Should my Student be Using a Calculator in Maths?

By Jasmine

Calculators, Math Tools, maths

What's the point of using a calculator in maths?

When I was growing up, I was barely allowed to use a calculator.  My grandfather was “old school”, and believed that it would make me lazy.  Years and several technological advancements later, I’m very grateful to him for encouraging me to rely on my own abilities. To this day I still use mental math from grocery shopping to planning my budget. It has been helpful and I personally feel better for me mentally.  Should you allow your student to use a calculator? If so, when is it appropriate? There are a few things to consider when making this decision.

There are various tools that will be available to students throughout their maths studies.  A calculator is one of those tools. The trick is to find a balance between when they should use that tool and manual (or mental) calculation. A sound way to determine this is to factor in your child’s age, what stage of school they are in, and what type of calculator is available.

Are calculators a ‘cool tool’ or a ‘crutch’ for students when learning maths?

Well, that depends on how your student uses the calculator. If they can only do basic single-digit addition and have to reach for their calculator (or phone) to add up the bigger equations, you're in trouble!

It also means that maths hasn't been taught with a mastery-based approach. Teaching maths in a foundational way is essential not only to increase confidence and get better results, but also to enable your student to use maths in everyday life situations.

Primary School (Grade 1 - 3)

Ultimately a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of maths will be the cornerstone of a student’s success.   Therefore it is recommended that calculator use be limited during this part of their education. This is a great stage to introduce it as the tool it is, but teach them that the calculator can’t solve all the problems in maths.  

Demonstrate the functionality of a basic calculator so that they can know what to do. Have some fun by spelling out words on the calculator using numbers. If you input 07734 on the calculator and flip it upside down, it spells “hello”. A simple four-function calculator will work best for this age group.

Use it to teach patterns and sequences. For example: if you enter 5+5 then the equal sign, the result is 10. If you press the equal sign again, it will add an additional 5 to the total. This can help students with addition and multiplication. Try the same method with division and subtraction. Have them enter numbers (try 32 – 4 or 32 ÷ 4) and continue to press the equal sign. Once they proceed to pass 0, the student will be introduced to the concept of negative numbers as well.

Primary and Secondary School (Grade 4-7 and 8)

A scientific calculator will be more appropriate for this group. There are a variety of scientific calculators available, equipped to handle more complex computing.  When should it be used? That depends on the complexity of the problem or activity. At this stage, students should be using a combination of mental math, paper and pencil, and a calculator.

It is important that the students have a firm grasp of the basics. Students should be able to work through problems and perform the necessary steps. As calculators are accurate, once your student completes their problems on their own they can use the calculator to check their work. Position the calculator as a backup, not the primary tool.

Secondary and Senior Secondary School (Grade 7 and 8 - 12)

By this age, students should have mastered the fundamentals of math and are prepared for more advanced concepts. Maths will become increasingly difficult during these years. Technology will already be integrated in their curriculum, and calculators will naturally be included as well. While students should rely on their calculators, they will be necessary. During these years students will progress beyond the basic scientific calculator to more advanced calculators. Graphing calculators will need to be incorporated. Graphing calculators perform a variety of functions, with the ability to create charts and graphs.

Calculators can help students feel more comfortable, but there will still be a need for balance. The calculator can simplify tasks but will not do the work for them. Encourage the student to focus on the areas of problem solving that will help them be successful not only in school, but in life.  Logic, critical and analytical problem solving, and reasoning will take them farther than a calculator. Consider a “technology break” one day a week to reinforce concepts and build the student’s confidence in their own abilities.

If your student really knows it, they don't need to use a calculator

No matter what stage your student is in their education, there is no replacement for knowledge. The calculator is a tool, not a magic wand. The primary focus should always be to learn and master the concepts presented. Encourage your student to use the tools at their disposal, but not rely on technology more than themselves.

Math-U-See does not include specific instruction on the use of a calculator however, calculators can be used when the student knows which buttons to push. For e.g. Most students will be strong on facts and formulas however, they may not know when to use the facts or formulas.

Even when using a calculator students need to know which buttons to push and when. Is that the multiplication button or the division? So, mastering maths concepts for proficiency is the key and this is the Math-U-See focus.

Testing your student's maths understanding

Here's a free diagnostic test so you can determine your student's maths understanding (and if they really know their stuff). This online test also helps you know where to start and what you can do to help them learn maths properly.

Let us know if you have any questions. We're here to help!


The Team at Maths Australia

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