” Should students be allowed to use calculators? ” This is one of the most common questions I’ve heard from parents in all my years of teaching at A Grade Ahead. The first time parents see “You may use a calculator” in the instructions, they become concerned and head straight for the teacher. “Shouldn’t the student be using his or her brain and not a calculator?”

I’ll tell you the same thing I tell every parent who asks: calculators should never be used* instead of* thinking, but they can be used to *help* thinking. That’s why there are times when students should use calculators and times when they shouldn’t.

# Calculator Use in the Classroom

Calculators should be like pencils – they should help the student do the work but shouldn’t provide the answer if the student doesn’t know how to do it. That’s the big idea, anyway.

If you want a more detailed run-down of how teachers and writers decide whether using a calculator is appropriate for the homework, read on.

### When Shouldn’t Students Use a Calculator?

In lower grades, students are learning arithmetic: adding, subtracting, multiplying, etc. For those topics, using a calculator would give the student the correct answer, but it wouldn’t tell the teacher if the student can do arithmetic. All it would show is that the student can use a calculator.

That means that using a calculator on that assignment defeats the purpose of doing the homework or test. The only way to be sure that the students understand the math is to make them do it themselves – no calculators allowed.

Here are some topics where calculators generally do more harm than good:

- Addition
- Subtraction
- Multiplication
- Division
- PEMDAS
- Fractions
- Percentages
- Decimals
- Integers

When learning these subjects, habitually using a calculator could actually keep students from learning the math. And since these subjects are basically everything taught in elementary school up through middle school, it makes sense that students are rarely allowed to use calculators until middle school or even high school (depending on whether the child takes advanced courses or not).

### When Should Students Be Allowed to Use Calculators?

After students have mastered arithmetic and moved on to more advanced topics, the calculator becomes a useful tool for speed and accuracy. Instead of doing the arithmetic by hand or mental math, the student can plug it into the calculator. They can also check their mental math with the calculator.

This is helpful rather than harmful for 2 reasons:

- Students already know how to do the arithmetic (the part the calculator is doing).
- The calculator won’t prevent the student from learning the new concepts.

For most advanced topics, a basic scientific calculator isn’t going to give away the answer because arithmetic alone won’t solve it. The student has to understand the higher concepts being taught so that he or she can apply arithmetic to it.

For example, finding the roots of x^{2} – 2x – x – 1 = 0 is simpler with a calculator because it involves a square root and long division. That’s much faster by calculator than by hand, especially if the directions say to round to a decimal. At the same time, however, the calculator can’t tell the student what formula to apply, how the equation works with the formula, or even how variables can or cannot be simplified.

In other words, the calculator doesn’t explain or give away the topic being taught. It simply lets the student work more quickly. It also allows the student to focus on the subject being taught rather than arithmetic like estimating a square root by hand or doing long division. Things the student should already have learned.

Here are some topics where calculators are generally allowed (especially from Algebra I and up):

- Linear Inequalities
- Linear Equations
- Parabolas
- Pythagorean Theorem
- Quadratic Equations
- Trigonometry

Remember that the homework students are doing is supposed to reflect their understanding of the subject being taught. With topics like these, students can demonstrate their understanding even if they use calculators.

### How Do You Know If Your Child Should Be Allowed to Use a Calculator?

For the most part, the student’s homework will specify whether calculator usage is allowed. In A Grade Ahead’s math program, for example, calculators are not allowed at all until Pre-Algebra I, and from then on, the directions explain when calculators can be used or not.

So, basically, when the directions say that students can use a calculator, let them.

Once your student has mastered arithmetic, there’s no reason to prevent him or her from using a calculator unless the directions say so. In fact, it’s good for students to use calculators when the directions allow it so that they are familiar with calculators by the time they get to Pre-Calculus and Calculus. And it may even help them finish their homework faster and more accurately.

Did that answer your questions about when students should be allowed to use calculators? What do you think about calculator usage?

Author: Elizabeth F., Writer and Teacher at A Grade Ahead

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