I'm a soon to be math graduate student and thought that this site would be a good learning environment for my extracurricular endeavors. Through my experience here, I've come to realize that a lot of the more reputable users are very quick to answer questions with seemingly perfect information which discourages me from continuing learning through answering questions on this site. In my opinion, the more reputable users should let some of the less reputable users answer questions for their learning benefit. Is this an inappropriate thread? Am I being unreasonable? What are some of your thoughts and concerns? By all means, close the thread if I am off course.


migrated from math.stackexchange.com Jan 13 '13 at 23:10

This question came from our site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields.

Tag it as soft question, I guess. – Git Gud Jan 13 '13 at 23:05
@PavelM touché~ – Rustyn Jan 13 '13 at 23:38
Not to disparage your question, but the main reason why you see people with high reputation answering a lot of questions is that people who answer a lot of questions end up with high reputation. – Rahul Jan 13 '13 at 23:39
@RahulNarain Thank you for your input. – Rustyn Jan 13 '13 at 23:57
@PavelM While I do agree with you Pavel and see your point, I still believe that a lot of those questions are unanswered for a reason. – Rustyn Jan 14 '13 at 0:03
Extending on Pavel M's comment: there are many questions with mediocre (accepted) answers. This site would benefit from adding better quality answers to these questions. Questions with accepted answers (even low-quality ones) tend to be largely ignored, so there's no race to answer. – Douglas S. Stones Jan 14 '13 at 1:36
Just because there are answers already posted should in no way stop you from answering the questions yourself. When I started with this site, couple of years back, I knew nothing (even now I know only very little), but I used to answer questions others had already answered. Often my answers were/are incorrect/wrong/sub-optimal compared to other answer from people who know the subject really well. But I guess this is the way one has to learn, at-least thats the way I prefer to learn. – user17762 Jan 14 '13 at 2:14
@Marvis: You may know ‘very little’, but I wish that I had your knack for finding clever computations! – Brian M. Scott Jan 14 '13 at 14:50
" Questions with accepted answers (even low-quality ones) tend to be largely ignored, so there's no race to answer. " --- Is there some way to tag answers as low-quality, so to encourage better answers? – kjetil b halvorsen Jan 14 '13 at 18:15
Don’t worry too much about speed; go for added value. A good explanation is usually better than a fast solution. This is an example of an answer with added value (from someone whose rep at the time was in three digits); as it happens, it was the first answer posted, but given its length and originality, it might very easily not have been. – Brian M. Scott Jan 20 '13 at 10:27
I am a slow typer and even slower at coming up with a decent answer. Sometimes I get points for answers that are several months old. – Jay Mar 12 '13 at 23:10

(This was going to be a comment on Carl Mummert's answer, but it started getting too long.)

A long time ago I made the same decision as Carl to back off from giving quick answers to relatively easy questions. I haven't always kept to it, and there are certain tags (e.g., linear-programming) that often go ignored but that I do know something about and so will jump in with a quick answer anyway. But for the most part, I think there is a lot to be learned from trying to answer questions, and I think it serves many of the learners on this site better if those of us with more knowledge back off from time to time from giving the quick answers. It's easy to say to just ignore answers that appear rapidly, but it's much harder actually to do it.

There is also the reputation issue. I think most of us have a love/hate relationship with rep. One of its more positive functions is that it helps people feel like they are a part of the site, that they have more of a stake in it. For those of us with high rep to jump in quickly with answers a lot of the time retards the process of newcomers building up rep, which means that fewer people feel like they have as much of a stake in the site. That in turn prevents the math.SE community from having as broad a base of regular users, which I don't think is as healthy for the site in the long run.

(While I'm editorializing, I try to be profligate with my voting partly for the same reason of helping others feel more like they are part of the site.)

So, while I would never want to see anything like this policy imposed, I would at least encourage other high-rep users to think about pausing before giving quick answers from time to time.


math.SE can be a useful learning environment on the answerer side, but that isn't what it's optimized for. It's optimized for answering people's questions. If all you want to do is learn, then look at questions and don't look at their answers.

+1, I like this idea. – Rustyn Jan 13 '13 at 23:55
I think that you hit the nail on the head for me. Thanks for putting things in perspective. You're right, SE should be the optimal environment for asking questions and getting them answered. – Rustyn Jan 14 '13 at 0:09
This is too one-sided in my opinion, so although I can see your side, I am going to downvote. I think that the OP has at least a reasonable point. If those with a lot of rep monopolize questions, we may not have a good collection of replacement editors when we leave. And I remember that I saw once that the key audience for us to worry about is answerers, not askers. – Carl Mummert Jan 14 '13 at 3:05
Let me point out that for many types of questions it's often valuable to have a diversity of answers so people can see different methods, explanations, and perspectives. Overall it is a good idea to answer a question even if other answers exist. – Qiaochu Yuan Jan 14 '13 at 4:33

I think there is a valid point in the question. I am going to make a voluntary effort not to answer "straightforward" (in my opinion) questions for at least a few hours after they are posted. At some point, an editor has enough rep to ignore the "low hanging fruit".

+1 and it is possible to take any effort out of this, by changing the Math.SE bookmark to this link – user53153 Jan 14 '13 at 4:26
For what it's worth, I didn't mean to imply that I was against this kind of policy individually (I try to follow it myself but occasionally I get tempted), I just don't think it should be imposed by the system (and I am posting here as a representative of the system). – Qiaochu Yuan Jan 14 '13 at 4:33
Where about is the limit where one should start to think of oneself as "having high rep"? 730? 1000? 10000? – kjetil b halvorsen Jan 14 '13 at 18:20
@Qiaochu: I completely agree that it can only work as a voluntary effort. – Carl Mummert Jan 14 '13 at 23:12
@kjetil b halvorsen: I think that an editor can decide that for himself or herself, or decide to ignore me and just answer as many questions as possible. I think that math.stackexchange.com/privileges is useful for seeing the concrete benefits of higher rep. The highest rep that earns new rights is 20,000. – Carl Mummert Jan 14 '13 at 23:16
The answer may be to incentivize Carl's magnanimous voluntary policy with the scoring. If there were some way to tease out "easy" questions from "hard" and to give higher-scoring users lower pay for the former, and higher for the latter, they would organically refrain from picking the low hanging fruit. Might also relieve compulsive answering syndrome. – BobStein-VisiBone Mar 8 '13 at 18:57
@BobStein-VisiBone: I doubt that would have much effect. I, at least, don't stop and think about how much reputation I might be able to earn from an answer before typing it (not that I'm a high-rep user). – Tara B Mar 16 '13 at 13:05
@TaraB I concede you don't consciously choose higher scoring activities. But you do notice when your rep goes up, right? This site is a massive testament that incentives work. That behavior can be shepherded en masse, organically by shrewd scoring. – BobStein-VisiBone Mar 16 '13 at 14:21

The fact that people posted answers should not deter you from writing your own answers. Even if you don't post them at the end. The process of writing an answer can teach you a lot about how much you understand something, and even more so if you write something which is intended as an answer.

If you wrote an answer to a question and you feel that you did a good job, post the answer. It's unlikely that people will get mad at additional answers.

I was getting discouraged at seeing the solutions so fast to questions I would be thinking about, (Kind of like someone spoiling an ending to a movie)... I was not deterred from answering just disheartened. – Rustyn Jan 14 '13 at 0:01
You shouldn't be disheartened. In this site you can answer simple questions, and I strongly recommend this especially if you're learning something. I have studied a lot of set theory by answering questions. In fact if I look at answers I wrote only a year ago, I feel slightly ashamed by their quality when I compare it to my current knowledge and answering abilities. This should hint you how much one can learn by answering. – Asaf Karagila Jan 14 '13 at 0:09
I think you misunderstand me. I was being disheartened by seeing the solution, (spoiler), but Yuan gave me a simple solution to this. – Rustyn Jan 14 '13 at 0:12
Related: "2.5 answers per question is good, only 1 answer per question needs some work. In a healthy site, questions receive multiple answers and the best answer is voted to the top." -- Area 51 – Douglas S. Stones Jan 14 '13 at 1:26
"It's unlikely that people will get mad at additional answers." Oh, the irony... – Henning Makholm Jan 14 '13 at 22:16

I know where you're coming from and even though one also learns by answering questions, I believe the main way to learn from this site is by having our own questions answered. There are both advantages and disavantadges to what you suggested, however considering what I stated above, I believe it's better to keep things the way they are. Just my 2 cents.

I do not deny that I have learned a lot from this community and I'm perfectly fine with the way that it is... (The nature of the beast), I was just hoping that people with higher reputation would stick to answering more difficult questions and let the low-lying fruit be available for picking. – Rustyn Jan 13 '13 at 23:15

No one wants answer-quality to suffer. Maybe the way for the @Carl Mummert magnanimous policy to catch on is in the incentive power of the scoring.

Suppose for example that answering a 10-day-old question with 1000 views scored significantly more than a 1-day-old question with 10 views. Then sage users would be gently and organically coaxed away from the low-hanging fruit. And noobs could cut their teeth on the easy stuff. I'd rather sages were thinking more about the hard stuff anyway.

Maybe this might help relieve compulsive answering syndrome too.

+1 for 'compulsive answering syndrome' – Rustyn Mar 8 '13 at 21:42

I just want to echo some of what other people have said. When I started here, I definitely wasn't very fast. Even with simple questions that I should know how to solve, it took me a long time to compose an answer. And by the time my answer arrived, other people had already answered the question.

I would encourage you to just answer anyway. This site isn't about being the fastest, it is about giving good answers to questions. If you can learn something from giving an answer, then I say: just do it. With time your answers will get better and better (and you will be faster). One thing that happened a few times to me in the beginning was that even though I was slow and I didn't feel like I had the best solution, my answer was still picked as the "best". Now I wonder if maybe my inexperience actually made a better answer.

You have probably also seen lots of quick answers that actually aren't that great answers. I have definitely been guilty several times of quickly posting an answer that turned out to be plain wrong. Or maybe I had not actually read the question in detail and I was not even answering what the OP was asking.

So just keep going!

Now I wonder if maybe my inexperience actually made a better answer: it may well have done, if you happened to hit the OP at just the right level. – Brian M. Scott Jan 18 '13 at 18:31

I would say if you type up an answer, and you feel good about it, may as well post it. It is not like you are trolling. You are a mathematician. If for whatever reason you don't like your answer or see someone else post something beautiful and quick, maybe you can learn something from their answer and its simplicity or whatever it is.

I think you have something to gain and not much to lose by posting an answer.


I agree with you, @Rustyn. What Yuan says is true, but I think that huge lot of learning can be done by struggling to answer questions.

I think it'd be a good idea to have at least two separate answers sections in each thread: one for greenhorns (say, up to some 1000 points or so), and another one for more experienced ones.

Yet I've no big hopes this will ever occur: one would expect this site would require from people signing up to give at least their mathematical level (high school, undergraduate, graduate...), in order to know what level, more or less, of answer can suit him better.


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