Sometimes you think it is best for the OP of a question that you walk him step by step thru the answer. This is particularly likely when the question is a obvious homework problem. We don't just want to give someone the answer to homework because the point is the learning process not the answer. How should we deal with cases like this?

Here is a example of someone asking a obvious (in my opinion) homework problem. In this case things aren't helped by the question being vague about what exactly was supposed to be solved in what way. Still, I thought there was a good educational opportunity here for the OP.

I started with a brief answer giving the OP a first clue with the intent of adding more after responses from the OP as we walked thru the solution in steps. Admittedly, the original answer was merely a comment if taken by itself. Kortuk came along and converted it to a comment. I can see his point, but that of course makes the original intent impossible. I did state the intent in the answer for exactly this reason so folks like Kortuk could see what I was aiming at.

Should we be trying to do this at all? If it works then the OP hopefully learned well from the homework assignement and a nice record is left how such a problem can be addressed step by step. On the other hand, if the OP never comes back or decides not to cooperate, then we're left with a useless answer. My intent was to delete it in that case, although it is easy to forget to do that when there is no activity reminding you the question even exists. I can't promise I would have remembered about this question two days from now if it didn't bubble to the front page of the active list again.

I'm truly on the fence about this, so I'm really asking. I can see it both ways. I'm hoping a consensus emerges to provide guidance the next time this kind of situation arises.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Is your idea to change also the question with the answer? \$\endgroup\$ – clabacchio Jun 1 '12 at 11:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm asking here about evolving a answer. Let's assume the homework problem is well enough stated up front, despite that not being the case in the example I linked to. \$\endgroup\$ – Olin Lathrop Jun 1 '12 at 12:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I still think that an answer showing the OP work is a solution \$\endgroup\$ – clabacchio Jun 1 '12 at 12:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I recognize this exact issue, a partial answer being moved to the comments (on other SE sites too). Don't know how to solve that, but I was thinking about a 'Best Before' setting to an answer, automatically removing it when no additional information is added. \$\endgroup\$ – jippie Jun 3 '12 at 9:32

I think that, once a question is well specified, it should not evolve over time. Evolving means changing. So, it means that something is modified in, added to or deleted from the question. In any case, when a question is changed, a good answer may no longer be appropriate, and even other initially less appropriate answers may be a better fit. It may take quite effort and time to keep all that coherent. For me, this is like going from complexity \$O(N)\$ to \$O(N·M)\$.

Regarding homework questions, most of the times, I will only answer if I see some effort from the OP. I want to see that he has tried, that he has got stuck, and where he has got stuck. If I see zero effort, I may leave some comments either pointing out to him that the goal is to learn, or giving him some guidelines.

As for walking him step by step, through the answer, it would not be bad, but I think that SE, in general, is not conceived for that. If I do it, it will probably be with comments, not with an answer, but I don't see anything bad in the latter.


I think that you can give some quick hints in a comment, and create an answer when they can stand in their current form. Then you evolve from it, but IMO the first version, even if a draft, should give an overview of the problem.

If I would do that, it would be in this way: the OP tells the problem and how he tried to solve it, then you write an answer saying how to deal with such a problem. Then, if he puts additional effort or get some progress, he can put an answer saying what he achieved. Than you can edit your answer or comment his one to point to errors.

Overall, it shouldn't last more than a couple of iterations, and you get a good question with good answers.


If the first step is determining X you should take the time to explain that. If the Next step is Y but is a separate enough process to do separably it would probably fit as a second question. The other option is to give each step of the process split up in sections.

The issue here is how well do you think that type of back and forth reads to someone finding the question. Try to think of when they google it and have to try to jump around in comments and posts trying to figure out the order. They have never been to the site, they dont know how to do this. Instead we want an answer that is clear and formatted explaining the steps to doing this.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "If the first step is determining X": clever method :-) \$\endgroup\$ – stevenvh Jun 1 '12 at 16:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ I love that one. On that note, I am going to suggest we reduce network usage by having you change your name to steven from stevenvh, this way "@stevenvh +1" will be 2 characters shorter, a savings of 1/6th bandwidth on most comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Kortuk Jun 1 '12 at 19:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or maybe simply "s". Wouldn't a lowercase "s" use less bandwidth than an uppercase also? In any case we'd get rid of misspellings. Half the time it's "stevenh". \$\endgroup\$ – stevenvh Jun 2 '12 at 5:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @stevenvh, Ha. I would question how someone catches the h but not the V but I cannot be sure I have never erred. \$\endgroup\$ – Kortuk Jun 2 '12 at 9:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ I guess they used their last "v" for "steven", and ran out of them. \$\endgroup\$ – stevenvh Jun 2 '12 at 9:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Never noticed the second v, until now. \$\endgroup\$ – jippie Jun 3 '12 at 9:36

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