Friday, May 29, 2015

Using Calculators in Math Class...

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?


  1. Recently helping out with Grade 6 EQAO, I found that nearly every student at some point used their calculator to solve or check a solution. I agree with the message this article is trying to send pertaining to the fact that calculators are useful tools in elementary mathematics classes when students already have some basic skills. I also see where you are coming from in terms of your frustration with students struggling with basic arithmetic and math computations. This in part has a lot to do with the gaps in the education system we spoke about earlier in this course.
    During EQAO, I noticed the class was split pretty evenly with students using the calculator to check answers and students using the calculator to guess and check. The issue a lot of students has was they had a hard time transferring what they did on their calculator onto their page.
    I found the point the article made that calculators provide students with immediate feedback interesting. The issue I have with this idea is that a student that completes a solution incorrectly because of misconception and checks it incorrectly with a calculator will still get the solution wrong. Calculators can only aid students who know the concept and purpose of using them in a specific context.

  2. I am on the side that calculators can be a good thing. As I have mentioned before, they are a tool, and the time needs to be take to teach students when and how to use them effectively. I myself use a calculator, even for what some would call simple or basic math. I use it not because I can' t do the math, but because it saves me time. There are many students who can't do the math, but I think that is a whole other issue, not even related to calculators.

    I think of it the same way as spell check on a computer. I encourage students to use spell check, but they also need to know spelling and grammar. It's a tool that can make things efficient, or eliminate some human error, but it's just a tool.

  3. I think calculators are a great tool, but can easily become a crutch. For the majority of people (myself included), as soon as we leave high school, as soon as math is required in our daily life we turn to the calculator, even if it is only for simple addition; is there a problem with this? I don't think so. What becomes more concerning to me is when students go to university or college. My mother is a professor of nursing and every year she is in disbelief when her students can't do simple addition/multiplication without the aid of a calculator. In this and other professions, I know I'd feel a lot more comfortable if my nurse knew the basic math to check the results of the calculator, and not just trust its accuracy. Of course the calculator is an extremely useful tool, and is so much faster than the average brain, and as long as the person using it knows the basic concepts behind the math I see no problem in them using it.

  4. Calculators definitely have the potential to become a crutch and this needs to be paid attention to by educators. However, in the 21st century math is no longer a matter of being to compute because there are so many devices readily available and user friendly. It is important that students understand how and why certain mathematical processes are happening, but calculating devices are now important to all of this. The transition of education needs to be focused on problem solving, that allows the use of devices, but in a way where the student has to understand why and how they are using these devices.
    Dan Meyer gives the Excellent talk about the Math Classroom Needs a Makeover.

    The grade 11/12 curriculum also shares this sympathy in describing Problem Solving as a process, where it states "It [problem solving] is considered an essential process through which students are able to achieve the expectations in mathematics..." (pg. 18)

    So the use of calculators can be lead to them being a crutch, but when we provide the background of problem solving as a vehicle for learning, students will also be encouraged to understand why and how they do mathematical processes while also being allowed to use these devices to aid them in their thinking.

  5. Yes, I really agree that calculator could become a crutch to a student if he/she overused to a point that they have to rely on it. I understand the frustrated or disappointed feeling of you seeing student could do the simple subtraction in chemistry, because I had tutored a student like that before.

    I am a person who likes to do calculation in my head. And, I would encourage my students to do so as well. One thing I really like about the Saturday School that I work is that calculators are never allowed in all of their tests and exams. This really helps students to develop a habit of doing simple calculation without relying on calculation. Therefore, I would suggest us, as math teachers, to do the same thing (no calculator allowed) when we create our math tests for students as well.

    For double checking homework's answers, I do not mind students use calculators because that way they could save time and be accurate on their answers. However, I would not encourage and even allow them to use calculators when they are doing their homework.

    From the article, it said that "The study indicates technology such as calculators can help kids who already have a strong foundation in basic skills," Kmicikewycz.
    I believe the proper use of calculator would benefit students' learning just as the above example says. So let us guide our students to the appropriate use of calculator so it would not become our students' crutches in math.