I have recently started working as a tutor for math and science. Most of my math students are in grades 4 through 8. Although I haven’t been working with them for that long, I am already frustrated and appalled at their (in my opinion) over-reliance on calculators to do basic math operations. Although my boss told me not to worry too much about it, I felt determined to make them do mental math as much as possible.

As a science teacher, it frustrated me during my placements to see students miss “easy” questions in chemistry that required them to calculate the number of neutrons in an atom (atomic mass subtract the number of protons). I didn’t allow calculators during that test because I honestly did not foresee 15 year olds not being able to subtract 26 from 56.

If I had allowed them to use calculators, the benefit would have been for the students, mainly. They wouldn’t have missed a question because they made a math error. After all, I wasn’t testing their math, I was testing their knowledge of the composition of an atom. Unfortunately, not knowing how to do those basic operations cost them marks in science class, so I do see the benefit of using calculators.

However, I also felt that if I had allowed students to use calculators, I was providing a convenient way for them to cheat (they could easily hide a slip of paper under the calculator cover, or store words into its memory). More importantly, however, I felt that by allowing calculators for addition and subtraction questions, I would be undermining the importance of knowing those basic math skills.

Bethany Rittle-Johnson of Vanderbilt’s Peabody college of education and human development conducted a study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that looked deeper into how calculators affected grade three students’ math performance. Her team found that a student’s prior knowledge of math was the determining factor in whether or not a calculator made a difference in their education. Rittle-Johnson found that students who did not know their multiplication tables did not really benefit from the use of a calculator, but students who had a strong foundation benefitted immensely when given word problems to solve. "I think that the evidence suggests there are good uses of calculators, even in elementary school”, she stated.

Although this may be true, wouldn’t allowing students who do not know their multiplication tables to use calculators further make their math skills worse? What message does that send the student? “I know I told you to memorize the two times table, but I’ll let you use a calculator on the test anyway.” If a student knew they would be getting a calculator on the day of the test, why would they try to learn multiplication on their own?

What do you guys think?