# The calculator crutch

On Community College Spotlight, a dean wonders what to do about calculator-dependent students who can’t pass low-level math classes that require them to do their own arithmetic.  Should college instructors allow calculators?

1. If the course focuses on the math skill, then “No.” The students need to learn the skill. If you are teaching them physics, then the answer should be “Depends.”

Of course, you could always blame the high school teachers, who will pass the buck to middle school teachers and then down to the elementary teachers who should have taught the skill in the first place.

2. Miller Smith says:

Can’t do math without a calculator!? Ha! My students can’t do math WITH a calculator.

3. I think you should only be allowed to use a calculator after you’ve demonstrated that you can do the math without it. Even then, students should be drilled in mental arithmetic and estimation – it’s very useful to be able to do simple arithmetic in your head.

I used to work for a CEO who had an amazing ability to do math in his head. In a meeting, he would say something like, “OK, so we sell them 100,000 units at \$14.95 and at that price our gross margins are… hmmm… about 22 percent, so we make about \$330,000 on the deal.” It gave him an incredible advantage when dealing with people: he was always about three steps ahead of them in knowing a good deal from a bad deal. I had a college prof who could solve any problem involving arithmetic and simple roots, powers and logarithms to two significant digits almost instantly. It was certainly a hell of a time saver for him.

If you can’t figure what “save fifteen percent if you buy two!” means to you without a calculator, then you can’t function effectively in the 21st century.

4. Cal says:

Why are we calling this work “college”? It’s not college. It’s elementary school work.

Anyone who makes it through 12 years of school and can’t handle basic math facts is never going to get through college algebra, much less calculus.

So long as these people never get a college degree, who cares whether they use a calculator or not?

If you lower standards and it allows them to get a BA, though, that’s a big problem.

Which is why I ask again–why are we calling this college?

5. anon says:

A calculator should never be permitted inside of an educational institution of any type for any reason.

I teach a graduate level Research and Statistics class for teachers–the primary focus is on research because, well, you know why. But, I have to at least teach some basic concepts of statistics. Last night, we were talking about significance level, e.g., p<.05. I had several students, all of whom are teachers, who did not know what the signs meant and several others who did not understand that .08 is greater than .05. On an earlier quiz,I gave them a mean score and a standard deviation and asked them to represent the average range of scores on a bell curve. To do so, they had to add and subtract. Many of them were angry because their addition and/or subtraction were wrong and I had not allowed them to use a calculator.

6. Cynical says:

A calculator should never be permitted inside of an educational institution of any type for any reason.

I bet you don’t have the balls to say that in the middle of a bunch of chemists, physicists or engineers (because you sure wouldn’t have any balls afterward).

7. anon says:

“I bet you don’t have the balls to say that in the middle of a bunch of chemists, physicists or engineers (because you sure wouldn’t have any balls afterward).”

Yes, I do. And, you’re right–I may not!

8. I’m with Miller.

9. anon,

I disagree. A calculator (later, a computer) is a tool of the trade for many professions (such as engineers) and there really is no modern substitute. Can you see classrooms full of engineering students looking up logarithms in tables? Sines and cosines? Can you imagine how long a fluid mechanics course would take if you had to compute everything by hand? Should we go back to slide rules? But aren’t they just analog computers?

The use of calculators and computers is one of the things you’re at the university to learn. To ban their use makes no sense what so ever.

As I said above, you should not be able to use a calculator until you’ve shown you can do the skill manually. After that, not using a calculator is just waisting your time.

10. As someone who does math for a living, we all use calculators and spreadsheets anyway. Forcing the kids to do arithmetic by hand is not doing them any real favors. Even people that are good at arithmetic screw it up all the time, which is why we have calculators and computers. In my experience it doesn’t really reflect on their ability to do higher level symbolic math anyway. And all the hard math is symbolic math using variables, not simple arithmetic.

Not that doing math on the back of envelope isn’t useful. Being able to do a simple order of magnitude analysis in the middle of a meeting has come in really handy. Probably saved a lot of money over the years as well. But when you do that sort of thing you’re rounding all the numbers to make the arithmetic easier anyway.

11. “As I said above, you should not be able to use a calculator until you’ve shown you can do the skill manually. After that, not using a calculator is just wasting your time.”

Exactly.

12. Daniel says:

Maybe if they didn’t let them use calculators in second grade they would not have this problem in college. I get highly irritated when my second grader who still hasn’t learned basic arithmetic gets mad at me for saying no calculator for homework because the teacher says they can use it.