A professor of mine has always said that we learn mathematics via lots of examples and lots of counterexamples, as opposed to stating and proving theorems on a blackboard. I think this approach could be generalized to MSE.

We see many users (many of them new) posting questions that do not abide by the rules and suggestions listed in the FAQ (e.g. using the imperative mood, not outlining good faith attempts to solve, etc.) and it seems the usual policy is to simply refer the offending user to the relevant portions of the FAQ. While I think the FAQ is very well written, I think it could also use additional support in the form of example questions and answers that model good and bad behavior on MSE.

I imagine we could create a few mock-questions that are understandable by anyone; some would be well written and abide by the FAQ, while others would be the kind of questions that would result in a downvote. We could outline what these questions are doing well, and where they could use improvement. This would also be a good place to provide models of well-written answers and answers in need of improvement. We could then refer users to these mock questions and answers, and have them linked to in the FAQ.

What do you think?

There may even be some model questions and answers on the site already. –  robjohn Jan 14 '13 at 18:59
That's definitely true; I'm saying we can turn those into a resource by pointing out what they do well and where they can improve, then using them as go-to examples for newer users. (Or make our own, whichever works. Or both.) –  neuguy Jan 14 '13 at 19:00
New users don't read FAQ in the first place, why would they read examples and counterexamples? –  user53153 Jan 14 '13 at 20:24
@5PM Of course, if they never read the FAQ then there's no reason to think they'd read the examples. But for those few that do, I think examples would help them learn what is considered good behavior on MSE. And these are precisely the people we should try to help - those that want to ask good questions or provide good answers, and just need to see how that's done. I myself am a fairly new user, and I'd like to see concretely (as opposed to the more abstract suggestions in the FAQ) what the top askers/responders consider when they ask or respond to a question. –  neuguy Jan 14 '13 at 21:37
@proximal Nearly all suggestions in How to ask a MathOverflow question apply to Math.SE as well. Although personally I'm not convinced by their suggestion to "make your title your question" and seriously dislike the suggested question format "Is every regular doodad a widgit?". There's no accounting for taste. –  user53153 Jan 15 '13 at 4:11
If such list is to be created it must be maintained on a weekly/monthly basis. Otherwise it will inflate the votes on those posts, which strikes to me somewhat unfair. If there are roughly 150k answers, and 1,500 of them are excellent, why should a random sample of 40-50 get the benefit of being on that list? –  Asaf Karagila Jan 15 '13 at 18:58
@AsafKaragila This is why I'm suggesting a mock question. What if we could build a page that looks like a regular MSE question page and add comments (maybe in text boxes+arrows?) pointing out the good or bad? We could even have specialized types of mock question pages, for example I think users would benefit from a page that models the ideal way to ask and answer a homework question. –  neuguy Jan 15 '13 at 19:12
I can probably write a good answer (and may have written a couple in the past two and a half years), but I can't think about writing a good "mock" answer. I can't really Lorem Ipsum math. –  Asaf Karagila Jan 15 '13 at 19:19
@proximal We cannot build a new page for Ask a question dialog. The dialog is the same across the SE network: "Is your question about <blah>? We prefer questions that can be answered, not just discussed. Provide details. Share your research. If your question is about this website, ask it on meta instead. read the faq» asking help »" I wonder if the how to ask page can be customized and expanded (perhaps with sample questions too), like the MO page to which I linked above. –  user53153 Jan 15 '13 at 23:36
@5PM Something like the MO page you linked to is close to what I have in mind. I think having an annotated page that simulates a question/answer would be a nice, concise supplement to the existing faq. I wonder if there's any way for the community to get together to try building such a page... –  neuguy Jan 17 '13 at 19:46
I think it is a good idea that will not help the problem. There is already information on the help center about good questions, which I think is very good. I suspect most people who ask bad questions have not read it, or have not understood it. The bad questions I see are either basic homework posts or questions where OP is in a fog about what s/he is asking but doesn't realize it. –  Ross Millikan Jun 21 at 5:04

4 Answers 4

For good real-world examples, go to the main list of questions and sort by votes. The highest voted 100 questions or so tend to ones that became blockbusters by resonating with the internet fad of the day and being linked from some high-traffic site. But if you fast-forward to the questions with a score of (say) 25 to 40, most of those will be ones that are really good questions.

Good bad examples are harder to find, because the really bad questions tend to be closed and deleted.

On the other hand, you can take any math textbook, choose a random exercise and type it into the question textbox, verbatim, without adding any introduction or comments of your own. That will result in an average representative of a bad question. For good measure, make the title of your bad question "Hard problem" or just take the first few words of the text in the exercise whether they make independent sense or not.

Related resources: Good Question badge, the list of questions that recently reached the score of 25. Also, many of the questions that earn the Tumbleweed badge are poorly worded, incomplete or incorrectly tagged (not all; some tumbleweeds are good but hard questions). –  user53153 Jan 14 '13 at 22:44
These are good sources. Do you think we can make them a community resource by commenting on where they succeed (or don't succeed)? See, I'm not asking where I can find such examples, but whether we can select a few standard examples and document their successes in a mock question-answer link we can direct users to. –  neuguy Jan 15 '13 at 2:04
I actually prefer the descriptive title "Easy problem". I alaways wonder why people assume problems they cannot solve must be easy. –  Michael Greinecker Jan 15 '13 at 9:28
Sure, these are good sources...but is a new user really going to "go to the main list of questions and sort by votes [and] fast-forward to the questions with a score of (say) 25 to 40". Plus, this leaves it to chance - often these questions have high votes because they are something that lots of people care about. They are not necessarily good or well-formed questions. –  user1729 Jan 15 '13 at 9:42
On the issue that truly bad questions tend to disappear, see plus.google.com/114134834346472219368/posts/TPjSPPd1sLu and its follow-up, plus.google.com/114134834346472219368/posts/ejnuzUjzBCE –  Andres Caicedo Jan 16 '13 at 2:42
Apart from them disappearing by closing/deletion, I think it would not be appropriate to pick out real-world questions as bad examples: "Your question is bad. See <question by Henning Makholm> for a good example on how to formulate/format/structure/present a question. And see <question by userxyz> for a really awful question - see what a bad guy this userxyz is? Don't be like him!" (I hope there is no real account userxyz here) –  Hagen von Eitzen Jan 16 '13 at 16:11

Sometimes we think a question is good because we think we can give it a good answer; these are the cases where the question might not be as good as we suppose it to be; but a non apparent mirror in which we are looking at ourselves.


I think this is an excellent idea.

I think it would be very helpful to have an example of a well-formed question. However, what I think is more important is that there should be comments telling us why is it good. For instance, descriptive title, they remembered to take caps lock off, they have a high accept rate etc. What I have in mind is a sample post with lots of red ink, circling things which are good and bad and telling us why. Very visual, and can be taken in in 30 seconds.

A single example is probably enough - noone really cares enough to look at more than one!

I think this is better than reading the FAQ as the FAQ is quite dry. Noone reads it before their first time. Seriously. (Unless they're really procrastinating hard, like I was.) The askers just want help! So, if you can give them all the essential information in a single picture then that is good. It will complement the FAQ, not replace it.

Indeed, what would be quite nice would be that every red-ink comment would link to some part of the FAQ. For instance, the question asker will have 100% accept rate, this will be circled with a comment saying "high accept rate!" and a link to somewhere telling them what this means (after a quick search, I cannot find acceptance rates in the FAQ though...!). So it sort of becomes a gateway to the FAQ.

High accept rate is good, but that's more an issue of being a responsible member of the SE community, and doesn't necessarily mean that the user's posts are any good. –  Cameron Buie Jan 16 '13 at 16:48

Looks like your wish is already granted: we have an all-new about page. This redesign was announced a week ago.

It uses a real Question-and-Answer pair (question by Charlie Yabben, answer by Michael Hardy), but does not explain what makes that question or answer particularly good. According to the meta.SO thread linked above, moderators can choose which question will be displayed on the About page.

Reading (or scrolling) the page to the bottom, you earn the badge Informed.

The page is slick, but one UI detail annoys me: the about link in the header is present on main but not on meta. As a result, the meta and main links have different position on the screen, and I can't go back-and-forth with a quick pair of clicks.

Is it known how the thread appearing as an example thread is chosen? –  Asaf Karagila Jan 18 '13 at 1:14
@AsafKaragila Apparently it's automatic now (in algorithm we trust appears to be the motto of SE developers), but according to this answer the moderators are/will be able to change the selection. // BTW I'm not surprised you are one of the first three users to get the Informed badge. –  user53153 Jan 18 '13 at 1:23
I'm not sure how to interpret that last part of the comment. I am also the seventh user, which as I recall, hardly ever one of the first three. :-) –  Asaf Karagila Jan 18 '13 at 1:25
@AsafKaragila Sorry, I keep forgetting that the (reverse-chronological) order of users on the badge page is by rows and then by columns, not the other way around. You were the 7th to get the badge. The first three users to become Informed were Vobo, Mike Spivey, and Julian Kuelshammer. Congrats! –  user53153 Jan 18 '13 at 1:29
Huh. Nifty. Do new users automatically get directed to the about page? This (and including a link to the faq) might improve the quality of a lot of questions. Granted, that idea probably belongs in a new thread altogether. –  neuguy Jan 18 '13 at 2:12
@proximal That's a good question. When I log out and click "Ask Question", the dialog is the same as before. There are links to FAQ and How to Ask on the right, but no prominent link to About page (it's present just that the regular link on the top of the page). But maybe SE will incorporate it later, after making sure that it works right. (E.g., does not show junk questions as good examples.) –  user53153 Jan 18 '13 at 2:19

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