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The recent comment This sounds like a homework/test question is

  1. unhelpful as it offer no guidance and is not actionable
  2. bad because it raises the false flag that there can be something wrong with questions about homework simply because they are about homework.

This is the opposite of being welcoming to new users, especially on their first question.

There is prior art on this here in Astronomy meta:

and in Space SE meta

and generally the guidelines are that we can generally never know if a question is really about a homework problem that is due or not, and so the only way to proceed is to treat all questions the same; simply ask the OP to kindly add something that addresses

  • "What have you tried so far?"

and/or

  • "What research have you done?"

and to remind them that adding this kind of information is done in general and that you are not singling them out for special treatment.

"This sounds like a homework question" can sound to the OP like "I think you are trying to cheat" and it can make other users reading the comment (remember, comments can be read by anybody!) begin to believe that there is a rule against homework, which there is not!

What topics can I ask about here? (help/on-topic) and What types of questions should I avoid asking? (help/dont-ask) have no mention of homework whatsoever.

Question: Shall we stop the off-hand "this sounds like a homework question" comments that offer no guidance and raise false flags?


In fairness the same user later commented:

Astronomy SE, like all other Stack Exchange sites, are meant for Q&A. Sometimes we let by a few homework questions. See the meta discussions: Homework policy and What is the policy here on homework?

but the second item is 13 years old and way, way before Stack Exchange has become the nearly 200 separate sites and communities it is today and so probably irrelevant.

"Sometimes we let by a few homework questions." once again is both false and raises a false flag. There is no "letting" of a few homework questions. We treat all questions equally and we absolutely do not deem to have knowledge or suspicion of the OP's situation or context unless they share it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree one shouldn't be too hasty, although the example you've given seems unambiguously a homework problem to me (or something that would usually be set as a homework problem). If the OP had said, "yes this is homework" (rather than claiming it was for a "project"), what do you think the approach should be? $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Jun 12 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ @ProfRob That's an interesting question! Hmm... let me attempt to answer it cogently. I haven't been in a classroom since well before Hubble launched, but a few times I've written Stack Exchange questions that have sounded so much like homework questions I've had to include disclaimers like "I haven't been in a classroom since well before Hubble launched..." Some times good questions sound like homework questions because sometimes homework questions sound like good questions! That said, we should also absolutely strive to not simply do people's homework. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ @ProfRob There is no perfect way to thread this needle. There is no reliable litmus test we can apply to a question or an OP that will return a boolean answer: answers will/won't be turned in as homework or help someone cheat on a stay-at-home examination due to COVID-19 lockdown. I think we intuit the situation 90% of the time correctly and ask for "what does your book say" or "what have you been taught so far on this" or similar, and maybe once in a while we've answered too completely and someone might have gotten a few points here or there. No system is perfect. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ @ProfRob So if someone offers the information that it is about homework, then what should happen is what already does happen most of the time on self-identified homework questions, ask further questions about context if necessary, then offer some advice how to approach the problem but not answer the question. But is harm done if someone less insightful posts a complete answer that the OP can use as an answer on their homework set or take-home exam? Yes. Is harm done if we go after an OP because we have suspicion of homework that turns out to be incorrect? Yes. No system is perfect. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ @ProfRob As a "Prof", I can imagine that students cheating on homework is something much more in the forefront and detection of it a real day-to-day challenge that I can't fully appreciate. This is Stack Exchange though, an ASCII exchange between mostly anonymous entities. It is a different world and therefore different approaches and rules apply. We can't intuit motives call out OPs as "suspects" of committing crimes of cheating, otherwise the site will descend into chaos. I think the least-risk-of-harm path is to do our best to hold back on non-self-identified possible homework questions... $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ @ProfRob and provide approach advice answers, and to perhaps simply ask "Is this homework? If so it's okay but we need to know more about what you've been taught" to see if we can find out. The "it's okay" part is to encourage honesty and some folks will be honest and some won't. It's analogous to some COVID-19 vaccination sites when you were supposed to be over 60 or have a medical condition, there were some folks that didn't meet the criteria but many sites never "carded" them for age or demanded proof of qualifying medical status. No system is perfect, we just aim for the least harm. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ @ProfRob and in our case here, harm is beginning the practice of a free for all where anybody can call out in a comment that the OP is suspected of trying to cheat. If that becomes common and new users pick up on it and start going after random questions, the site can descend into internet chaos. We can't get into OPs' heads, we can simply accuse them. We need to be careful, and work with OPs and do the best we can. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 22:16
  • $\begingroup$ @ProfRob edit: "then offer some advice how to approach the problem but not answer the question." means to go ahead and use SE answer posts or comments that offer approaches but do not offer complete homework-style answers, it does not mean to avoid using SE answer posts. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh There are people who ask questions in bad faith. Some of those bad faith questions are people who already know the only answer they'll accept. Another class of bad faith questions is questions who don't know the answer; they are trying to cheat on their homework or on a take-home exam. Helping those cheaters helps nobody other than the cheaters themselves, and it hurts the people who are trying to learn. $\endgroup$ Jun 20 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ Even worse, cheaters continue to try to cheat after they leave school. They have no problem with leaking company proprietary data, ITAR-restricted data, or even highly classified data to satisfy their narcissistic tendencies. Even without leaking, they drain the time of others. I have been bamboozled by cheaters. I've even recommended that my employers hire them. When finally caught, it has ****ed me off. I do not look kindly on cheaters. $\endgroup$ Jun 20 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding unhelpful as it offer no guidance and is not actionable: There is a simple way to make such questions actionable, which is to make homework-like questions an explicit reason to close. This rule works quite nicely at Physics.SE, and it would work well here as well. Most of the homework-like questions are drive-by questions (the questioner never comes back after not getting an immediate answer). There is no reason to be welcoming to obvious cheaters. They can go find suckers somewhere else, and if that fails, they can go to a pay site where the cheaters can get help, at a cost. $\endgroup$ Oct 9 at 14:49
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Well, uh, this is embarrassing. As the user who put these comments onto the post, I've learned the consequences of doing so. Originally, after seeing several posts that turned out to be homework questions get closed on various Stack Exchange sites, I assumed that homework questions are discouraged.

I responded to @uhoh's comments regarding the topic in concern:

Yes, I understand the counterproductivity of my actions and will work to improve them.

It seems like this has been happening too many times to me in the past few weeks/months (see Are my comments being poorly received?). I'm going into "voluntary suspension" regarding said close-reason comments. As @uhoh mentioned in a comment, there is no need for a mea culpa. I will avoid the generic and unhelpful "This sounds like a homework question" and take a break from closing new users' questions.

Feel free to express your concerns in comments.

For other users reading this post, take note that "...we should not judge or even try to infer the OP's motives or situation and view all questions on equal footing." (quoted from one of @uhoh's comments) Instead, try "What have you tried to solve your problem?" or "What research have you done?" If the OP doesn't respond or provide the necessary actions in a reasonable timescale (perhaps a week), vote to close. The instant close vote is unhelpful and harms the new user's first impression of SE, and also clogs up the review queues. This takes precious time away from other users and especially moderators, who already have plenty of work on their plate.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course, that's only if you think that way! Just focus on the homework issue not yourself. You're a top user here and a major contributor! There's no reason at all for a mea culpa $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 3 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I've edited the post to include your thoughtful comments, thanks! :) Also, I've found another instance of said issue: astronomy.stackexchange.com/questions/43336/31410 $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent detective work, wow! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 3 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh I think we should keep the comments here for other users seeing this post. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ oops! I missed your comment, somehow my screen didn't update and I didn't see your comment until now. I'm fine with that; I'll flag for moderator assistance to see if they can undelete. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 3 at 2:00
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh No worries, I stored them in a txt file :) You can do that too as well, if you like. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ I have 190 comments here in meta and 4,842 in the main site, and in Space SE I have over 18,000! I've long-since stopped trying to save or sort them; life is short :-) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 3 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I've only left 210 on the main and 25 on the meta, a miniscule amount compared to yours ;) It still is difficult, if not impossible, to track 200 comments, like you said, life is too short to dig through a few hundred (if not thousand) comments ;) $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ just stick around, you're on your way! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 3 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh Hmm, this is getting a bit off topic. Why don't we continue this in The Observatory, our chat room or create a new one? $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 2:37
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    $\begingroup$ I'm all chatted out; it's morning here and time to get off my duff and pretend to be productive. Feel free to continue in either place and I'll pick it up later. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 3 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Unfortunately, moderators may not be able to undelete comments, according to here $\endgroup$ Jun 4 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @fasterthanlight We can't undelete user-deleted comments, but we can undelete moderator-deleted comments. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage Mod
    Jun 10 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh Permission to edit my post to include the deleted comments? $\endgroup$ Jun 11 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ @fasterthanlight There must be a reason why moderators can't do it, so it's probably not a good idea to do something even a moderator isn't allowed to do. I think the 'this sounds like a homework question' issue is resolved. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 11 at 3:10
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Astronomy SE is a bit odd (in my view) in having no policy on closing homework questions. If homework-type questions get answered regularly (whether they actually are homework or not) the site will fill with homework questions and that's far more of an issue than clogging up of the review queues (e.g. only 16 in the close queue today and I think it rarely gets much bigger).

As an astrophysics professor who at present is forced to set online, uninvigilated examinations, I regard the answering of straightforward homework problems as a bad thing. The example given at the top of this question is a really clear example of someone appearing to ask (innocent until proved guilty and all that) for a simple homework problem to be done for them. The stone-cold give-away is that the OP ends with "Find the apparent magnitude of first quarter moon."; i.e. not even a question; it is an instruction, just as you would find on an exam or problem sheet.

Personally, I would like to discourage people from asking questions like this. Aside from the question of their motives, such questions are next to useless in terms of helping any other reader in the future. They are usually not very searchable and because they are so specific in terms of asking for some numerical answer to a particular problem they are rarely of interest to anyone but the person that asked.

That's not to advocate being rude (and I'm sure I have been guilty of the "this looks like your homework" comment in the past). However, sometimes it is so obviously someone's homework that the comment is apt - and I believe your example is a case like that. If it isn't homework then I don't see why a poster should be offended, especially if it is obvious that their question does look very much like it is. And if it is their homework, I don't really care if they are offended or not and if it discourages them, so much the better. Saying "this looks like homework" does not violate any site policies does it?

Maybe my future comment would be: "This looks like your homework. Such questions are rarely of any use to others unless they are made less specific and are of more general interest. Some people on this site are very much against answering such questions."

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 I saw your comment on the question above and added a lengthy response (including oblique reference to your situation) before seeing that you've posted an answer. I think we're substantially in agreement. My concern is more that if "I suspect you of cheating" comments proliferate and inexperienced users start doing it too often the quality of the site is damaged. I very much like your solution which is to leave a longer and actionable message than "This looks like a homework question", one that offers guidance as it agrees with Point #1 right at the top of my question: $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ "1. unhelpful as it offer no guidance and is not actionable". So I think we pretty much agree on most of the points. I think that we may be able to establish enough consensus that we can draft an actual blurb/statement to add to our help center, or our site policy meta post, or even consider a possible custom close reason that's kindly worded and includes actionable advice. By standardizing/codifying our thoughts on homework and linking to them we can then flag any comments that sound like "I think you are cheating" as no longer needed $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ As an aside, I cast the final close vote there. Right now "lacks details" is our standard close reason for this kind of question. The OP didn't choose to take any further action. As to "Astronomy SE is a bit odd... in having no policy on closing homework questions." It turns out that I am the author of the 2018 meta question I can't find this site's “homework policy” or find out how “suspected homework question askers” should be treated and perhaps it needs a new answer as well? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 12 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ Re "Some people on this site are very much against answering such questions." You can count me as one of them. See my related answer. We should not be enabling cheaters. $\endgroup$ Jun 19 at 17:00
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In the early days of the internet I got suckered many times into doing people's homework for them. The "thanks for doing my homework, sucker" comment I received on the last time I did someone's homework made me very sensitive to homework-like questions.

It is odd that Astronomy.SE does not have "this is homework" as a reason to close. It does however have "Other" as a vote to close option, and the person voting to close has to fill in what "other" means. I have used that option multiple times to close homework-like questions, and others have agreed with me.

The question in question has all of the hallmarks of a homework-like question. There's no research, there's barely a question, and there's a statement that looks just like a homework question. Another dead giveaway is that this question was asked, verbatim, on other sites. Most of the posts at other sites have now vanished because those other sites have a policy against "do my homework for me" questions.

We are not helping the people who post such questions learn by doing their homework for them. All we are doing is helping them to learn that cheating works. We are hurting rather than helping the cheaters' classmates who worked hard to solve the problem. They learned something in solving the problem on their own or as a group, and that learning will transfer to later times in their lives. But those honest people are competing with cheaters who, at least in school, can solve a problem with much less effort by simply spamming the homework question across the internet.

We should not be enabling cheaters.

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  • $\begingroup$ The boundary between cheating and legitimacy is not clearcut. By way of analogy, with sports, taking a dive is illegal in soccer (football for the rest of the world) and can result in a card being shown. On the other hand, a player needs to show the referee that the player was fouled. One way to do that is with a bit of legal embellishment. Another example, from baseball: Pitchers need an extremely good grip to deliver some pitches. Hot, humid air from ones lungs helps. So does spit, and so does "spider tack" hidden on ones cap. Hot, humid air is legal. Spit and spider tack are not. $\endgroup$ Jun 19 at 17:18

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