This is related to, but not a duplicate of, How should we deal with obvious homework questions

Homework questions have certain characteristics - vague, sample data, inclusion of instructions meant for the student, labeled parts, etc.

Is it appropriate to go ahead and re-tag such questions as homework based on such clues and/or subjective assessment?

I have this on a recent question: How to calculate expected value and standard deviation if I have 100 values divided into 15 groups (normal distribution)?

  • $\begingroup$ What does homework smell like? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Oct 2 '12 at 10:17
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @naught101 Homework smells like stuff my dog would potentially eat. Looking at the number of times that has happened! :) $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '13 at 18:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ^ says the @curious_cat! "Libel!" the dog says! $\endgroup$ May 7 '14 at 2:08

I think it's fine to retag (without comment) as long as it is perfectly clear that the problem is homework. In my experience, around half of the questions the community initially believes to be homework turn out, in fact, not to be so.


Let us bear in mind the description in the wiki excerpt:

A routine question from a textbook, course, or test used for a class or self-study.

Taking a somewhat selfish view--that is, with an attitude of discerning what is best for our community, rather than the original proposer (O.P.)--it seems that "routine" is the operative word. (Sometimes we can identify the source of a question--but not in a reliable or consistent manner--and it would be presumptuous to suppose we can tell what the purpose of a question is in the mind of its asker!)

"Routine" questions differ from those we are really interested in for several reasons, including

  • They tend not to have any specific application.

  • If any data are included, they are artificial (and often cannot be further explained by the O.P., who knows nothing of their genesis).

  • They tend not to have any context.

Loading the site with a gallery of such questions potentially diminishes the value of searches and other uses of the site as a reference and ongoing resource. Tagging routine questions with is one way to help future researchers to get great answers to the questions they may face.

These considerations take us away from having to guess why somebody has posed a question and move us toward evaluating the question on its own merits. I will immediately grant that this does not resolve the issue of what constitutes "homework," because one reader's "routine" question could be difficult or unusual for another. I suspect, though, that some questions will be so evidently routine that we should not hesitate to tag them accordingly. Some of the indications of "routineness" would include

  • The question has appeared in almost the same form on a previous thread and has a similar solution that requires straightforward substitutions of numerical values in its statement. (Example: almost any question calling for using the Normal distribution to convert between z values and p values.)

  • The question is entirely theoretical, without any applied context. (Consider whether to migrate such questions to the Math.SE site.)

  • Solutions are readily available elsewhere on the Web by means of an "obvious" search. ("Obviousness," once again, is personal, but I would claim that a search based, say, solely on a question's tags which turns up a solution in the first page would qualify as "obvious.")

  • The question is expressed in a test-like format, such as a multiple choice or to fill in a blank.

  • The language is imperious, as in "Find the answer,...," "State why,...," "Prove that," etc.

In such cases, readers (with sufficient reputation) ought to consider immediately adding the tag to the question.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ that is a good point. I asked a non-homework question on serverfault that elicited this answer with a snarky lecture on asking homework questions. $\endgroup$ May 25 '12 at 20:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @David, Re: your link - "thanks for the apology in advance" - hilarious. I hope to use that one in the future :) $\endgroup$
    – Macro
    May 26 '12 at 0:55
  • $\begingroup$ I think the line between homework and not homework is very fine. We may be motivated individuals studying on our own and working out "homework like" questions. Should these be considered homework? $\endgroup$
    – R J
    May 29 '12 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ @RJ I added a supplement to respond to your query. $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    May 29 '12 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ +1, the "supplement" adds a lot. This seems like a good policy. I find the parenthetical comment in the 2nd bullet point (top) to be especially definitive. 1 suggestion: you could explicate your bolded sentence a little more; I'm pretty sure I know what you mean, but it doesn't flow from the previous sentence quite as clearly as you may have thought when writing it. Eg, are questions tagged "homework" less likely to come up in a search, or is it just that searchers will more quickly continue scanning the search results upon noticing the tag? $\endgroup$ May 29 '12 at 15:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @gung There's no special treatment for homework, but you can explicitly exclude it with "-[homework]" in the search or even include it with "+[homework]". Different users will appreciate both options (for obvious reasons). $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    May 29 '12 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ @whuber if I understand, you propose that the requirement for tagging a question as homework is that it is routine. Thus, it is okay to tag non-homework questions as homework, e.g. textbook questions attempted during self-study, or even potential homework questions being developed by an instructor? $\endgroup$ May 31 '12 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ @David Yes, that is one of the implications of our tag wiki excerpt. $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    May 31 '12 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @whuber. As a monitor with over 2 years experience as a member I think he knows more about the frequencies with which things happen on CV than anyone else. I personal do not like taking the initiative to tag a question as homework. I think it should be up to the OP to do that. My preference is to suggest that they tag it as homework when it appears to be. I guess what is important is when you see that a problem seems like homework treat it as such when you answer until the OP resolves the issue. $\endgroup$ Sep 27 '12 at 23:13

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