Nancy Anderson, EdD

Mathematics Teacher ~ Author ~ Consultant

Q: Should students be allowed to use calculators?

A: Yes, students should be allowed to use calculators in math class. Hembree and Dessart's (1986) meta-analysis of 72 studies showed that calculators do not have an adverse effect on students' computational skills. In addition, calculator use was associated with better problem solving skills and a more positive attitude towards mathematics.

At first glance, the above findings may seem counterintuitive. Yet, on closer inspection, I can think of several reasons calculators may help students learn. First, calculators are not always the most efficient approach -- and students know this. If students can compute something in their heads, they will.  If it's more work to pick up the calculator and punch in the numbers, they are not going to do that - even if the calculator is available. Second, calculators provide a mechanism for exploring patterns and relationships. In the lower elementary grades, access to calculators can help young learners model with mathematics (e.g., figuring out what buttons to press to solve a start unknown addition problem is a problem in itself for a 6 or 7 year old!). In grades 4 and 5, access to calculators can help students see important relationships between fractions, division, and decimals.  In the middle grades, calculators can reveal misconceptions about irrational numbers (e.g., decimals with very long repetends are irrational.) Finally, access to calculators allows students to solve much more complicated problems than they would be able to without. In math class, I am able to give my students complicated problems involving messy rational numbers and irrational numbers as well as problems that require pattern searching, guess-and-check inductive reasoning strategies, and generalizing from simpler cases, because they have calculators to support them as they work.