Sometimes when I have been struggling on a problem set for a while, I'll post a question on StackExchange, openly acknowledge that it's homework, and ask for hints (not the full solution). Typically people give good advice and help me think about the problem in several different ways, and I end up learning a lot by asking the question.

Now the thing is, we are probably not supposed to ask the Internet for homework help. But in my classes it is perfectly acceptable to go to TA office hours, where most of them will tell me the entire answer instead of giving hints. Often I've seen TAs present the solution on the blackboard in front of about 20 students (because all the students need help on the same question). We're also encouraged to "collaborate" with other students, who will usually tell you the entire answer instead of giving minimal hints to help you along.

Is it unethical to ask for homework help on StackExchange given that I learn a lot more than I would using officially sanctioned methods?

(If it matters, I post on math.stackexchange, and this is for classes like real analysis and abstract algebra.)

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    Are you hoping someone will tell you it's OK to do this even if your professor doesn't allow it? You make a reasonable case that what you're doing is no more harmful in practice than things that are in fact allowed. However, it's still cheating if the rules don't permit it. You should first find out exactly what is allowed (the "probably not supposed to" part sounds a little vague), and then consider asking for changes. I think you could make a good argument that asking for hints online with proper attribution should be allowed, but it's up to your professor. Nov 16, 2014 at 20:59
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    I hope this is not a homework question from your ethics lecture :) Nov 16, 2014 at 21:58
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    Haha it's just a question that's been bugging me for a while :) What actually happened IRL was I asked StackExchange about things unquestioningly for about two years. Then I switched majors, and in my new department TAs actually did give hints instead of answers, and we were supposed to write down the names of the people we worked with on sets. That's when I started worrying about these ethical questions, and stopped asking about homework on the site. But I was interested in knowing what other people think about this issue. Nov 16, 2014 at 22:14
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    Let me echo @AnonymousMathematician in different words: Whether asking for help online is ethical or not, you can still be punished for violating your instructor's collaboration policies. (Asking for help online and then lying about it to avoid punishment would be unethical.)
    – JeffE
    Nov 17, 2014 at 0:00
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    There is a question on meta.Mathematics.SE which I think may help this question too: How to ask a homework question?
    – enthu
    Nov 17, 2014 at 10:56

7 Answers 7


This might depend on your university's policy on cheating and plagiarism.

For our university (though the precise details may vary from course to course), you are allowed to use StackExchange to help you to understand concepts, but you are not supposed to use it to help you solve assignment questions.

We tell the students that if there is any risk that they may have read an answer or some code or whatever that might have influenced their answer, then they need to cite it. With a proper citation, they cannot be accused of plagiarism. We may, however, ask the student to answer extra questions in such a case, in order to demonstrate their knowledge.

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    From my answer, if you did ask whether this were true, you should cite the corresponding stack exchange question to avoid the risk of being accused of plagiarism. Nov 16, 2014 at 21:18
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    @user24384: If you asked the question before the homework was assigned, you still have to cite the response, just like you have to cite a book written before you were born.
    – Bob Brown
    Nov 16, 2014 at 23:13
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    Downvoted. University policy affects whether this practice is allowed, but it has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is ethical.
    – JeffE
    Nov 16, 2014 at 23:56
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    @JeffE, the thing is, as a student you have agreed to adhere to those rules, in other words, not following those rules is a valid way of proving something to be unethical (at least under the larger majority of ethical systems). Nov 17, 2014 at 3:21
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    @DaveClarke At the risk of going off topic: when university policy says you must cite "anything that influenced your answer," that places an enormous burden on students. Every interaction that I have had in my life will influence my responses to new situations. This in mind, I need to cite all books I've ever read (since they shape my thinking), any remotely related article on the internet, etc. (E.g. I'd need to cite the Bible for giving me the ethical foundation to prevent cheating.) If the university requires citation of everything, don't be surprised when people complain.
    – apnorton
    Nov 17, 2014 at 16:28

Asking for help is ethical, asking for solutions isn't.

The entire goal of homework is to increase your understanding of new material you've been presented with, usually by using the theory in practical examples. Discussing material with others and "thinking out loud" are time-proven practices to help in grasping new concepts and techniques and as such it's perfectly ethical to process your homework in a way that most efficiently helps you to understand the exercises. As you say your university explicitly supports 2 classic methods help you on difficult assignments: TA assistance and collaboration.

Regardless of the method you employ, as long as your goal is to increase your understanding, and not to get out of doing the work at all, you're ethically in the clear.

Three caveats to this:

  • Graded homework: it's my belief that grading homework is a way to enforce students to keep up with coursework and ensure that their understanding of the material is at the required levels to eventually complete the course. Seeking help, no matter the source, should not be frowned upon here since you're still accomplishing the majority of the work (i.e. learning it) yourself. Ethical.
  • Assignments: coursework that is a sufficiently large part of your grade as to move beyond simple homework and into assignment territory is different. Seeking assistance about the general concepts involved is ethical, asking help on the details of the assignment itself most likely isn't.
  • Legality: as some of the other answers and the comments mention, whether or not your university allows you to seek help from online resources is an altogether different question and it's sensible to check your university and course regulations on this or ask for confirmation from the professor or TA.

Is it unethical to ask for homework help on StackExchange given that I learn a lot more than I would using officially sanctioned methods?

Deliberating over the ethicality of the situation is frivolous. You know that StackExchange helps you to learn. So use it. Do not allow your school to restrict your ability to learn. Clearly the school would be bad, and not you, if its policies prevented you from learning.

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    Fine, but be aware of the possible consequences if you violate your instructor's collaboration policies. The school may or may not be bad, but the F will still be on your transcript.
    – JeffE
    Nov 18, 2014 at 18:15

The ethical solution here depends completely on the context. If you're using that information to complete an ungraded assignment there is absolutely no ethical gray area. Any information (tutor/book/the internet/study group) is an entirely valid resource.

However if you're turning it in for a grade the gray area immediately becomes black as you are passing off someone else's work as your own.

I would question the structure of a class that forces you into a situation where you're stuck solely with the text book but I have seen it. Talk to the professor, but if there's no grade seeking knowledge isn't an ethical violation.


Personally, I don't feel there's anything unethical about it. Sure, you might be breaking your university's honor code, but I think the only ethical conflict there is that you are breaking a code you at least implicitly agreed to, not in the act itself. That is, your ethics or ethical principles in general do not necessarily align with the honor code, and I would say in this case they most certainly don't.

I namely think that the stock standard honor code imposed by universities is a dinosaur that needs to revised, and I think many professors are recognizing that. For example, one of mine mentioned explicitly that he realizes that students use the internet for solutions, and that we should just reference the source when doing so. On one of our homework problems, he also gave us a hint in his office hours and then just added "or just look up a proof on the internet", saying either way is going to be fine ultimately.

In addition, I do not see a difference between looking something up on the internet and consulting a physical book in your library. I assume no one would take issue with the latter, would they? After all, the goal is to learn the material.

Plus, research shows immediate feedback is necessary for learning, and by not asking for help on homework (be it your friends, your professor, or "the internet") you're only hurting yourself. You probably have to at least attempt the problem in earnest to get something out of it, but if you can't get it, you gain nothing by puzzling over it without success. On the other hand, if you do stumble upon a solution on the internet, you might find a new trick or a new way of thinking about it, since you'll have to interpret it on your own. Often, answers here are also given by people with a different background, so you don't get the answer served on a platter, but, instead, you have to really look into it and interpret it so that it fits with your specific background and the tools you are allowed to use.

So, basically, I don't think that there is anything, and I mean anything, unethical about asking for help on SE in and of itself. It just might be against the honor code. And as I mentioned earlier, the only unethical thing then is that you're breaking an agreement, which I think is an obsolete one anyway.


Pretty much what everyone else said. I dont think there is an ethical issue unless your code of conduct forbids it, and you make it clear that it is homework and you need some guidance versus the whole solution. However keep in mind that what your prof is looking for in terms of answers may not be what the internet comes up with. Often your prof is just wrong but good luck trying to get them to accept it (this happens especially in lower level courses). In higher level courses such as yours I wouldn't worry too much about it, its not like one problem solution from the internet is going to make or break your grade.


Asking for a direct answer would be unethical. Asking questions to gain knowledge and/or understanding should never be unethical. The goal of any class is to learn the material. Different people learn differently. It’s perfectly understandable for anyone to be stuck or confused on different points. When you need help, you need to ask someone that knows more than you. They can help you understand. Strictly speaking for ethics and knowledge transfer, you’re fine.

Past knowledge transfer it can get grey. Basically, don’t plagiarize and site appropriately. Course and college policies become grey as things like stack exchange aren’t completely adapted into the education system yet. So they don’t always have a clear or accepted fit. Because of that, it may be wrong per their policies. Then ethically, I think their policies aren’t ethical. That’s a whole other debate. However, I believe that if you follow what the point of the policies are you are fine. That’s typically, are you cheating or plagiarizing. As long as you aren’t doing activities down those paths you should be fine.

Think of stack exchange as your instructor. Can you ask these types of questions of your instructor? If you have no ethical problems with asking the same questions of your instructor, then you have nothing to worry about. Is asking questions on stack exchange really any different from asking a friend or colleague? Is it unreasonable to use the friend of colleague as a source of information? No on both. Use every tool to your advantage to learn.

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