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Jaimee Arnold
Dr. Whit Jones
Eng 411a
December 3, 2016
Calculators: A Useful Tool That Has Lost Its Effectiveness

With the mindset of a student in a mathematics classroom, from elementary to secondary

school, imagine you are given a test where you are asked to do basic arithmetic without the use

of a calculator, but you find yourself unsure of how to solve the problem mentally or by hand.

This is an example of a possible effect of overusing calculators. Improper use of calculators is an

issue that many teachers are facing in the classroom. Calculators can be a helpful tool in math

education because they take away the tedious work of doing long calculations. But at times

teachers overuse them in instruction. The use of calculators in the fundamental stages can lead

students to relying too heavily on the tool and leave them ignorant to how and why math works.

Ultimately, a student who lacks math skills will be less confident, and not only will they feel that

way while in school but it will follow them throughout life. Research suggests that the question

isnt should calculators be used, but rather how and when should they be used. Having

curriculum that incorporates calculators, and limiting the amount of calculator use before a

student mastered a concept is the ideal solution to this problem many face in and out of the

classroom.

A study by Dr. K. Govindarajan, Principal and Faculty of Education of Vinayaka

Missions University, shows the direct correlation between mathematical achievement and self-

esteem. She defines self-esteem as a state of relative freedom from anxiety that serves as a

major guideline in integrating human relations, meaning that one does not worry or feel anxious

because of any given reason; in this case it would a students level of achievement. Her study

was conducted with a sample of 300 students, and of those 300 there was a mixture of students
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from male and female, Government and Management school, and rural and urban schools in

India. Govindarajan found that both self-esteem and achievement were at a medium level in her

sample. But she also found that there is a substantial relationship between these two variables.

Through her study we can see that doing well in academics affects us is the classroom through

our grades, but also personally through our self-esteem. Govindarajan points out that when

children does poorly in academics they are more likely to become frustrated, bored, and have

conflict with teachers and parents (2563-64). During these years, students are very

impressionable and need to be nourished in order to produce healthy self-esteems. Teachers can

help achieve this, in regards to math education, by the correct use of calculators in math courses.

There is no denying that calculators are a tool that should be taken advantage of, but just

like any tool there are positives and negatives that come along with it. One of the main benefits

that come from calculator use is the time that it saves. Heidi Pomerantz, a former professor of

mathematics at Ohio State University, states in her article The Role of Calculators in Math

Education that calculators open up several possibilities for both the students and the teacher

because they take away all the tedious work that is a result of working problems by hand.

Without the worry of solving these problem by hand, there is much more time that can be spent

on developing students understanding, reasoning, number sense, and application (4).

An example of this would be from the article, Secondary School Teachers' Conceptions

and Their Teaching Practices Using Graphing Calculators. by Jane A. Lee, a secondary

mathematics teacher, and Douglas E. McDougall, member of the Ontario Institute of Studies in

Education. Their study was conducted by interviewing and observing various teachers of

mathematics. One teacher that they evaluated was a secondary math teacher in a metropolitan

city in Canada, named Victoria. She teaches a 9-12 grade International Baccalaureate program
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where students are required to use graphing calculators. Victoria says that the use of graphing

calculators, after students are efficient at using them, can save time on calculations by hand. That

time then can be used to focus on students gaining a better understanding of the problem and

how to solve it (861-62).

The benefits of calculators go beyond saving time for both the students and teachers.

They also can help a students computational skills, which in the long run will help them be more

confident about their math skills. This was proven in an article, The Impact of Electronic

Calculators on Educational Performance, by Dennis M. Roberts, professor of mathematics at

Pennsylvania State University. Roberts used various pretest-posttest studies to make his

argument. This means that a pretest was given to a sample of students at the beginning of the

study, and after an allotted time, a posttest was given to see how their skill have changed or

improved. Analysis of Variance (ANOVA), which is using statistics to evaluate different groups,

was used to interpret the results of each of the studies. These statistics are use in three categories

in Roberts article, which are elementary, secondary, and College; each category consist of

several studies evaluated by Roberts (76). We will be focusing on elementary and secondary for

this paper.

First taking a look at the elementary portion of the study, Roberts evaluated eleven

studies and the results show that calculators are indeed helpful for computational skills. He

classifies elementary to be K-6 for this study. The first study that he refers to is by J.F. Hohlfeld,

he conducted his study with a sample set of eighty-four fifth graders. Among the seven classes

that made up those 84 students, he spilt them into three groups. Group one was students that

were encouraged to use calculators, group two was students that were not allowed to use

calculators, and group three was students that were not encouraged or discouraged to use
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calculators but to continue as they would normally. The students were given a pretest that was on

multiplication, and then three months later were given a posttest on the same topic. Once the

results were in, they showed that group one had done better than groups two and three when it

came to computational skills (73). There are ten more studies that generally follow these results,

and through these eleven studies, Roberts came to the conclusion that the use of calculators help

improve students computational skills (76).

Moving on to Secondary, we will see the same results. Roberts evaluated thirteen studies

at this age level; the secondary level is classified as 7- 12 grade. An example of one of the studies

is by W. L Gaslin, in his study he evaluated ninth graders and the sample set included six

different classes. Much like the study by Hohlfeld in the elementary section, Gaslin separated the

sample set into three groups. The first was based on conventional algorithms, in this group

students used the normal textbook approach. The second was based on alternative algorithms, in

which students used the calculator first and continued to use it throughout their calculations.

Then the third group did not use calculators for their calculations. Using the same pretest-posttest

approach the students were given a pretest and then ten weeks later they were given the posttest;

both test were on the topic of decimals and fractions. Evaluating the results, it showed that group

two did best followed by group one and then group three. This means that students using the

calculator did better in computational skills (77). Though Roberts found that calculators help

students when it comes to computational skill, they did not prove to be helpful for a students

conceptual skills. According to Anita C. Burris, author of Understanding the Math You Teach,

conceptual learning is students understand the concepts and reasoning underlying a process.

The better a student understands how and why their calculation works, the better their conceptual

skills are (par. 2).


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This idea that calculators dont help a student in their conceptual skills brings us the

disadvantages of calculators. Bethany Rittle-Johnson, assistant professor of psychology in

Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education and Human Development, states, " it is important

children first learn how to calculate answers on their own, but after that initial phase, using

calculators is a fine thing to do, even for basic multiplication facts" (Calculators par. 2). The

main disadvantage concerning calculator use in the classroom is that they will hinder a students

development of basic mathematical skills. Erin McCauliff, member of the department of

education and human services of Villanova University, points out that when a student doesnt

learn basic mathematic skills they can get behind in future math classes, and depending on a

calculator can give them a false sense of confidence (5).

Analyzing The Generation Effect will explain this better. Danielle S. McNamara, of the

University of Colorado, did her study concerning students generating information verses reading

it off a calculator. The sample set for this study was fourteen second grade students enrolled in a

public school in Boulder, Colorado; none of the students had prior knowledge on how to solve

multiplication problems. They were separated into a reading group and a generating group and

given 34 multiplication problems to calculate either by reading the answer off the calculator or

generating the answer themselves. Each student was taught how to do multiplication and

evaluated individually. They were also given a pretest, posttest, and retention test (309). The

results that McNamara found showed that for the students that generated their own answers

while learning these basic skill were more consistent in their skill than those who read their

answers off a calculator. Ultimately, her main take away from this study is once students have

learned basic skills in the fundamental stages of mathematics then they can benefit from a
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calculator. McNamara states that calculators arent good or bad in of them own selves, but it is

important to be careful about when and how you use them in the classroom (316).

Having evidence to show how calculators affect a student is helpful, but it also important

to address how a student learns. The learning process is the same for each student but can happen

at different paces. Burris explains the three levels of learning mathematics and the three types of

learning experiences. The three levels of learning are concrete, pictorial, and symbolic. The

concrete level is where students use hands on activities or manipulatives to solve problems. This

level of learning is to encourage students to understand and see how the problem is solved.

Burris uses the example problem of My three dogs each have five fleas. How many fleas do

they have all together? At the concrete level, students could use three paper plates to represent

the dogs, and then use counting blocks to represent the fleas. They would solve the problem by

placing five fleas on each dog to show how many fleas there are all together. After the

concrete level there is the pictorial level. At this level, students use pictures to solve the problem.

This level is much like the concrete stage but rather that manipulatives they use the pictures to

represents the variable in the problem. So for the given example they would the pictures would

represent fleas and dogs. Students can also start to solve problems mentally in this stage

(par. 6-7). Then the last level of knowledge is symbolic, this is where students use numerical

symbols and operations to solve problems. Using the example above, they would read the

problem and know to write out 3 x 5 = 15. In regards to calculators, the symbolic level is the

only level that is applicable. Once a student gets to that level they have mastered how and why a

problem is solved, so the use of a calculator would be beneficial. But if the concrete and pictorial

level are not mastered then a student is just learning how to plug numbers in to get their answer

(par. 8-9).
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Moving on to the three types of learning experiences that Burris mentions, we can see the

importance of learning skills and concepts before we can benefit from a calculator. The three

experiences are developmental, reinforcement, and drill and practice. The developmental stage is

when a student learns a new concept. At this stage, learning new concepts should be based on

conceptual learning. This is important so students can see the significance behind the concepts

and operations they are performing. The next level is reinforcement, which is where students

build on prior knowledge. They perform activities and calculations that reinforce the concepts

that they learned in the developmental stage (par. 10-11). The last type of learning experience is

the drill and practice stage. In this stage students practice their newly learned skills in order to

help memorize concepts and procedures (par. 12). In this stage they will have a good opportunity

to make use of a calculator. They have learned the concepts at a conceptual level, and the use of a

calculators can benefit the students in the same ways mentioned earlier.

When assessing how to use calculators effectively, it is important to keep the learning

process of mathematics in mind. Introducing calculators to students before they have learned the

how and the why is not the best use of the tool. This is a key part to the solution for this problem

teachers face in the classroom. The lack of mathematical skills can be more effectively prevented

by limiting the use of calculators in the early years of a students educational career. Another key

part to the solution is implementing curriculum that incorporates the use of calculators. We can

see the benefits of this in a study by John L. Creswell, professor at University of Houston, and

Larry R. Vaughn, member of Sheldon Independent School District. Their sample set consisted of

seventy-one ninth grade students enrolled in Fundamentals of Mathematics in Houston, Texas.

The sample set was divided into two groups, the experimental group contained thirty-three

students and the comparison group contained thirty-eight students. The experimental group was
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to use calculators in instruction and to perform calculations. Along with the use of calculators,

the teachers were given a special curriculum to follow that included the use of calculators. The

curriculum emphasized that the use of calculators was to reinforce math concepts. The

comparison group when about class as they normally would have. Both of the groups were

taught on the subject of decimals and percents. After an eight week period both groups were

given a posttest and the results were evaluated (364-65). Creswell and Vaugh found that the

experimental groups scored higher than the comparison group (367). This means that

implementing a curriculum designed to incorporate calculators can help teachers use calculators

in a beneficial manner. It teaches the students and teachers when is an appropriate time to use

calculators, and how to them effectively.

In conclusion, mathematics is a subject that all students will face in their educational

career, and even beyond the classroom as they grow into adulthood. Something that will follow

us throughout our lives should be taken seriously and taught well. Calculators are a worthwhile

tool for all math students and teachers, but only if they are used well in the classroom. To do this,

teachers need to limit the use of calculators before a student masters math concepts, and

implement a curriculum that includes calculator use. If they are not used well, students will be

deprived of an opportunity to succeed. They could potentially find themselves in a situation

where they are unsure of how to do a calculations, and this could lead to a lowered self-esteem.

A lowered self-esteem can lead to many issues, such as anxiety, stress, increased likelihood of

depression, problems with relationships, and impair academic and job performance. This isnt

ideal for anyone. In regards to mathematics, teachers can make an effort to influence a students

self-esteem in a positive way by helping them master mathematical skills that will follow them

throughout their life rather than a lowered self-esteem.


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Works Cited
Burris, A. C. Understanding the Math You Teach: Content and Methods for Prekindergarten

Through Grade 4. Prentice Hall. 2004. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

Calculators Okay in Math Class, if students know the Facts First. News.vanderbilt.edu.

Vanderbilt University Research, 2008. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Creswell, John L., and Larry R. Vaughn. Hand-Held Calculator Curriculum and Mathematical

Achievement and Retention. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 10.5

(1979): 364367. JSTOR. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

Govindarajan K. A Study on Self-Esteem and Achievement in Mathematics of Secondary

School Students. journalcra.com. International Journal of Current Research, 2013. Web.

17 Nov. 2016.

Lee, Jane A., and Douglas E. McDougall. "Secondary School Teachers' Conceptions and Their

Teaching Practices Using Graphing Calculators." International Journal of Mathematical

Education in Science & Technology 41.7 (2010): 857-872. Academic Search Premier.

Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

McCauliff, Erin. The Calculator in the Elementary Classroom: Making a Useful Tool out of an

Ineffective Crutch. fortlewis.edu. Fort Lewis College. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

McNamara, Danielle S. "Effects Of Prior Knowledge On The Generation Advantage: Calculators

Versus Calculation To Learn Simple Multiplication" Journal of Educational Psychology

87.2 (1995): 307. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

Pomerantz, Heidi. The Role of Calculators in Math Education. education.ti.com. Texas

Instruments, 1997. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

Roberts, Dennis M. The Impact of Electronic Calculators on Educational Performance. Review

of Educational Research 50.1 (1980): 7198. JSTOR. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.