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We recently received a question quoted in full below which I assumed was an assignment question. I assume that the student copy and pasted the question literally from some assignment description.

  • What should we do with assignment questions?

It seems to me that we have several options:

  • Close the question
  • Edit the question into something useful
  • Have requirements that student shows minimal effort

There are various aims:

  • Develop good resources for the Internet
  • Prevent students from outsourcing their homework
  • Ensure the survival of this site by keeping our question and answer statistics at a good level

Reflections on homework questions:

  • They are typically framed in ways that are too specific to be useful to others. In that case, I'd encourage users to edit them to make them more general.
  • If a student has made independent effort, then I think we should be a lot more willing to help than if they are just copy and pasting the question from their assignment.
  • If the question is inherently interesting and would be a useful resource to others, then we should be more willing to retain the question.

Does breastfeeding lead to intelligence increase?

Several studies suggest that breast-fed babies become more intelligent children than formula-fed babies. One such study (Lucas and others, 1992) involved 300 premature babies whose mothers had chosen, prior to the experiment, whether or not to breast feed their newborns. Infants in both the breast-milk and formula groups were fed by tube for 18 months.

As 8-year-olds, children fed breast milk as infants scored 8 points higher in overall IQ than did those who were fed formula. This difference was observed even after the researchers adjusted for differences in the social class and maternal education of the two groups. (This adjustment allowed the researchers to rule out any pre-existing differences in the groups that might have independently contributed to IQ differences in their children).

The authors acknowledge that other differences between the groups, such as the children’s genetic potential or their parents’ caregiving skills or motivation to nurture, could explain the results. However, they believe that human milk contains various hormones and other factors that enhance brain growth and maturation.

What explanation do the researchers offer for their findings? Does this explanation make sense based on the evidence?

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If I can clearly see a question that must have come from a textbook/professor, I immediately reach for the close button. I see these sort of questions tolerated far too much on Math.SE and it seriously harms my opinion of the site/community. Several users have gained a fair amount of rep asking homework problems on that site, and users will cheerily provide a full solution without even a second thought. If a user is using us as a surrogate for doing their homework, we shouldn't answer that question.

The problem with homework questions is they're all about the asker (glazing over the obvious academic integrity issue which is already enough reason to block them). The asker is usually on a deadline and thus pushier than usual. Their question is very specific to their class. Their question is often completely artificial or focused on comprehension of a single study. And once the deadline is past, the student no longer cares and may completely abandon the site. All of these make the question Too Localized and make "feeding" these users extremely dangerous.

That's not to say all "homework-y" questions are bad. There's really two kinds; one where the asker wants to answer the homework problem, directly or indirectly (almost universally bad) or the asker wants to know the answer to a question sparked by the homework problem. Ideally any answer we give here should not be suitable as an answer to the homework at hand.

As you said, if there's visible, independent effort, and they're asking about a specific thing they can't understand then I don't see a problem answering them. But ideally, I shouldn't be able to tell the question was related to homework at all, or the fact that homework was involved should only be a bit of framing for the question (while answering homework question A I wondered B and was unable to find...).

As for the specific question: too homeworky as written. Can it be improved? Probably, but I'll admit I have very low motivation to do any sort of work for someone who asks a blatant homework question, including editing their post.

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I have no problem with homework problems as such. Some homework questions are artificial, and not useful to others. There's a limit to how artificial you can make a cognitive science question, though, because our theories just aren't that precise or well suited to dealing with random counterfactuals, so I think this is much less of a problem for us than it is for Math.SE.

This is not mathematics: there is often no definitively correct answer to a research question (yet). There may be multiple approaches to the question worth contrasting. Alternatively, an answer can be comprehensive and representative of our understanding one year, and be completely inadequate one crucial replication failure later. If you think the question is worth answering, and that you have an answer worth giving, what does the asker's motives matter?

If the question is unclear, too broad, not sufficiently motivated to be useful to anyone else, etc., we can edit it when possible and close it for other reasons when not. Those are good reasons to close a question. The person having been given the question as a homework assignment in the first place is not.

Personally, I therefore have no problem answering homework questions if I think they are sufficiently good in every other way. Who knows, a few of them might even stick around.

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