Using calculators in class – opportunity or threat for students?

Throughout my whole experience as a student, I have had several math teachers, and each of my teachers has maintained a particular calculator policy. Some of them hardly integrated calculators or other devices into their instruction or let the students utilize calculators on tests.  On the other hand, some of the teachers I had highly encouraged the use of technological devices.

Personally, I do understand the perspectives of both the calculator-haters and the calculator-lovers.  I myself fall somewhere in the middle of both perspectives: I actually think that calculators can be an asset to both teaching and learning mathematics, but only when utilized properly.

The contribution of calculators in the classroom is objectively obvious: calculators make difficult computations much easier.  For instance, when trying to find the area of a triangle with a height of 48.9cm and a base of 413cm, trying to compute (48.9X413)/2 by hand or mental calculation would take a good bit of time and eventually shift the focus away from the key concept at hand, which is finding the area.

By high school, students are expected to know computational skills and are learning more advanced processes. Using a calculator device to save time on computations will definitely help students focus more on the concepts and less on monotonously working through computations.

Some argue that calculator use in the classroom can also have a negative effect in some ways. Some claim that if a student relies too heavily on a calculator to perform calculations, then they might become stressed and perform poorly in situations where they are not allowed to use these devices, such as some standardized tests. However, most studies that have been carried out on this matter do not back these concerns.

Another aspect that can potentially be considered as negative about calculator use in the classroom is that these devices are typically not uniform. Throughout math classes, sometimes the regular 4-function calculators are provided, some other times scientific calculators are provided, and sometimes graphing calculators are provided.  Different standardized tests allow for different types of devices. Each of these tools has their own benefits, of course, but switching between differing calculators is confusing for anyone — if you are used to a specific model, switching to a slightly different device can be frustrating, because many of the functions and buttons are in different locations.  This is usually not a big issue for 4-function calculators, obviously, since they perform very limited functions, but personally I have found that even switching between very similar calculator models with slight differences takes quite a bit of adjusting to get used to.

In general, I think that a calculator’s benefits clearly outweigh the negatives; it just depends on how the children or students are taught to use them.  As long as the functions of the device are extensions of a child’s knowledge and not a replacement for it, calculators are truly helpful machines. This can be achieved by practicing both with and without the device.  My math teacher gave tests that had both calculator sections as well as non-calculator sections. Thanks to this, my classmates and I became adept at solving problems with or without the device, that’s why I consider my Casio calculator more of an ally rather than an enemy.

Research and studies tend to agree that these devices are beneficial teaching tools.  Throughout the recent years, several studies have been carried out showing the positive outcomes of calculator integration in class.  Future studies will hopefully give more insight into the specific conditions, contexts, and resources needed to maximize the degree to which calculator usage can actually enhance the teaching and learning of math.