When Kids Look to Calculators for Answers

A MiddleWeb Blog

Today, Alabama restarted the rest of our school year. The remaining weeks will consist of online learning. It was necessary and sad.

I have spent many, many hours reading about coronavirus (covid19). Perhaps some of you have done this as well. I am mentally and physically exhausted.

I considered writing about how the coronavirus has affected my family, community, and school, but I don’t have the heart for it right now. I am hoping that some of you are like me and will welcome a brief respite from the constant barrage of coronavirus news.

So I am writing about the topic that I had originally planned before this all began: students’ dependence on calculators. I hope that soon we’ll be looking forward to being back in our classrooms and focusing on everyday issues like this.

Calculators as Answer Givers

Before the pandemic began, we had spent several weeks prepping students for the ACT exams. I personally conducted many blitz sessions for our juniors. Every student had access to a calculator during these sessions. I was able to see first-hand how students approached problems.

Here’s what I noticed: students would glance at a word problem, barely reading it, type furiously into the calculator and then a look of confusion would appear when their answer didn’t match any of the choices.

That was a pattern that I saw repeated over and over. If finally dawned on me that students weren’t using the calculator to speed up tedious math work (adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing). They were thinking of it as an “answer giver.” Much like when I type something into google search and expect an answer to my question.

I’m not sure why this surprises me. Students have grown up with smart phones and iPads and access to the internet in which they can google the answer to most any question. It’s understandable that they will think the calculator can do the same thing. In fact, I have even heard students say, “this is the answer the calculator gave me.”

Personal Experience with Calculators

I think back to my math experience in school. I learned math without any calculator. I memorized my multiplication tables, did a lot of worksheets. Much of what I learned was based on algorithms and many times I didn’t really understand why. (To be clear, I’m not advocating for a return to that.)

When I went to college and had access to a calculator, I never thought the calculator would get the answer for me. I thought it was for doing things that took me too much time, and often I would use the calculator to verify an idea.

How Do You Get Students to Use Calculators the Right Way?

I’m not sure that taking away calculators is the right idea. I do know that something has to be done to adjust students’ view of the calculator. The students who are looking at the calculator as some sort of google search invariably do poorly on tests and in the classroom.

I wonder if timing makes a difference. If students are required to think first without a calculator, then maybe that will decrease their dependence on the calculator. I remember when I first started teaching, you always taught the math topic without the calculator first, and invariably that way took much longer. Then you introduced how to do it on the calculator, and the students always were a little irritated that you didn’t show them that way first. I don’t think that’s good enough.

Students have to know that they are the answer giver and that the calculator is just a tool to assist them. However, as I wrote about in my last article, getting students to think is no easy task. It never has been.

I bear some of the responsibility; our standards are so broad that it is so easy to use the calculator to speed through a particular standard without paying proper attention to understanding. Showing students how to get the answer on a calculator without understanding why just reinforces the idea that the calculator is the answer giver and no thinking is required.

Personally, I think I will be spending many hours thinking over this in the coming weeks. I have a few ideas that I thought I would list below for your consideration. Please let me know what you think. Any ideas would be appreciated.

Ideas? Comments? Cautions?

  • Introduce the calculator at the right time for the student
  • Make the process the important part, not just arriving at a right answer
  • Implement projects that require thinking, but not necessarily a calculator
  • Have students come up with a plan of action before having access to a calculator
  • Don’t use the calculator to rush through content
  • . . .

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell (@michel1erussel1) is a math teacher at Florence (AL) High School, where she serves as the Academic Leader of the math department. She began her career as a student teacher in middle school and has taught students from 7th to 12th grade. For the past nine years, she's taught high school math, including Algebra IB, Algebraic Connections, Pre-Calculus, AP Statistics, Algebra with Finance, and Algebra 2 with Trigonometry. She is currently involved in the Laying the Foundations initiative and the Mathematics Design Collaborative. In her free time, she enjoys reading blogs and tweets from other math teachers.

7 Responses

  1. Lynn says:

    I teach high school science and have heard “this is not supposed to be a math class” too many times. I assure those that are afraid of math that I can teach them enough math to succeed in my class and as we work problems, I remind them of all those little things their math teachers have already taught them, by asking them “What do you call that in math class?” as we do order of operations, exponents, log function, etc.
    I have students to throw out (verbally) a big “Stop!” when they hear something important while I read those word problems, that they love to hate. This relieves a bit of anxiety about identifying the important information. We mark the item, identify what it is telling us, and then find a formula that has some relationship to the items we found. Then students are to 1) write the formula out, 2) substitute information with units attached for variables, and 3) do the math. When they just look at it like a puzzle that they already have a framework for (the formula), the reading comprehension becomes less daunting.
    I think the problem is just as much reading comprehension as it is expecting the calculator to come up with the answer, so we have to tackle both simultaneously.

    • Michelle Russell says:

      Great comment! Whole heatedly agree that reading comprehension is a big part of the problem. I love how you walk your students through the process of solving the problems! Sometimes we assume students know to do that when in fact, they don’t know until we show them. Thanks again!

  2. Lane Walker says:

    I found it helpful to read the CCSS Progression documents to better understand the depth and breadth of the standards. As I understood the CCSS better, my students started saying, “Oh, yes, we are doing this in science class.” This makes sense because instruction that is well aligned to the CCSS is better aligned with NGSS. I see this as a way to make learning more efficient and useful. http://ime.math.arizona.edu/progressions/

    • Michelle Russell says:

      Thanks for your comment! I can’t wait to read through the link you provided! Also, you’re right if students can see what they are learning is useful that’s more than half the battle.

  3. Tny Blair says:

    When I first used calculators in my grade 8 classes I found that good students made fewer errors and weak students still had troubles understanding what was required to solve the problem. However a large group improved their performance because once they understood what was necessary they no longer-had to worry about the calculations needed.

  4. Glen Janken says:

    On almost all problems the student has to show her work. No multiple choice on my assessments. Then I encourage them to check their answer by graphing on their calculator. Using the graphing calculator as an answer checking tool enables then to go back to the problem and find their mistakes if their answer doesn’t match the calculator answer. I really like this back and forth between the written math and the graphs.

    • Michelle Russell says:

      I like how you label the calculator as an “answer checking tool”. I think it’s important that students understand that, instead of thinking that the calculator should provide the answer. Having students write about and explain their answers is also a great idea.

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