I'm an 3rd year undergraduate student, and this semester, I'm taking graduate course in one of my departments.

We have homeworks each week, and while doing the problems on those, I sometimes get stuck. In that case, sometimes I go to the instructor for some hints and discussions, and sometimes, if I really haven't made any progress in that question for long time, I search the answer onthe web (for example math.SE), and write that answer if it satisfies me.

In those latter cases, I put some notes/a disclaimer on the top of the question stating that "I've done these and these, but couldn't solve it, so I looked at the answer from the xxx website".

However, is this something that we indeed expected to do, or am I just making myself sometimes look like "incapable of solving even an elementary question" in the eyes of my instructor ?

Edit: My question is about the general norm in academia, not whether it is considered cheating or not.


1 Answer 1


It is good to be honest in all that you do. You should, of course, ask your professor whether your "researches" are proper or not. I would treat asking someone on math.se for a solution to your exercise as improper, for example.

The reason for that is that you don't learn the necessary lessons by reading a solution that you do by creating it. So it is mostly an educational issue, not an ethical one. But your instructor will give you the most useful advice.

The professor hasn't asked you to solve a problem because he/she needs the solution. The question has been asked because solving the question will advance your education and finding a solution will be much less effective at that.

Education is about changing how your brain works. In mathematics, especially, you need to do your own work in order to cause the brain to reorganize itself to make advancement possible.

Asking the instructor for help is better in this regard than asking someone else, say on math.SE. The reason is that the instructor can give you a hint that will help you advance, rather than a solution that won't. It may even be useful for your instructor to know that you are struggling with some ideas. You may get advice that gets you past the block. Math.SE is very unlikely to do that. The answers you likely get there will be too helpful.

Becoming a mathematician is about changes in your brain, not about proofs printed on paper.

  • 2
    Thanks for "The professor hasn't asked you to solve a problem because he/she needs the solution." Before retirement, on the first day of classes I'd tell my students, "I often already know the answers to the homework problems," and then explain the goal as you've done in your answer.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 5, 2018 at 1:15
  • 3
    @BobBrown, It always surprises me that this isn't obvious to students. But, of course, it isn't. They forget that they, themselves, are the product.
    – Buffy
    Dec 5, 2018 at 1:20
  • One caveat to add to this, is that it may be useful to use an external resource to overcome a particular block so that it become possible to work on the rest of the problem your self. If a problem has 3 stages, but you can't sort out the first one, then the other two are lost to you. Dec 5, 2018 at 13:30
  • 1
    @IanSudbery, perhaps, but a dangerous suggestion in general. There are degrees of acceptability. Using wikipedia, for example, to get background to overcome a block is probably ok in most cases. But seeking/finding an explicit answer probably not. Also hard to judge in general. The first bit may be the crux with the others less important. I urge caution here. Seeking help from the prof is the better way, I suggest.
    – Buffy
    Dec 5, 2018 at 13:59
  • 2
    +1 although I usually express the main point differently. When instructors assign homework, we aren’t asking you for solutions to those particular problems. We’re asking you to demonstrate your skill at solving a certain type of problem and communicating your solution to another human being. (For purposes of this goal, instructors are not human beings.)
    – JeffE
    Dec 5, 2018 at 16:44

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