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The purpose of this thread is to determine what our homework policy should be, if any.

In previous discussions, we saw:

Homework policies and discussions on other sites:

This is a call for homework policy proposals. Please put your opinion forward. Please try to propose workable policies. Consider these questions:

  • Do homework questions get different treatment?
  • Does homework only cover questions given as exercise in a class? What about self-study?
  • How do we decide whether a question is homework?
  • If there is a dispute as to whether a question is homework, who gets to decide?
  • Are homework questions marked as such? (Note that the idea of having a tag is unpopular.)
  • Does the policy risk preventing good questions from being asked or answered?
  • If someone asks a question which was obviously given as a homework exercise, and someone else asks substantially the same question but it is obvious that the asker is not a student who gets homework assigned, are the two questions treated differently?

Policy discussion rules: This discussion is open until Wednesay, June 27 at some unspecified time of day (probably in the evening in Europe), i.e. in roughly 10 days' time. To be sure to get your voice in, please post before Tuesday, June 26. On that day, the three community moderators will examine the proposals and either decide that a consensus has emerged or decide which options to offer in a referendum. (If you do not like these meta rules, object early and loudly.)

The discussion leading to the referendum is now over, and voting has opened. You may still post here if you have a different proposal, but the referendum will take precedence.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think it might be better to have 2 weeks in place of 10 days, it would fit better with people's work cycles. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Jun 18 '12 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Kaveh Shows there'll always be some discontent. Someone (I forget who) had proposed a one-week period, I thought it was better to allow a few more days in case someone was especially busy or away. If we set 15 days someone will ask for 17... We've already had several threads on the subject. Let's stay with this deadline. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jun 18 '12 at 21:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Kaveh I'd expected you or someone else to propose adopting Mathematics's homework policy wholesale. Not that I like it, but I'm surprised it hasn't been proposed. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jun 25 '12 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ lol :) I have been busy recently and haven't found the time to read the discussions below carefully yet. I will try to read them today and will let you know if I have anything to add to the discussion. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Jun 25 '12 at 23:46
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    $\begingroup$ I vote for the Math Area policy. As a former teacher, I am uncomfortable without at least a policy that encourages students to mark their questions as homework and responders to answer such questions with hints rather than fully worked out solutions. I know there are many problems with such a policy, but I'd rather not just capitulate in the face of them and open things up totally for homework cheating (for that's what it is). At least if there is a policy in place, some if not most of the honest folks will do the right thing. Without such a policy, honest folks are penalized. $\endgroup$ – David Lewis Jun 26 '12 at 3:04
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I assume that we are talking about good questions only. Bad questions should be closed; that includes many homework-dump-questions that copy their assignment and give nothing more. There are three kinds of (good) questions.

  1. The asker explicitly states that the question is homework, they want only hints, or similar.
  2. The asker does not say so, but the question feels like homework (highly subjective).
  3. The question is apparently not homework.

So here is how I propose to deal with type 1 and 2 questions. In essence, the philosophy is not to fret about what is homework and what is not, but to act on the askers' wishes and to ask answerers to maintain professional integrity.

  • No homework tag. As Alex has explained well, it does not serve a useful purpose.
  • Whether the question is homework is not discussed. Trust the user or act on your suspicion.
  • If you answer, always give a complete answer (if you can).
  • On questions of type 1, honor the asker's request and post only hints. In order to fulfill the previous item, put details into spoiler tags (example 1, example 2). If you want, add the full details a week or so later so the asker can not use your answer to cheat.
  • On questions of type 2, follow your moral compass. You can treat such questions as type 1, ask the asker to improve/clarify their question, ignore them, downvote or even vote to close if the question is bad (e.g. no own effort, a copied assignment, ...).

Keep in mind that if we establish a climate of "We solve your homework, no questions asked" the site may gain a bad reputation among experts.

On the more difficile issue of how to enforce the policy -- that is, how moderators and high reps can make sure that other users adhere to above "rules" -- I suggest the following:

  • Remove all occurrences of (they will keep popping up).
  • If unclear, ask the asker whether they want hints or full answers.
  • Inform the inevitable "Is this homework?" commenters by linking to the policy.
  • On type 1 questions, ask answerers to act on the policy, edit posts accordingly if possible and vote down otherwise. That is, show a hard front here.
  • On type 2 questions, (at most) inform answerers of your suspicion and ask them to consider they might enable cheating. No further measures.
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  • $\begingroup$ I mostly agree with this answer, except that I am categorically against treating homework questions as cheating or reproaching answerers. If you removed the two sentences containing the word “cheat”, I would agree with this answer, although I do not think that answering homework questions would give the site a bad reputation. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jun 18 '12 at 1:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Gilles: Cheating is a reality (see our latest string of dump questions). Of course we can choose to ignore it; I just don't think that would be wise. At my department, exercise hand-ins are graded and determine whether you can attend the main exam. I don't see our professors recommending cs.SE if they knew we removed that barrier. Of course we can choose to relinquish their support. Note that I am only talking about an internal decision of potential answerers; I don't think we can objectively decide whether questions are cheat attemps. That is no reason not to raise awareness, though. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Jun 18 '12 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ If you grade hand-ins, you know you can't tell who you're grading. Feel free to go hard on your own student if they dump their homework questions on Stack Exchange. But if someone posts a real, answerable question on Stack Exchange, you have no business asking people not to answer it, even if the question clearly came from a homework assignment. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jun 18 '12 at 7:34
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Rationale

  1. Do not prevent legitimate questions.
  2. Avoid bickering about what constitutes homework.
  3. Have grounds for closing obvious dumps of homework assignments that no one cares enough about to answer.

Goal 1 implies a policy that is not overly restrictive: the asker is given the benefit of doubt. Goal 2 implies that the consequences of being considered homework must not be so important that people will fight over it. Goal 2 also implies that there must be some form of homework policy, otherwise we'll keep fighting over it forever. Goal 3 implies that the policy is not just “homework questions are allowed, period”.

Policy

There is no homework policy. But there are guidelines for homework questions.

Guidelines

It is recommended for anyone asking a homework question that you:

  • try to solve the problem on your own, and show in your question what you tried and where you are stuck;
  • look up the relevant concepts in Wikipedia, your lecture notes and your textbooks;
  • search the site for similar questions.

If you do not do this, your question may be downvoted or closed, for the reasons explained below. Note that if your question is closed, you may still edit it; the question can be reopened if the edits make it acceptable.

Commentary on the guidelines

The existing rules of Stack Exchange already give us some grounds for closing the dregs of the homework questions. We might be more prone to applying the close reasons in cases where the asker is obviously dumping his homework on us. Questions that show obvious effort from the asker (“here's what I tried, and then I'm stuck”, “I tried the technique in this earlier answer but it didn't work because”) will remain open and unblemished, regardless of whether they are homework.

All questions on Stack Exchange must observe some quality guidelines that are described in the FAQ, particularly in the section “Why are some questions closed?”, as well as in the page “How to Ask” which is linked from the FAQ. Here is a summary of the point that tend to apply to homework questions.

  • A question that is just a dump of a homework assignment may be considered too broad and hence closed as not a real question.
  • A question that is similar to another question on the site, but with different data, may be closed as a duplicate. For example, a question asking for a proof of why a language is not regular may be closed as a duplicate of a question asking for a proof why some other language is not regular, if the same kind of techniques work in both cases.
  • A question that is trivially answered by looking up a commonly-available reference such as Wikipedia may be closed as too localized, because it will not help any future visitors.
  • Questions on Stack Exchange that do not demonstrate any research effort may be downvoted (this is independent from closing). While a question may remain downvoted but open, heavily downvoted questions are removed from the front page and therefore are less likely to be answered.

Corollaries

The tag is meaningless and must not be used.

It is not acceptable to engage into disputes about the homework nature of a question. In particular:

  • It is not acceptable to nag askers into admitting that something is homework (“What did you try?” is fine; “Is this homework?” is noise).
  • It is not acceptable to reproach answerers for providing a complete answer to an obvious homework question. (Everyone is of course free to refrain from answering any given question.)
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  • $\begingroup$ But for the last item, I think this is in intent and effect almost equivalent to my proposal, worded differently. What do you mean by "reproach"; is it fair to ask answerers to respect the asker's wishes, or edit the post to the hint + details-in-spoiler format? $\endgroup$ – Raphael Jun 18 '12 at 7:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Raphael If the asker asked for a hint and an answer goes straight to the point without explaining how to get there, it's not a good answer to the question as asked, and pointing it out is fine. But if the asker wasn't explicitly requesting a hint and someone comments “-1 for giving a complete solution to a homework problem”, I'll delete the comment and go hard on the commenter. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jun 18 '12 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ We agree, then. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Jun 18 '12 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with this. I'd just like to add this: "There is no homework policy. But there are some common sense guidelines for handling homework questions." $\endgroup$ – miquelramirez Jul 16 '12 at 23:46
  • $\begingroup$ @miquelramirez Since this thread happened, we held a referendum and adopted Raphael's proposal. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jul 17 '12 at 0:33
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Raphael's answer, with the following changes:

  • On questions of type 1, honoring the asker's request is acceptable, but not required, and should not be enforced. Clearly, full answers need not be given, but they should not be penalized.

I don't think we should to worry about "gaining a bad reputation among experts." We can't be responsible for how people choose to use this site, and we would only be hurting the site if we tried. What people do with the answers we give is not our business.

There's no responsibility to ask users whether they want full answers or hints; in the absence of a request for hints, answerers can assume ful answers are desired, and even if hints are requested, full answers can be provided, without penalty. There's no meaningful objective distinction between "hint" and "answer" and we can save ourselves a lot of headaches and futile work by acknowledging this up-front.

No "hard front" for type-1 questions. Individual users should act on their beliefs regarding how questions/answers should be treated.

No need to bring up "suspicions" for type-2 questions; indeed, such comments should be treated however "this is homework" comments are treated.

Redux: Just to be clear, my ideal scenario would be that homework questions receive no special treatment, even if special treatment is requested. This makes completely moot all other questions about the homework policy: there is no such thing as a homework policy, since there's no such thing as a homework question.

Responding to the questions raised by Gilles:

Do homework questions get different treatment?

No.

Does homework only cover questions given as exercise in a class? What about self-study?

Any question which could reasonably be construed as likely being a homework question can be treated as such.

How do we decide whether a question is homework?

Non-moderators act according to their own judgement. Moderators get at least one other moderator to agree before taking action.

If there is a dispute as to whether a question is homework, who gets to decide?

Moderators are the final authority on whether a question is to be treated as homework.

Are homework questions marked as such? (Note that the idea of having a tag is unpopular.)

No.

Does the policy risk preventing good questions from being asked or answered?

As homework questions are not treated any differently or marked according to the above policy, it has no impact on questions asked or answered.

If someone asks a question which was obviously given as a homework exercise, and someone else asks substantially the same question but it is obvious that the asker is not a student who gets homework assigned, are the two questions treated differently?

No.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have to strongly disagree with what I feel is the main point of your answer, that is dropping the need for professional integrity. Note that I do not suggest we are responsible for cheaters' actions; we are for our own. If we knowingly and willingly enable cheating, that says something about us. A bad reputation can hurt us; we want professors and TAs to recommend our site, not suppress its use because they fear/know we help their students circumvent regulations. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Jun 17 '12 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the "hard front" on type 1: I think no answer is better than a full answer if the user wanted hints. Full answers should at the very least have a disclaimer that says so right at the top. Otherwise that is like picking up puzzle books in the store and writing solutions next to the puzzles. "individual users should act on their beliefs" -- if that worked, we would need no policy at all. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Jun 17 '12 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ I largely agree with this answer, and I disagree with @Raphael that it in any way compromises our professional integrity. (I understand “professional” here to refer to teachers.) I do not consider answering an obvious homework question to be “knowingly and willingly enabl[ing] cheating”. Enabling cheating would be answering a question posted by someone on their smuggled smartphone in an exam room, but how would be know? $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jun 18 '12 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ I have proposed a slightly more formal policy proposal (it's a non-policy but still a policy), with some additional guidelines. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jun 18 '12 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Gilles: We can't know, but we can guess. All I propose is to sensitize answerers of the fact so that cs.SE may not become a homework-solving platform. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Jun 18 '12 at 7:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Raphael The analogy I'm about to give is, perhaps, a bad one, but play along for just a minute. Let's say that we were running a soup kitchen. Let's say two people come in, both starving, both of whom would die if we weren't to give them some food. Let's call these people PersonA and PersonB. Let's say we feed them. PersonA then goes on to cure cancer, and PersonB turns out to be a serial killer; he goes on to murder a dozen people. Question: should we, as operators of the soup kitchen, try to distinguish people who will do good with the help we have provided, only serving people who will $\endgroup$ – Patrick87 Jun 18 '12 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ do good, and turning away people who will do evil? Or should we feed everybody we can accommodate? We can consider two distinct variations on this question: (1) we have perfect a priori knowledge of whether a new PersonC will do good or evil; (2) we have no idea (aside from what we think we can tell from how the person behaves) how the person will act. $\endgroup$ – Patrick87 Jun 18 '12 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the issue of professional integrity and how professionals perceive this site: in a sense, professionals may like this site, since it should make it relatively straightforward to check for cheating. If professionals know this site exists and that we will gladly answer homework questions, they can assign homework and monitor this site for relevant activity. It would be fairly straightforward to catch the most common cheater: look for your question (a few keywords and recency should do), read answer(s), and compare students' work. Rather than helping cheaters, this site might be a $\endgroup$ – Patrick87 Jun 18 '12 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ a pretty effective trap: like leaving $10,000 in marked bills on the counter at a bank. Police officers can't do that because it's entrapment, but I don't see any reason why academics wouldn't be allowed to. Providing free and open answers to homework questions could make catching cheaters easier, not harder. People who are going to cheat here will simply go other places to cheat. $\endgroup$ – Patrick87 Jun 18 '12 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ If the guy comes in with a bloody knife in his hand, do you feed him or do you call the cops? About catching cheaters, yes, that would work, but would be an effort on the teachers' part. In my experience, that's a no-no for them; they'd rather ban/suppress knowledge about the site (however futile). $\endgroup$ – Raphael Jun 18 '12 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Raphael Possessing a bloody knife isn't a crime, and I doubt that would, per se, make search/seizure and/or arrest warranted. Maybe he's a butcher and he's down on his luck? Maybe he cut himself while camping? Maybe he defended himself from a bum who wanted his coat? None of these things is illegal, but you would turn him away - rather, have him arrested - on suspicion that he might me a serial killer? I understand your point, but I disagree with it: absent a blunt and bold declaration from the person that they intend to cheat, we have no way of knowing, and should assume innocence. $\endgroup$ – Patrick87 Jun 18 '12 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ Only people giving assignments have enough information to begin making an objective declaration of guilt: the original assignment, the presence of answers on this site, and what the student in question put as his/her answer. If those things line up, there's a case; we're missing too much information to be morally justified in accusing people. Even if we are able to piece together a case, I believe the appropriate action is to alert the professors, and let them deal with it. We should do our thing, and let them do theirs. Catching cheaters is their thing, whether they like it or not. $\endgroup$ – Patrick87 Jun 18 '12 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ Your "redux" says: "Even if people want to be taught, not told the answer, don't." I don't think that is a healthy stand. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Jun 23 '12 at 15:21

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