real world advice to both quote the question (because you are copying after all) and give a reference to the source (so that others can refer to the context of the question). (For example, if the question is taken from a textbook, please include the title, author, and edition.)

You should also volunteer all relevant information (see next section). It is a waste of everybody's time if someone has to ask for what you should explicitly have given.

What information should I include in a question about homework?

The following are some things that may help your question get better answers, or at least answer more tailored to your situation.

  • The context. What kind of course it is, what textbook you use. It wouldn't help you if someone gives an answer using some sophisticated, high-powered machinery that you have never seen before. (An example would be asking for help about a step that is used to prove a big theorem in the textbook, and receiving an answer using said big theorem.)
  • All the definitions. If you are asking about a question that is more advanced than basic college-level calculus, then you should consider including the definitions. A lot of homework questions are assigned to familiarize you with the definitions used in the course. For many objects in mathematics there are several equivalent definitions. What needs to be proven when starting from one set of definitions may actually be a trivial consequence in a different set of definitions and vice versa. It is important that you let us know what framework you work in so our answers can properly address the question.
  • Show your work. You should definitely include any partial work you have done. This will help bolster your claim that you are not just coming here asking other people to do your homework for you, and it will help the answerers to give more clinical responses. Showing your work will help us gauge where you are having problems: if it is a technical thing near the end, a short to the point answer will suffice; if it is some fundamental problem with understanding the subject, we will then write a longer, more detailed response. It will also prevent people from spending a lot of time going over ground that you have already covered or understand well already.

Why don't you provide a complete answer to my question?

We've had another discussion from the point of view of the answerer, and you should see that for a more complete discussion. To quote the accepted answer in that thread, we feel that

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 her or his own correct answer!

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Is there a position of the powers-that-be at math.SE about the inclusion in questions, as images, of pages and pages of printed documents? For a recent example, see math.stackexchange.com/questions/27602. This modus operandi seems to go against the principle that some work should be put into the question and I, for one, would very much like to see it specifically discouraged, but I do not know your opinion on this. –  Did Mar 17 '11 at 18:40
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@Didier: I agree with you. In dealing with office hours and tutoring, what is often very helpful is to ask the student to state the definition and to state the question to be solved in his own words. The fact that sometimes this jump start is all that's required to let the student come up with an answer on his own still amuses me. –  Willie Wong Mar 17 '11 at 19:39
    
@Didier: on the other hand, I am not sure if that is an item that is specific to homework. Maybe you should ask that as a new discussion on Meta? It would probably have to go under an FAQ item about "How to include images in questions" with the heading "When to include images and when not to include images". –  Willie Wong Mar 17 '11 at 19:45
    
Is the response then to a 'malformed' question, to give a link to this page? –  Mitch Mar 29 '11 at 14:12
    
@WillieWong "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." I assume that you are objecting to giving a full answer to a homework question. I disagree for several reasons. To be continued. –  Makoto Kato Aug 6 '12 at 3:14
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Here are the reasons. 1) If a full answer is not given, many members of this site may not understand the solution. 2) An asker can always skip the proof if he thinks it's harmful. 3) Dishonest people can always ask a homework question as a non-homework question. 4) I don't see why we should differentiate homework from non-homework. If giving a full solution is harmful to a homework asker, I think it's the same for a non-homework asker. 5) I think the main aim of this site is to build Q&A database. I think good and canonical answers are desired. –  Makoto Kato Aug 6 '12 at 3:15
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@Makoto: I assume you've eventually read the two sentences immediately following the ones you quoted? Seriously man, I sometimes wonder about your reading abilities. –  Willie Wong Jan 25 '13 at 17:11
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@WillieWong I had read and completely understood them before I posted the above comments. –  Makoto Kato Jan 25 '13 at 18:55

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