# Do we want to update the way we handle homework questions?

Just today and yesterday there were at least two questions that showed no effort and just copy-pasted their cryptography homework assignments. These questions will most likely see little activity beyond edits and at most a dropped hint or two in the comments. Especially they will most likely stay unanswered and / or get downvoted until they get auto-removed by the system in a year or so.

Additionally somewhat recently at least two of our community members who also instruct courses critized the way we handle homework questions.

While we do have a bit of discussion on the topic of homework (see the homework tag), most of it is a couple of years old at this point and stems from a time when activity on Crypto.SE was considerably lower.

So my questions are:

• What do we do with no-effort homework dumps (leave open / downvote / close / mod-lock / delete)
• Do we treat questions with effort shown differently?
• Do we want to deliver full answers or merely hints?
• How should hints be delivered (answer / comment)?
• How do we handle false positives (ie questions which look like exercises but actually aren't)?
• How strictly do we want to enforce these rules (at the discretion of each user / through reminder comments / through mod flags + mod deletion)?

For reference, here's how other SE sites handle this (thanks to D.W. for aggregating these):

As a reminder: Mod-locks prevent all modifications on a post, including comments for non-mods.

Now that the deadline is long over, the election has ended, the mods had some time to acustomize themselves to the new powers and responsibilities the current most-upvoted answer is our current standing policy and will be enforced for all new posts.

Should you notice that the top-voted answer changed from Yehuda's, please leave a short comment so it doesn't go unnoticed.

• Reminder on how voting on meta works: +1 = Agreement, +0 = Well ok, -1 = "please no" on the answers Nov 8, 2018 at 15:57

What should we do with no-effort homework dumps?

We should close the question. We are doing a disservice to the students by doing anything else. There are also ethical issues here.

Should we treat questions with effort shown differently?

Yes, give them hints, but make sure not to solve for them.

Should we want to deliver full answers or merely hints? How should hints be delivered (answer / comment)?

How should we handle false positives (ie questions which look like exercises but actually aren't)?

I would just ask. If there’s a question showing effort and it looks like homework, then we can ask if it’s homework, or just assume and have them say that it’s not.

How strictly do we want to enforce these rules (at the discretion of each user / through reminder comments / through mod flags + mod deletion)?

I’m not sure. I think mod deletion certainly on the no effort dumps. We have to show the people doing this that it’s unacceptable. Everything else is about building a culture around it.

What about bringing back the homework tag?

I’m very strongly in favor.

Thanks for taking this issue seriously!

• As usual, Yehuda beat me to the punch, said it better than I would have, and I agree 100%. Nov 8, 2018 at 16:50
• I agree with all points, but: Almost all answers here have the same approach to the question "How should hints be delivered?" and that is "comments", so this is pretty much directed to all answers. I get that this makes sense, but what would then qualify as an answer? Wouldn't we have an answer at all for homework questions? And I guess that the OP often wouldn't come back to give their solution after they got hints. Nov 12, 2018 at 8:44
• @AleksanderRas If we are fundamentally opposed to answering homework questions, then even self-answers would need to be discouraged. After all other people searching for the question will find the answer then. So if that's what the community wants, then those questions need to remain unanswered. Nov 14, 2018 at 16:04
• I think that they should go unanswered, even though it's different to everything else. Nov 14, 2018 at 16:23
• @AleksanderRas, if they're closed, no one can answer. So comments is the only way to respond. And hints are the only acceptable way (as per this answer) to respond. I would also propose that any answers in comments be promptly deleted for homework questions. Nov 14, 2018 at 23:10
• Closing homework dumps (just a copy or even a scan of the exercise) as unclear is one thing, but forbidding to answer questions because they might plausibly be homework is another. I very strongly reject your culture of not answering, both on philosophical grounds (answering is what we're here for) and on practical grounds (I'm an engineer who never had any crypto homework and learnt on the job, but you'd refuse to answer some of my questions all the same). Your radical anti-anything-that-looks-like-homework policy would make the site useless. Dec 7, 2018 at 22:02
• Please read the links to other sites' discussion threads in the question. There's a reason why most sites have gotten rid of their homework tag. Dec 7, 2018 at 22:02
• @Gilles Where did you see a radical approach? I explicitly stated that if there is something unclear, then we can ask. Also, it’s very reasonable to say “this is not homework” if there is concern. Typically, however, the homework questions are obviously homework. Dec 8, 2018 at 21:10
• I can argue with leaving with hints and comments. We should not leave the question unanswered. We see the same questions again and again and we cannot mark as duplicate since the first one is not answered. Instead, we should write an answer that contains only the hint and comments. We can write the first line as This is a hint for the homework question to indicate it. Jan 25, 2019 at 10:06
• We've been relatively kind to comments placed in the answer box if they don't fit into comments. If they only provide hints or are by first-time users, then just comment if an answer doesn't fit, and don't vote down, i.e. be nice.
– Maarten Bodewes Mod
Nov 16, 2021 at 22:53

What should we do with no-effort homework dumps?

Close exercise-style problem statements. If it is just the statement of an exercise-style problem, close as 'unclear what you are asking', downvote, and optionally leave a comment explaining our policy.

I propose that it doesn't matter whether the question is actually or homework or not. If the question contains the statement of an exercise-style problem (the statement of a problem, lacking context), with an implicit or explicit demand or expectation that we will solve the problem for them, then vote to close. Don't bother to ask whether it is homework or not; just vote to close. That's not a question; it's just a request/demand for us to do work for them, and it lacks enough detail/context to provide answers that will be useful to others.

If the question shows the text of an exercise-style problem and then asks some specific question about the exercise or about their approach to the exercise, this doesn't apply -- leave open.

• We're happy to help you understand the concepts but just solving exercises for you is unlikely to achieve that. You might find [this page](https://cs.meta.stackexchange.com/q/1284/755) helpful in improving your question.

(We should probably write our own reference post like the link above.)

Should we treat questions with effort shown differently?

Seek specific answerable questions, not effort. I don't think effort is the relevant factor. Instead, the factor is whether they are able to articulate a specific question about the exercise or the type of problem.

For instance, if they can identify a specific step that they want help with, that is a question and should be left open. If they can identify a concept that they don't understand and can articulate a question about it, that is a question and should be left open. If they can ask about how to solve some type of problem, that is a question and should be left open. It will probably require effort for them to reach the point where they can articulate a useful question; but that doesn't mean effort is the distinguishing factor or that effort is sufficient. There are cases where people have put in effort but it is useless and doesn't help improve the question. I am not sure what to do with those questions.

Ideally, our goal in helping people who are struggling with exercises would be to help them learn how to solve such problems in the future. Give a man a fish, and his belly is full for a day; teach a man how to fish, and he never need go hungry again. Ideally, we'd aim for teaching people how to fish, rather than giving them a fish. For example, a great answer might teach the approach needed to approach this type of problem and help them get unstuck so they can make further progress on their own, without providing them something they could copy-paste as an answer to a homework exercise. Ideally, a great answer would be applicable not only to this specific exercise, but also to others like it. I don't think this is something that we would make a matter of policy, but rather culture -- it is what we'd try to encourage.

"Here's my exercise, how do I solve it?" is not a specific question. Without context, it's hard to know what is preventing the poster from solving it at their own, or at what level to write responses, or what specific aspect is giving them difficulty. That's why we should require them to articulate a specific question about their understanding, based on their difficulties with the exercise.

• Can you edit your post to ask about a specific conceptual issue you're uncertain about? As a rule of thumb, a good conceptual question should be useful even to someone who isn't looking at the particular problem you happen to be working on.

• Can you edit your post to ask about a specific conceptual issue you're uncertain about? As a rule of thumb, a good conceptual question should be useful even to someone who isn't looking at the particular problem you happen to be working on.

Should we want to deliver full answers or merely hints? How should hints be delivered (answer / comment)?

If the poster has successfully articulated a specific question about their exercise, this conundrum mostly disappears -- answers should answer whatever their question was.

Of course, "how do I solve this exercise?" or "what is a hint for how to solve this exercise?" won't be suitable questions; they'll need to identify a more specific question about the exercise.

How should we handle false positives (ie questions which look like exercises but actually aren't)?

Homework or not doesn't matter. With my proposed policy, it doesn't matter whether it is actually an exercise or not, or whether it is actually homework assigned to them in some course or not. If it is an exercise-style problem, with just the statement of an exercise-style problem and no question about the problem, then we close it, because those kinds of posts aren't good for the site. Even if it wasn't actually a homework or exercise, it doesn't matter -- those kinds of posts are not good for this site and aren't a good fit for our site's format.

How strictly do we want to enforce these rules (at the discretion of each user / through reminder comments / through mod flags + mod deletion)?

Enforce these rules as you encounter questions, without delay. Based on my experience on other sites, I suspect comments won't be enough. I suggest the rules be enforced as you see it. If you see a question like this, put the question on hold when you see it. Don't wait to put it on hold. You sholud also leave a comment about how the poster can improve their question. If the poster edits their question to improve it, it can always be re-opened at that point. That goes both for users and for moderators; so if a moderator encounters such a question because it was flagged, if the moderator agrees, they should act on it.

I suggest this to try to break a harmful cycle. In particular, my goal would be to put the question on hold before it accumulates answers. Once a homework dump gets answered, it's too late; the poster has already gotten the feedback that such questions get answers here, so they are incentivized to post more of them, and that creates a harmful cycle. On the other hand, if the post is put on hold promptly and the poster is told how they will need to improve their question to make it suitable here, then the poster has a chance to put in the work needed to make the question suitable here and have the post re-opened. Putting a question on hold is not permanent; it is a temporary state until the question is revised to meet our expectations.

This goes both ways. If a question is put on hold, revised to meet our expectations, then if it is flagged, a mod should re-open it immediately without waiting for votes to accumulate from the community.

What about bringing back the homework tag?

We don't need a homework tag. I don't see the point of such a tag. In my experience it is easy to recognize exercise-style problems as soon as you see them, whether the question has such a tag or not. If you see such a question, I suggest you just assume it was already tagged with the homework tag and then do whatever you would have done if it were. Asking the poster to add a homework tag seems like a pointless extra step to me; I don't see what it accomplishes. This isn't something I feel strongly about, and I don't think a homework tag would do great harm; these are just my two cents.

This answer will be the reference point and will detail the current practice as observed by me:

What do we do with no-effort homework dumps (leave open / downvote / close / mod-lock)?

Leave open, usually downvote, sometimes edit to beautify, usually leave shown-effort-seeking comments, sometimes leave hints as comments.

Do we treat questions with effort shown differently?

Yes, we usually drop hints in the comments and sometimes actively encourage the poster to self-answer.

Do we want to deliver full answers or merely hints? How should hints be delivered (answer / comment)?

How do we handle false positives (ie questions which look like exercises but actually aren't)?

As those usually show effort, we handle them like homework questions having shown effort, ie drop hints.

How strictly do we want to enforce these rules (at the discretion of each user / through reminder comments / through mod flags + mod deletion)?

At the discretion of each user, sometimes with comments.

• Exactly, encourage them to post the answer, and tell them, we can help you with the mistakes. Nov 8, 2018 at 17:29

What do we do with no-effort homework dumps (leave open / downvote / close / mod-lock / delete)

Leave open any question that is helpful beyond making someone's homework easy. Close any question that no one would ask if it weren't homework. (Instructors can find their questions here that way.)

Do we treat questions with effort shown differently?

No difference. However if someone shows their work and asks what they did wrong then that should be treated like a normal question. Correcting misconceptions and common mistakes is an important function of a public Q&A system.

Do we want to deliver full answers or merely hints?

Full answers. Hints are not very useful to people that stumble upon a question or are searching for something specific.

How should hints be delivered (answer / comment)?

How do we handle false positives (ie questions which look like exercises but actually aren't)?

Edit questions that are on the border of useless/useful to make them more useful to other people. Many borderline cases probably fall into "unclear what you're asking" territory and could be improved. No idea how to detect or prevent false positives.

How strictly do we want to enforce these rules (at the discretion of each user / through reminder comments / through mod flags + mod deletion)?

Flag questions.

Examples of useful questions that might look like homework:

• Are all PRPs PRFs?
• Can I build a one way function by using the message as a key?
• What happens if a password hash is not salted?
• What happens if I use an OTP twice?

Examples of not helpful homework questions:

• Is [contrived example] a PRF?
• Is [blah blah blah] collision resistant?
• What's wrong with [contrived protocol]?.
• I agree with the distinction between useful and contrived questions. However, providing full answers to homework is ethically problematic. People should be solving their own homework. Nov 8, 2018 at 18:34
• @YehudaLindell I disagree. SE should be an information resource, not a mere Q&A site where the answer is only useful to the OP. If I want to know the answer to a question, I'm out of luck if the first person who asked the question happened to have it from homework. If I create a new question, it would be marked as a duplicate, despite never having been answered.
– forest Mod
Nov 15, 2018 at 1:28
• @forest First, I don't think that this will happen very often. Second, that problem is very easily solved. If someone asked a homework question, and you find it of general interest and was not answered, you can easily ask it again and explain why it's not homework. Alternatively, you can write in the comments that you want an answer for non-homework reasons and it can be answered. Nov 15, 2018 at 10:54
• @forest: Probably fortunately, the SE software does not allow marking a question as a duplicate of another one unless the other question already has at least one answer (or unless both questions are by the same user). Of course, something like what you describe could still happen if the original homework question managed to receive a (bad) answer before being closed, but in that case the system has already failed to work as presumably intended. Dec 10, 2018 at 21:11