The Calculator Question

By Sean Cavanagh — September 26, 2008 1 min read

People have been debating the proper place of calculators in math classes almost as long as those hand-held devices have been around.

Those disagreements boil down to this: Are calculators necessary tools to help students cut through tedious procedural steps they already know on the way to performing more challenging math? Or are they crutches that keep students from mastering the basic steps they need to master in that subject?

A new study takes up that issue once again. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that elementary students’ pre-existing knowledge of basic multiplication facts was the factor that determined whether calculators benefit or have no impact on their learning. That work, conducted by Bethany Rittle-Johnson and Alexander Kmicikewycz, looks at the performance of students after they had spent a class period working on multiplication problems.

The researchers found that the calculator’s effect on subsequent performance depended on how much the students knew to begin with. For students who already had some multiplication know-how, using the calculator before taking the test had no impact. But for those who struggled at multiplying, use of the calculator had a negative effect on their performance, according to a summary of the study provided by Vanderbilt. Another effect: Students using calculators were able to practice more problems and had fewer errors, the researchers found.

“These findings suggest that 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,” Rittle-Johnson said in a statement released by the university.

A link to the study, titled “When Generating Answers Benefits Arithmetic Skill: The Importance of Prior Knowledge,” can be found from this link. It has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.