I see many long-time SE users here, explaining how things are done across the sites. I have also seen it mentioned that how things are done here may be different. What works best for math educators is what should happen here.

Right now this site is full of university-level questions. (I teach community college, and many are past my expertise level.) I would like to see questions and answers for all levels, PreK, elementary and middle school, high school, basic college course, and higher.

Those who teach lower levels will mostly be SE newbies. What etiquette standards will help them to feel welcome (while still upholding the standards of useful questions and answers)?

  • $\begingroup$ I think this is very important as well. One thing I've seen on other stack overflow sites is a lot of moderating that points people to other questions. I think it makes sense in those communities, but we might want to try to help newbies phrase their questions differently rather than just closing them here. $\endgroup$
    – adamblan
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @adamblan: Closing questions (especially duplicates) is not intended to be punative. But as you say, it's a lot nicer to help new users with thoughtful edits rather than simply shut them down. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't the k12 tag more suitable in using on the main site rather than on the meta site? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ ok. deleted tag. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum Mod
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ +1 I agree this is an important question. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2014 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ @JonEricson SVH quid et al: Is it possible to implement my second suggestion at the answer below while this site is still in beta? Specifically, can we create a side-bar on the main page that displays sample questions at different levels (so that educators working with different ages/stages can all feel welcome)? My suggestion was to use primary- secondary- undergraduate- and graduate-education as the four side-bar categories. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds great to me, but I don't know what would be involved. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum Mod
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps @JonEricson would know...? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 5:30
  • $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman: We can't really change the sidebar like that, even on graduated sites. My two suggestions are: 1) propose a change to the on-topic help page, which the moderators can edit and 2) try asking more of the sorts of questions you feel are under represented. The second suggestion is particularly powerful since we have found that people often ignore the sidebar (and the help center), but do read questions on the site that interest them. Actions really do speak louder than words. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @JonEricson Ah, thanks for 1. For 2: The purpose of my suggestion is precisely for viewers to see questions that interest them. The concern is that they will see something at the wrong level and give up on the site. This cannot be ameliorated by asking one type of question; whenever the top few questions are of a certain type (whether primary focused or graduate level) educators working at a different level may believe that they are in the wrong place. Hence the suggestion of a side-bar in which recent questions at striated levels (viz., primary, secondary, undergrad, grad) are displayed. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman: Understood. There's a bit of a Catch-22 here: if you don't have people asking the sort of questions the site would like to address, it makes it less likely that new people will ask those questions. That's going to be true even if you put examples in the sidebar because: a) people often ignore the sidebar and b) even when a community makes a minority group officially welcome, it often takes time (and participation from others in the group) before they feel welcome. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 19:04

2 Answers 2


On the SE network, I've found TeX-SX to have the friendliest atmosphere, and thus the place where I feel most comfortable asking and answering questions. There are certain aspects about TeX that help with that, but also we worked hard at the start to set the tone and I think we could do well to think about doing that here. Some suggestions:

  1. Leave your ego at the door.

    Disagreement is fine, but "I'm right and you're wrong" isn't. A lot of answers here will probably be opinion-based and/or anecdotal. It's very tempting to keep shouting louder until your voice is the only one heard. Don't.

  2. Assume the best of others.

    Similar to the above. It's likewise tempting to down-vote an answer that you disagree with even though it was an honest attempt to answer the question. You can bleat about how people should have thick skins, but if someone finds their contributions continually being down-voted then they will just leave and then we're the ones that lose out from their experience.

  3. Don't down-vote if a comment will do.

    Leave a comment first asking for clarification or suggesting a modification. If it doesn't get answered or resolved, then consider voting down but it doesn't need to be the first action. If there's a comment there already, vote up the comment rather than voting down the question.

  4. Don't down-vote beyond -1.

    Piling-on down-votes is not pleasant. Once something is at -1 it's clear that there's something wrong with it. Often down-voting beyond that is counter-productive: it might get sympathy votes.

  5. Have a "clean up squad".

    If there's a regular time for dealing with old questions that haven't been answered then there's less of a pressure to get everything sorted out before it disappears off the front page. Then questions that initially look a bit problematic can be left with a comment ("Did you really mean to ask ...?") and then dealt with the next time the clean-up squad comes round.

  6. Don't be the "third man in".

    There're lots of little fights in rugby and most fizzle out pretty quickly. The problems start when a third person gets involved and starts laying about. If you're the third person in, be the referee not another combatant.

  7. Have a list of "stock comments".

    When you see the 10th question that day asking for something stupid, it's tempting to leave a brusque comment explaining why that person was so stupid to ask that question. But they didn't ask the previous 9 versions and so didn't know; but equally, it's not a fun thing to write essentially the same comment ten times. On TeX-SX we have a list of "stock comments" that can be used. It isn't that they should be used or must be used, but that they can be used if you want to leave a comment and want to do it quickly. That helps ensure that the default behaviour is to be polite and welcoming. Here's a link to the TeX-SX comments.

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    $\begingroup$ Good points (though personally I do not like the 'stock comments' but I guess they are useful). I think the (down-)voting etiquette will be especially important for more opinion-based things; I have no fixed idea here, but I think an effort should be made to separate expressing agreement from quality assesment. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ @quid No-one seems to like the idea of our "stock comments" - even Jeff Attwood weighed in to say so - but they work in the sense that they make it easy to be polite. And even though I rarely use them myself, knowing that they are there provides an extra impetus to be polite when commenting. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ For building a quite diverse community like this one could be, and where not few might have no prior SE experience, I can see some merit in having them as a guideline. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 22:46

An experiment: Find a schoolteacher (K-12, pre-K, community college...) and ask him or her to look at the front-page. What initial impression is given off by the page? If this seems like it could potentially be a good place to ask a question, then is it clear how to proceed? (What else might you ask him or her?)

If I am a first grade teacher who has to align my lessons with the (U.S.) Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM), and I already feel a bit out of my element with regard to mathematical content, then I imagine that opening the site and seeing Can GAP/Magma be helpful for a first abstract algebra course? or Computational topology for engineers would be a bit overwhelming.

I'd probably think I am in the wrong place.

This is not to say that these questions are bad; in fact, I think each is well-posed (and, incidentally, I think Alexander Gruber's answers to both are quite nice).

But here are two suggestions on how to make schoolteachers feel more welcome:

  1. Include a side-bar with sample questions at different levels. For example, have recent questions (or highly voted ones, or randomly generated ones, or...) with, at least, primary-education, secondary-education, undergraduate-education, and graduate-education listed. That way, even if the main body has questions about abstract algebra or topology, I can still look for the level at which I'm more comfortable and at which my own potential question might fit in.

  2. Include a guide of the form: I'm wondering about something related to mathematics education (teaching, learning, etc) at some level. How do I turn this into an appropriate question? Then have this link to a page that begins with a general experience or idea ("Mathematical modeling" is now a standard for mathematical practice in CCSSM and is supposed to be covered in secondary school; but I've never studied modeling and don't know how to teach it!) and guides the user through how this could be turned into a well-formulated question. (Background, what has been tried already, what exactly the user is looking/hoping for, how to combine this into a question, how to title the question, how to tag the question, etc). Then conclude by showing what it would look like in its full version.

It might even be a good idea to carry out suggestion two at different levels (maybe this can be done at the extremes: one at Pre-K and another at the graduate level). Probably there should be some mention elsewhere about the other types of questions that are welcome here, e.g., historical ones about mathematics education (Edit: depending on its nature, a historical question might fit better at another SE site that has since emerged, HSM), but I think this post of mine is already sufficiently prolix...

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for suggestion #1. This should definitely be done. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 17:44

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