And if so, what should we do about them?

Quite what "homework" means for TeX, I don't know. There are some places that have courses in how to use TeX/LaTeX, and presumably they assign homework, but there are a few aspects of that that make me doubtful that people would ask their homework questions here in the same way that they do on, say, Maths-SX.

Nonetheless, we do get the occasional question that has a "homework feel" to it in that they appear to simply state a problem with no motivation or explanation as to what they've already done to try to solve it. An example is: https://tex.stackexchange.com/q/32625/86

Now, I don't think that actual homework questions are going to be a large problem for us so I don't think that having an official homework policy is either necessary or useful (and given the hassle that they have on Maths-SX with deciding and enforcing such a policy, I'd like to avoid it here). But questions like the above need some action. I'd rather treat the symptom than the cause and it seems that the simplest treatment is to have a text block that can be used to put a polite and informative comment on such a question.

In order to devise such a text block, we need to identify what exactly it is about questions like this that needs improving. Here's my initial reaction:

  1. Impersonal. I like to know that I'm helping a person so use of the personal pronoun is good in a question.
  2. No motivation. Not for the original problem, but for the TeX-related part. What is this for? What sort of document? That sort of thing.
  3. No work done. There's no evidence of having thought how one might start, or what tools one might use.

Now I'm well aware that such a question can just be a feature of someone's lack of facility with English, or with this place. That's why I think that treating the symptoms, not the cause, is better for us: it's the same treatment whether it came from homework as from someone's Norwegian research article. That's also why I'd like a polite text block that can be used.

(And, just to remind everyone, the text blocks are not there because they have to be used, but to provide a base-line of civility and politeness for this place.)

I guess I have to have a question ... so here are some:

  1. Does anyone have a different main outlook on the issues that I've raised?
  2. Does anyone have other characteristics of these questions that should be addressed in a text block?
  3. Does anyone have a suggestion for the text block itself?
  4. Am I just tilting at windmills?

2 Answers 2


I guess questions of this type can just be considered "low quality", regardless of whether they stem from a homework problem or a lack of experience with the site.

There's a "How to Ask" page on stackoverflow, which addresses a lot of the mentioned issues ("Do your homework, be specific, make it relevant to others..."). Maybe we could refer people to that site, using something along the lines of

Hi ..., welcome to TeX.sx. In its current form, your question might not get many answers. Please take a look at the [How to Ask](https://stackoverflow.com/questions/how-to-ask)-Page and try to improve your question according to the guidance found there. If you have questions about what to do or if you don't quite understand what I mean, please ask for clarification using the Comment function.

  • 3
    Agree entirely. I'm totally unfussed if a question is to do with someone's homework, provided it is in a well-written form. We're already clear on the 'please draw this for me' Tikz issues, so I think the necessary approach is already in place.
    – Joseph Wright Mod
    Commented Oct 25, 2011 at 9:56
  • 5
    One thing I like from that How To Ask page is the line: "To improve your chances ...". That makes it clear that there's a benefit to the questioner. I'd prefer that instead of "isn't quite up to the standards we strive for" which sounds a bit ... snooty! Commented Oct 25, 2011 at 11:55
  • @AndrewStacey: Yeah, I wasn't quite sure about that phrase, but it's an improvement from the initial "Isn't up to the standards we expect". Feel free to edit!
    – Jake
    Commented Oct 25, 2011 at 11:57
  • @JosephWright You don't object to people using the site to cheat? Or have I misunderstood your point here?
    – cfr
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 3:34
  • @cfr If the question is well-written, we'll usually answer it. We can't know what the motivation is unless the OP tells us. On the other hand, poor questions shouldn't get answered, and from what I've seen in general that's how most homework questions are.
    – Joseph Wright Mod
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 9:03
  • @cfr 'Cheating' is an emotive term. Homework is part of helping a student learn the subject, and so short-cutting the work is mainly removing a learning opportunity from the questioner. Now, there may be some cases where there is credit attached to a homework element. The question of how best to assess learning is one for the academia site, not here, but I think if it's clear from the beginning that a question is about a credit homework element then we have got grounds to close. The problem is that's pretty rarely the case.
    – Joseph Wright Mod
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 9:06
  • @JosephWright Not necessarily. In the UK, that is usually the case and 'homework' does not always attract credit. In the US, however, 'homework' is often part of the formal assessment for a course and the term is used to cover what would be called 'coursework' in the UK as well as what might be called 'homework'. [Even if it is not work for credit, I think it is still problematic. But it might not be cheating in that case. But where it is for credit or the point is primarily assessment, it is cheating.]
    – cfr
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 13:21
  • @JosephWright Poor questions often do get answered, though, whether they should or not. (tex.stackexchange.com/questions/212102/…)
    – cfr
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 13:23
  • @cfr Perhaps one for chat?
    – Joseph Wright Mod
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 14:11
  • @JosephWright Sure...?
    – cfr
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 20:35

I realise that the discussion here is not very recent and things obviously change, which may well be colouring my response to this page.

However, for what little it is worth, I think that it is completely unethical to knowingly assist people to cheat. It undermines the whole purpose of setting, marking and completing assignments, wastes instructors' time, and is not in the best interests of any students. (It does no favours to the person cheating in the long term, and it is quite unfair if LaTeX beginners' efforts are being marked alongside the likes of egreg!) It also undermines instructors' ability to evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching and their ability to identify topics which they should revisit in light of students' difficulties.

Ref: https://tex.stackexchange.com/questions/212411/how-to-get-default-color-of-beginblock-command.

While I realise that it is obviously very difficult to know, in many cases, whether a question is of this kind or not, I think that it would be useful to have some guidance concerning the following:

  • 'red flags': features of questions which should cause one to pause and ask for clarification, or pause and examine the asker's history on the site. (The question above is the fourth question the user asked about this assignment. It seems to me that we should probably have smelt a rat slightly earlier given that all the questions concerned an 'assignment'.)
  • responding to the user: a comment block? What I'm thinking of here is something to say when it has become clear that the user is using the site illegitimately.
  • communication: how best to flag up the problem to other people so that the user cannot keep asking new questions until the assignment is completed by an ad hoc team from TeX SE.

Although this is the most egregious case I've seen here, it is far from being the only one. While users bear the primary responsibility for misusing the site, we are also to blame if we do not make some efforts not to allow them to do so. Obviously nothing we could do (consistent with the existence of the site) could prevent such misuse. Moreover, some things we might do to minimise it would have unacceptable costs in terms of their effects on everybody else's use of the site. But I am not at all comfortable with the way things work at present.

I am particularly concerned given that we routinely answer questions which simply post an image or state a problem and include no evidence of any effort at all on the asker's part.

I should say that I very much doubt that my view will be a popular one.

I should also make clear that my concern is with cases in which the use of TeX is part of what is being assessed. I am not at all concerned about people asking for help formatting their theses on the nocturnal habits of koala bears or the lives of cats in Norman keeps. (Unless, of course, they are also asking us to fill in the details of koalas' night time festivities.)

  • This reads as a direct shortcut to Stackoverflow hostility (not that you meant that way). Protecting a SE network should not be through avoiding things. It is there and it is real. Best is to deal with it not pretending that they don't exist (in this case closing them and packing them to archives). Besides, as my professor used to say it is the homeworks' problem if it can solved via internet. LaTeX's biggest problem is that there is no middle level introduction. Either hello worlds or @ jungle. So even if it is clearly a homework I would answer it if I'm feeling like so.
    – percusse
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 18:47
  • I can give a direct example via TikZ question level. It shifted from how can I draw an arrow to how can I modify the path length in a decoration in just about two years. Yes still we get draw for me s but the average level raised ridiculously. And I think this is mostly due to our network and neither anywhere else nor the no-matter-how-incredible-it-is manual. We could have utilized a proposal like yours but this level increase wouldn't happen. We have to be aware of the expertise distribution required to answer the question. They are not more than hacking the core TeX questions.
    – percusse
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 18:53
  • @percusse I quite realise you will because you have. Obviously, I think that is wrong. Moreover, any question can be 'solved via internet' if solving it by the internet includes posting it as a question and getting somebody else to do it. How is that different from ordering a custom essay from a paper-writing service? The idea that it is therefore the fault of the person setting the assignment implies that the only acceptable forms of assessment must be examinations.
    – cfr
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 19:16
  • Homeworks are by definition for individuals. They can do whatever they want. They will be assessed by other means or the assessment is wrong. Besides, we are not the ethical committee of the internet individuals (that doesn't mean we like stealing or misattributing material on purpose). We bother about TeX, any question can be converted to a valid question but still homework in disguise. Or even better, the harder questions can also be homework questions but the number of people to recognize it reduces drastically. So, instead of a half-baked assessment,it is better to deal with the problem
    – percusse
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 0:28
  • And also who cares about TeX homeworks? It's a dopy way of teaching code. Besides of all, teaching TeX with beamer shows that the teacher also is not so entitled for that course. In fact I feel that the original code belongs to the teacher.
    – percusse
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 0:32
  • Homework is often assessed for credit. In the states, the term often seems to be used for what the UK would call 'coursework' but even in the UK and at university level, 'homework' sometimes counts towards a student's final degree result. (But I would be much less concerned about this in a UK context for this specific site just because of the way assessment typically works.) But whether it is called 'homework' or 'coursework' beside the point.
    – cfr
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 0:32
  • @percusse I don't know what is wrong with beamer but whatever. Whether it should be taught this way or not is, to me, entirely irrelevant to the ethical question involved. That is, even if you are right, I think it is irrelevant. Moreover, it seems unfair to judge the instructor on the basis of such a partial picture. And of course it is hard to know in all cases. That doesn't make it OK to support obvious cheating. (The same is true of e.g. the use of turnitin.com. If you are smart enough, you can defeat the parser. But I don't think that means it is OK to ignore cases which it does catch.)
    – cfr
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 0:38
  • I don't see any obvious cheating. I don't judge any cases because I'm not entitled to do so. I'm not the owner of the site. Questions come in, questions go out. I'm at most as entitled as the asker. I don't possess any authority over users. I only judge based on the etiquette.
    – percusse
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 2:05
  • 1
    @percusse Let's not continue this conversation. I don't think any purpose will be served by our pursuing it. This is not intended to be rude and I hope that you do not understand it as such. Best wishes.
    – cfr
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 2:11

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