Using Calculators

One of the most debated decisions that parents, educators and students have to make is just how much and how early a student should rely on the use of a calculator as a piece of educational technology.  Having worked with all sorts of math students through the years, we have observed many of the do’s and don’ts that either help or hinder students in developing confidence in math. Used properly, calculators are terrific educational technology tools that can make short work of otherwise tedious tasks, especially those that require repetition or multiple inputs.  All too often however, students use calculators too frequently or too early in their mathematical development, robbing them of the necessary repetition that is essential to understanding and cementing into memory, fundamental mathematical operations and concepts.

We see students all of the time that have developed less than the desired ability to work with fractions and the corresponding understanding that fractions, decimals and percentages are 3 facets of a similar concept. The dark side of calculator use is that students will use the device to take shortcuts before they really should.  Later in a student’s math life, when they are called on to manipulate complex algebraic expressions, the lack of fundamental understanding of the rules of operating with fractions – a key element for success in Algebra I and II – rears its ugly head, often convincing students that they simply “don’t get it.”  Commensurately, over reliance on calculators can prevent a student from developing the patience and step-by-step meticulousness that work in higher math necessitates.

All of the aforementioned is stated in light of the fact that there are certain students for whom early calculator use is absolutely essential.  Those students with diagnosed learning disabilities such dyscalculia, or those students whose fine-motor control is a serious impediment to writing may need to use a calculator early and often, lest the student struggle so mightily as to miss the concepts that are being taught.

For the average student however, careful attention should be paid when making the decision to permit calculator use.  Consultation with a student’s teacher and awareness of a student’s mastery of fractional concepts in elementary school are essential when determining when and to what extent calculator use should be considered.

What do you think of calculators and how they are used?

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