This article presents the best resources I know of for free homework help with helpful background information for each. As you read on you'll see that there's something for everyone on this list, everything from help with kindergarden and elementary school Math to help with very advanced mathematics.
My intent when preparing to write this article was to find 10 really good Math homework help forums but, after doing a fair amount of research, I only found 7 that met my standards. Before listing them I'll share my criteria for site selection, and some etiquette tips that will get you or your child better help faster. And, I'll give some cautionary information for kids about being safe on the Net.
Criteria for site selection
Powered by live humans. I was looking for sites where humans gave homework help, not automated formula solvers, although those tools do have their place and I'll review a number of them in a future article.
Forum format. I mostly only include sites where students can post questions and readers of the forum can provide help. I omitted sites where students need to email or fax in problems, with exceptions for two exceptional sites.
Free. I wasn't interested in sites that were sort of free but then tried to urge you to pay for quicker response.
High quality of responses. I looked at some responses from each site to verify the quality of results. On any site, of course, you'll get some incorrect or not helpful answers so the aim was to give a thumbs up to the overall quality of results from any given site.
Good response time. Except for the email-based services I was looking to see that posted questions received responses within a day. I realize that many students wait till the last second to do their Math homework but I don't expect volunteers to jump through flaming hoops to respond to an "emergency".
Active forum. Related to the last criterion, I excluded sites that looked like ghost towns. If I didn't see a good amount of active and recent traffic I dropped it from consideration.
Positive "energy". This criterion is a bit hard to measure, but if I saw much spamming or many insulting comments then I decided the site wasn't being moderated well enough and I dropped it. I included one site that was on the edge manners-wise because they have other redeeming qualities.
The following tips should help you to get better responses more quickly.
Present problems as clearly as you can. Create a useful subject line, something better than "Need help". A good subject line would be "Stuck factoring a quadratic". Proof-read your work carefully, checking for typos and unclear statements. If there's a Math formula generator then learn to use it to typeset your formulas. Attention to clarity will make it much easier for volunteers to understand your problem and respond more quickly.
Be polite. Don't be rude, insulting, or act desperate when you ask for help. It's not the volunteer's fault that you're in a hurry. Express your gratitude when you get help.
Do as much of the problem as you can before asking for help. Math helpers are more likely to go out of their way to help you if you show you are engaged in the problem. I've seen students just type in the homework problem straight from the book without any indication that they even tried to solve it. Lots of volunteers are not sympathetic to your just throwing the problem over the fence.
Show the work you've done. Related to the previous item, type in as much of the problem as you've done or tell what you know.
Don't expect them to do your homework. I've been guilty of doing Math problems for students. It's a bad habit although I get it boosts my ego. The better helpers, in my judgment, give you enough information to move you forward but put the responsibility on you to understand the Math and complete your homework yourself. It's a good thing. Really.
A caution about being careful when you're on the Net.
While most people on the Internet, as in real life, are honest decent people, there are some less than safe people that hang out online and you want to keep yourself safe from them. If you're a kid needing help with your homework please make sure that your parents know what sites you're going to. Don't give any information to anybody that could identify you, like your name, address, telephone number, what school you attend, what you look like, where you hang out, or what city you live in. If anyone online is acting creepy tell your parents right away. Please.
And, now for my 7 top picks, in alphabetical order:
Algebra.com is a site I have personal experience with as a volunteer, having helped many a student with their algebra homework there. Despite the name, the site also provides help with Geometry and you can sneak in problems in other areas as well. I have found that many problems are solved very quickly, often in less than an hour, although some, especially the ones not clearly worded or missing an important detail, are not answered at all. This happens because Algebra.com is a little different from other forums in that you submit a question and it gets answered but there's not really a mechanism for back and forth discussion. So, if your problem is not clearly and complete presented it'll likely just get dropped. Volunteers are urged to show work and to encourage understanding of the subject matter. Algebra.com is a very vibrant community.
Ask Dr. Math is not an interactive forum like most of my other picks, they're not as quick as other sites, they only take questions via email, and they don't guarantee they'll answer your question. So, why do I recommend them? The quality of their help is outstanding, they have an outstanding reputation, and they are under the umbrella of the Drexel School of Education which adds tremendous credibility to their work. Their commitment is to provide quality help and I sense that they're in this for the love of teaching. They provide help to K-12 students in all branches of mathematics. They also have an extensive archive of answers to some past questions; in those archives the quality of their work really shines.
This is a nice forum for not only students, but for teachers and parents as well. The forum is divided into these subject areas: Basic Math and Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus and Calculus, Probability and Statistics, Standardized Test Preparation Help, and Miscellaneous Math Topics. Plus, there's a Teacher Talk and Parent's Place forum. Volunteers seem quite respectful and responsive and this site has a nice feel to it.
Math Help Forum boasts that they've got the fastest response time on the net. They even have a section of their forum titled "Urgent Homework Help". Sure enough, many of those urgent questions I checked on got answered in mere minutes. Wow! The range of help is unbelievable. Everything from elementary school Math through Calculus and beyond is covered. There are forums for Advanced Algebra (e.g. linear algebra, abstract algebra, topology, group theory), Advanced Geometry (e.g. non-Euclidean), Advanced Applied Math, Number Theory, Advanced Probability and Statistics, Business Math, Discrete Math, and, in case they missed anything, there's an Advanced Topics forum. And, there are a bunch more forums as well, too many to list, that I think I'll go check out.
This forum is designed to appeal to the younger crowd, elementary school through high school students. Forum descriptions are sprinkled with words like "cool" and "fun". Forum names are inviting: "Help Me!", "This is Cool", "Jokes", and "Euler Avenue", to name a few. The help forum is reasonably active, but not as much as some other forums so I'm guessing this might be a nice friendly place to get some more attention than in other forums,.
This forum spans arithmetic to post-calculus plus application of Math to other fields. Their landing page says they were established in 1998. That's a good thing. Looking at a number of posts I noticed that more questions were about advanced Math than not. Also, the posts are lumped together, not organized into categories and their message board format is not up to modern "styling" standards. But, nonetheless, I found the knowledge of those responding was quite high. I also need to say that I noticed a flavor of "tough love" in this forum. I would recommend it mainly to those with problems in Calculus or beyond who are willing to be very clear in stating the problem and who can show what work they've done.
Math Nerds is the other email-based Math help service. Even though they're not a forum, I included them for a number of reasons. First, their help is discovery based. They won't help you do your homework but they will guide you when you need it and encourage you to take more responsibility for your learning. Second, they have very high standards and an application process to determine who they'll include in their rank of volunteers. Most of their volunteers have PhD's in mathematics or mathematics education. Third, Math Nerds has support from foundations and universities. Math Nerds answers questions from kindergarden through graduate Math. Their FAQ boasts that they answer 97% of questions within 16 hours. That's impressive for an email-based service and worth the wait if you're wanting to understand Math better and have the patience to combine their help with your own hard work. Remember, they won't do your homework for you - they provide guidance, direction, and references.
This exploration into Math homework help resources has been quite fruitful for me personally and I hope you find it helpful too. I have to say that I'm impressed with the quality of the free Math help available on the Net. It's absolutely awesome to see how much volunteers contribute. Amazing.