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The recent movement to remove homework tags from questions, has made me wonder about the best way to deal with homework questions that will inevitably still show up on the site.

My question is, as a StackOverflow user who wants to help new users by politely and succinctly suggesting a way to improve their question, is there a link I can post to show them how to turn a poorly asked homeoworky question into a good question? As far as I know, a good homework question would specify:

  • Where they are stuck
  • What they've done so far
  • What level of help they're looking for

The first two bullet points above are no different from what makes a good SO question in any case, but I think the last bullet point is where the trickiness lies. The homework tag was an imperfect (but fairly clear) way of conveying that the user asking the question probably needed guidance more along the lines of "Here's how you should think about the problem" rather than "Here's the rather trivial code to complete the exercise."

I have mixed feelings about simply posting links along the lines of whathaveyoutried.com or sscce.org but in cases where the poster truly wants to learn, they might be better than nothing.

In the end, I'd like to help new users learn, both about what is appropriate on SO, and about how to be a better programmer/student. Is there something we can do to improve this situation with the removal of the homework tag?

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I'll write a more complete answer when I get back to my desk, but the gist of it is .. homework questions should not be unlike any other reasonably well written and articulated question on the site. The OP is welcome to mention that the work is in context of an assignment if they elect to do so. But helping them isn't really any different from helping anyone else ask a good question. –  Tim Post Sep 15 '12 at 7:48
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A problem I saw with the homework tag is that each time I gave tips and tried to be helpfull without giving the complete answer, another user came later and built the complete answer. So this tag was totally ineffective. –  dystroy Sep 15 '12 at 7:49
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As @dystroy has mentioned, a lot of people just ignore the homework tag, and answer it anyway (which is frustrating for those of us, that like to give tips and links to resources so the OP has a more narrow focus/direction to work at). I can't see a way of stopping people doing that (or even if it should be stopped) short of downvoting etc... (but then that's just going to cause no end of hassle). On the other side of it, the homework tag does seem (by some users) to be added to questions just depending on the complexity of the question (which is in the eye of the beholder anyway)... –  Jon Clements Sep 15 '12 at 8:34
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@dystroy one of the major problems with that tag, people got penalized for providing good, technically verifiable answers (you know, that thing we encourage everyone to do) through down votes because they weren't 'vague' enough for the homework tag. I have actually seen flags like "this guy provided the full solution helping someone cheat!" The idea behind the tag is great, but it doesn't work unless the entire site is set up around it. –  Tim Post Sep 15 '12 at 15:47

1 Answer 1

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Unfortunately I think we have to look at questions asked a way of building a useful pool of content for everyone. Helping the person who actually asked the question is almost a secondary goal behind helping the people down the road that will find it on Google.

To me that means that partial answers or hints are not actually a good fit for the SO format. Rather a full answer that includes reasoning, tradeoffs and thought processes will be more useful to people finding the question later.

I think the responsibility has to sit with the student to ensure they understand the solution and reasons. If they're going to learn better by doing then we should encourage them to simplify down to the core point of confusion rather than the full assignment. This is probably a useful learning exercise in itself and makes it more likely that the answers will be useful to others.

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That was .. pretty much .. what I was going to say. Additionally .. If someone posts a solution mostly in code, the OP is free to ask the author of the answer in comments "That works, but why does it work? Would you mind expanding your answer?" The OP is also free to say they are a student in their question and indicate that they would greatly appreciate answers that contain detailed explanations. –  Tim Post Sep 15 '12 at 15:51

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