Monday, October 01, 2007

Students Want Me to Do Their Homework

I often get e-mail messages from students in other countries. They pose a problem to me and ask for its solution, and they usually include a note to the effect that this is for their "personal research".

Now, I don't want to be hard on the students. After all, maybe some of these requests are genuine. As a young student, I occasionally wrote to famous mathematicians (or people I thought were famous mathematicians) with questions, and I was often pleased to get a reply. I still treasure postcards and letters from people like D. H. Lehmer and Daniel Shanks. I would have been very hurt and insulted to get a note saying, "Don't ask me to do your homework for you", because my questions always derived from my own adolescent research.

Nevertheless, I'm often suspicious of these requests, because my guess is that most of them come from students who are too lazy to do their own homework problems, and want me to do them instead. E-mail has made it feasible for a student to receive a homework assignment, search the web for people working in that area, pose the problem to a professor, and get a result back, all in less than 24 hours -- in plenty of time to hand in for a homework assignment. That wasn't possible when communication was by postal letters. And there is definitely a different flavor between a genuine research problem (which I often receive from colleagues) and the kinds of questions these students ask.

So what to do? My solution is to respond that I am happy to answer these questions if the students ask the question again in a month. That way, if the question comes from a homework assignment, in a month the answer probably won't do the cheating student any good. If the question is genuine, and the poser really wants to know the solution, waiting a month won't hurt too much.

I throw it open to my audience: what other possible strategies are there for answering these kinds of queries?


Anonymous said...

Respond a month later with the note, "Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner, your email was accidentally filed into my spam folder and I only just recently cleaned it out."

Of course it requires doing a bit of work to handle the reminders yourself, but it also doesn't make the sender aware that you are purposefully avoiding their question because you think that they may be cheating.

It also may catch them trying to do it again later (because they presume that you have removed them from your spam filters), at which point a person can use the "ask again in a month" method, and they realize that the jig is up :)

Megan said...

Depending on how much interaction you can take time for, ask them what THEY think the answer is, or what they've got so far. Basically, encourage them to do their own thinking, and give guidance where they've gone off track, but just enough to help them get back on track. If they are persistent, this can lead to many back and forth emails, but in that case, they are probably genuinely interested in the question, not trying to get their homework done for them.

Anonymous said...

Jeff’s solution is far better than mine, which has been merely to ask how many other mathematicians they have asked the same question of.
Megan’s solution is also better than mine, but involves rather more input of work than may perhaps be called for.

Mark said...

We occasionally get a flood of emails from students who have just received an assignment. And usually each student sends the same question to several or even all of our staff. But these are generally elementary or high school students, so we sometimes just compile one response, send it to one student and tell him to share it.

Larry Moran said...

I usually ask the student what textbook they are using so I can point them to the page where the answer lies.

If it's the kind of question that goes beyond the textbook I ask them to tell me what they've learned so far.

On rare occasions, with really persistent students who haven't done any work on their own, I've given them the wrong answer. I know this isn't something to be proud of but it made me feel good at the time. :-)

LancelotAndrewes said...

My personal recommendation would be to only answer the student's question if their name is Tyler DiPietro.

Anonymous said...

I'd send them a pointer that would help them to do the work on their own. So for example, a book recommendation or a website with some sample answers to similar worked problems. Or even a question as to what resources they have tried using so far?

That ensures you're not doing someone's homework for them, and at the same time you're not being unhelpful.

Jim Apple said...

Send them the answer back immediately, but encrypted with a key derived from using your private key to encrypt the name and year of the following month.

So, I ask you "What's 1+1?" You look up your private key , encrypt "November, 2007", and use the result of this (call it n) as a key to encrypt "2". Then, when the first of November comes along, publish n to your blog.

This way, you never have to remember more than to publish the key.

Anonymous said...

Ask them to snailmail you a copy of the question, and you will respond - at your leisure - in the same manner. No reason why what's worked in the past can't work now.

If their letter arrives couriered next-day, assume they're cheating and wait a month anyway.


Anonymous said...

I would say their answers are available online or on their books. I would address them another question? Because students can actually figure out and remember what they have done in class.

I wouldn't address any solutions via email because they won't even understand it and learn from it.

I would encourage them to do their own thinking because it motivates them to learn from their own mistakes and it also motivates them to do more work to reach their goals.

peterfirefly said...

The comp.arch method is to compete amongst the regulars on coming up with the most plausible-but-wrong-in-an-interesting-way answer.