(Copyright © 2000-2001 --
this item revised 26 Feb 2001)

Mini-TOC: | Your own work ... Subject line ... E-mail address ... Your level of study |

First and foremost, make sure you tell us what the problem is! Many
students post an algebraic expression and leave us to guess whether
we're supposed to factor it, simplify it, find its zeroes, or just
what. So make sure you give us the *whole problem*, in its original
wording.

If it's a word problem, please type in the whole problem as written. If it's an expression or equation, please be sure to give the exact instructions, such as "solve", "factor over the integers", or "for what values of a is there a unique solution for x?"

To help us understand you better, please use standard notation for math expressions. And ask your question in plain text: no pictures or other attachments

Always, always show your work as far as you were able to go. Even
if you couldn't get very far, there's almost always *something*
you can do beyond merely posting the problem.

This is hugely important, for a couple of reasons:

If you finished and got a wrong answer, we can tell you exactly where you went wrong. And we may be able to give you some hints that will help you not to make that particular mistake in the future.

Consider (1/2) + (1/3). The answers (1/6) and (2/5) are both wrong, but come from very different kinds of mistakes. With those we can probably guess what you did wrong,[1] but with most problems we need to see your work.

If you got stuck and never reached a solution, knowing exactly where you got stuck can again help us help you most effectively. Did you go down a blind alley, with an approach that was mathematically valid but leads nowhere? Or did you just not see how to make the next step? Is there maybe some "trick" or standard technique you're not seeing, such as a useful substitution?

Finally, we're human. Someone with time to help only one student may pick the one who seems to be making the greatest effort on her own. If all you post is the problem statement, you may get passed over.

Your article is competing with others for attention. Pick a
*descriptive* subject line. That will get you noticed better
than lots of capitals, exclamation points, and whining, believe it or
not.

For instance, if you are stuck on a story problem about a guy rowing upstream and then downstream, you might be tempted to post

Subject: PLEEEEEEEEEZEE!!! NEED HELP NOW!!!!!

but you'll likely get better results with

Subject: Upstream and downstream

Why is a good specific subject line important?

People glancing over the list of subjects may decide to read yours because it looks like an area of math that interests them. Which of the two above would

*you*find more interesting?As you can imagine, we see a lot of questions headed "algebra" or "problem" or "please help", and they tend to blur together. You don't want your problem to be overlooked because we see the topic and think we've already answered it.

As Ben Franklin might have said, the net helps those who help themselves. If you use a specific and grown-up subject line, you have already put in some useful thought.

No, you don't have to include your real address, though it is a courtesy. (It also lets us tell you privately when you've posted a really bone-headed error, instead of embarrassing you publicly.)

If you use a fake address, please make it *obviously* fake.
It can be very frustrating to send a helpful message to someone at
what looks like a valid address, only to have it bounce. The official
way to fake an address is to use a top-level domain of "invalid", for
example "[email protected]".

One exception should be obvious: if you ask for e-mailed answers, you'd better have your right address in the Reply-to header, not buried in the message. When people are already taking the trouble to answer your question, and you've asked them to e-mail you, naturally you should make that as easy as possible.

It's usually good to tell us what your level of study is. Sometimes a problem can be solved in different ways using algebra, or trigonometry, or calculus, and we don't want to give you an answer that is too advanced or too elementary.

Even within a subject, it can be good to tell us what topic you're currently studying. For instance, if you need to solve an equation and you're now studying factoring, a solution using the formula probably wouldn't be much use to you.

If you're studying on your own without a teacher, you may want to mention that.

- Stan Brown
- Bob Bruner

1/2 + 1/3 = 2/5 looks like the student probably thought that adding fractions means you add the numerators and the denominators separately. That's a pretty basic mistake, and if my guess is right this student needs to go back and relearn fractions pretty much from the beginning.

1/2 + 1/3 = 1/6 looks like the student knew about converting to lowest common denominator but then simply misread the plus sign as a minus or times sign. This is also wrong, of course, but not in the same way. Here we might ask whether there was a typo in the original problem, or if the student simply needs to slow down and read more carefully.

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