It is tempting for students to ask their homework questions here, and it is equally tempting for people that know the answer to chip in with their answers. What are the ethics of this practice? (I have looked through the old discussion on meta and didn't find this issue talked about.)

Once a question and answer have been posted here, they will remain for eternity, and we will be robbing other future students from the benefit of learning by thinking for themselves, and we make it harder for lecturers/professors in coming up with homework questions whose answers don't exist on the web.

Here, for instance, is a recent question, where the questioner guessed the answer to a homework question but asked for an explanation of how it worked. Now, the homework question, its answer, and an explanation of the answer exist on the web.

Has the ethics of this issue been thought about?


3 Answers 3


While I understand that in the post Wikipedia era it's generally more difficult for professors to come up with homework questions whose answers don't exist on the web, that's a problem for the professors, not us. Adapt or die applies.

My teaching experience is extremely limited, and at a level a tad lower than University, however from that limited experience my conclusions are that cheaters will cheat, and there isn't much you can do about it. I was perhaps extremely lucky in that the majority of my students were interested enough in the subject matter to not cheat, even though I actively encouraged them to use Wikipedia and Stack Overflow (Programmers didn't exist at the time) and I'm very proud that some of them are today colleagues. A couple of the cheaters also made it, but most of them are flipping burgers somewhere. Oh, well, c'est la vie.

But, I only taught for three years, let's see what someone a tiny bit more experienced has to say:

My opinion is that there is nothing wrong at all with posting homework questions here, particularly interesting ones, and I find much of the negative reaction to homework-question posters to be somewhat strange, alien to my way of learning mathematics in a give-and-take exchange of mathematical ideas. Surely posting questions here and studying the answers is not much different than studying hard in the library, talking mathematics with one's colleagues at math tea or talking to one's professor, which are all excellent ways to learn mathematics. In particular, I expect that students who post questions here might learn just as much if not more from the resulting answers as from their professors---we have a number of talented mathematicians, who are very good at explaining things---and that math.SE provides a valuable service to students having unapproachable professors, having professors who do not explain well, or who have few colleagues able to help them. Furthermore, the math.SE community strongly benefits from the questions and the insightful answers that might be posted.

So my opinion is that there is no homework issue to speak of.

In particular, I hereby give all of my own students complete permission to post any and all their homework problems here, and indeed I encourage them to post their questions here and to study the answers well and thereby to learn some mathematics. I will be testing them on their understanding at the exam.

I would also encourage all mathematics professors to adopt a policy of encouraging collaboration on homework among their students, as talking about mathematics with one's colleagues is assuredly one of the best ways to learn mathematics. Indeed, I recommend that all professors should actively encourage their students to form study groups in order to work on their homework problems together. Learning as a group, they will go very far.

Programmers already has very strict policies regarding the quality of questions, perhaps stricter than most other Stack Exchange sites, and there's absolutely no point at all in coming up with a specific policy regarding homework questions or what appears as homework questions. Any question that's within the scope of the site, as defined in our FAQ, and shows sufficient prior research is welcome to the site.

Lastly, and only for completeness sake, while "professionals" is in the description of the site, it does not disqualify amateurs, enthusiasts and students from using the site, provided they conduct themselves in a professional manner. Our goal is to build a high quality canonical resource that will hopefully help current and future professionals, we don't check credentials at the door, and we never will.

Further reading:

On Meta Programmers:

On Meta Stack Overflow:


This may or may not have been asked on our meta site before but it was certainly a well discussed issue at Meta StackOverflow.


As far as I know, this discussion here applies equally as well to homework questions about design, algorithms, and software development in general. I personally agree with the highest voted answer there.

So we have established that if a student falls in the acceptable guidelines for asking a homework question that it is okay, now we ask ourselves if this policy towards homework questions is ethical.

In my opinion it is ethical.

If people are simply providing the answer with no context then perhaps the student might copy the answer and get a good grade now, but how does this prepare the student for future assignments and exams? This doesn't help the student in the long term because they haven't learned anything and we will not always be there to hold there hand. Eventually they must stand on their own two feet or they will be unsuccessful in life and in their career.

If an answer is good and provides context however then we as a community have a real opportunity to tutor the student and teach them the concepts that will help them do well in school, life and their careers.

Grades are a temporary thing, knowledge once gained is kept forever.


There is no ethical question to discuss, we aren't responsible for keeping students honest or ensuring coursework isn't solved in full detail in a readily available web site. We are here to ask and answer questions that fit the FAQ, if acceptable questions are asked that happen to be homework or real work or a hobby it doesn't matter they are all treated equally, and should be.

  • 1
    I agree that ethics don't matter when enforcing the FAQ, however ethics very much matter when formulating and changing the FAQ. The homework policy is somewhat influenced by ethical decisions. Because the FAQ and these Meta discussions and policies are an evolving thing, it is always relevant to discuss the ethics of a particular situation.
    – maple_shaft Mod
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 14:49
  • I don't see how the homework questions fit the FAQ. "Programmers — Stack Exchange is a site for professional programmers who are interested in getting expert answers on conceptual questions about software development." Students are not professional programmers. They are learning to program, and they are paying a College or University to teach them. Stack Exchange is not in the business of teaching! This web site is not designed for teaching purposes.
    – Uday Reddy
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 14:59
  • 5
    @UdayReddy I've been a professional developer since 2001, however when it comes to Haskell I'm a complete noob. 99% of my Haskell code right now is homework from college textbooks, should I not ask in Stack Overflow and Programmers about it?
    – yannis
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:03
  • 1
    @UdayReddy What does "professional" even mean though? Technically a professional is anybody who gets paid to perform a task. Amateurs can and do write amazing useful code. We expect when we pay somebody to perform a task like programming though that it meets a certain level of quality. The FAQ implicitly states that the quality of the question should be at a professional level, not necessarily that the person asking is a professional.
    – maple_shaft Mod
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:09
  • @maple_shaft. Whatever "professional" means, it certainly doesn't cover a student who has been assigned a homework problem and is looking for help. His/her teachers are best fit to provide that help. We are not.
    – Uday Reddy
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:17
  • 2
    @UdayReddy we have now way to tell if a quality question is "legitimate" or a student looking to get his homework done for him, the onus is on the student to maintain his academic honesty, not on us to be honest for him.
    – Ryathal
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:22
  • @UdayReddy They are learning to program, and they are paying a College or University to teach them. I find it quite ironic that a discussion that was supposedly about ethics, turned into a discussion about money. Well, where I come from students do not pay for college. Furthermore, while I happened to study in the UK, I never paid a single pound, and I consider it my obligation to give back to the wider community for what was given freely to me.
    – yannis
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:37
  • @YannisRizos. Was there an instance of question you asked that somebody mistook for a homework question? I personally think such confusion is rare.
    – Uday Reddy
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:39
  • @YannisRizos. If they are not paying, somebody else is paying on their behalf. That is not the point. There are professional teachers employed to teach them. We are not.
    – Uday Reddy
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:40
  • 1
    @UdayReddy Perhaps we should also disqualify all questions from professionals, on the basis that their employer is paying them to do the work and not us. <sigh>
    – yannis
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:43
  • @Ryathal. the onus is on the student to maintain his academic honesty, not on us to be honest for him. That sounds like the argument used by a seller of machine guns that says the onus is on the buyer not to use them to kill. Such sellers have lost the argument in courts of law, I believe.
    – Uday Reddy
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:49
  • @Ryathal. You are also ignoring that Programmers.Stackexchange is publishing the question and answer on the world wide web to stay here for eternity. We are not just providing private tuition to one individual student. For the question that I mentioned as the example, any future student just has type into Google "append foldr" and, bingo, our page pops up as the first hit. I cannot help but feel that we are helping students to cheat.
    – Uday Reddy
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:52
  • 3
    @UdayReddy Yes, we are making it easier for students cheat. As does Google, as does Wikipedia, and as does the the rest of the web. What's your point exactly? That we are enablers?
    – yannis
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 15:53
  • 2
    @UdayReddy By this logic we should burn all books in every library because books and other free materials provide too much of a temptation for students to plagiarize. You aren't talking about cheating so much as you are plagiarism, and a determined student will plagiarize with our without our help. We just want to help students learn concepts that their professors obviously failed to teach them.
    – maple_shaft Mod
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 16:02
  • 1
    Homework is meant to primarily help you learn, not to accumulate some kind of points. If you have problems understanding a homework question, I don't see why you can't ask about it here providing you follow the other question guidelines. And on our part, I would expect to see answers explaining the solution to help the user understand the problem and learn from it, not answers that give the solution. Seeing the word "homework" in a question simply gives you some context about why the question is asked. It doesn't mean you should automatically decide to close or leave open. Use your brain.
    – Rachel
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 16:56

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .