Dependence on Calculators: Where to Draw the Line?

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O P I N I O N – E D U C A T I O N

Tanzina Tabassum Nova

I first noticed the matter when I came to know that two of my younger cousins (SSC candidate and eighth grade students, currently) were struggling with doing basic calculations without the help of calculators. Their schools allowed them to use basic calculators from fifth/sixth grade, and scientific calculators from eighth grade. This made them quite dependent on the device. I asked around. My younger brother, some of my friends—all of whom tutor highschoolers, said that they have noticed the same with their students as well. With the exception of very few schools, most educational institutions allow students to use calculators from as early as fifth grade. Therefore, as it turns out, this is not an alienated issue, and it needs addressing. 

Muntasir, who tutors a ninth grader, shares his experience,

My student is so dependent on calculator that he cannot solve a simple multiplication or division, such as 13×5=65, without it. He has been given a calculator from sixth grade, which has made him over-reliant on it. I sometimes have to scold him to make him stop using calculators.”

He also added that he talked with his friends, and most of them faced this situation with their students.

“This does not mean that they are bad students, though,” Muntasir opines, “They just have problems calculating properly. And if this dependence on calculators can be cured, all will be well.” 

What’s wrong with being dependent on calculators?

A calculator is obviously a vital tool to help students solve difficult mathematical problems. However, when students are allowed to use calculators from such an early age, it does more damage than help. This hinders students from understanding the basic concepts of the sums they are doing. That being so, they lack the basic skills. If they could just type the numbers and get the results to copy in their homework copies, why would they bother about understanding the concepts or learning the skills?

It can also give students a false sense of confidence. They always solve problems with the assistance of calculators and get the answers right. This may make them think that they are good at mathematics. As they do not understand the basic concepts, when they are faced with the task of solving problems without using calculators, they panic and struggle. Sometimes, they cannot even solve the problems in time. 

This may also cause problems during their higher studies. When someone does not have the basic skills, they will face difficulties solving complex problems that may require using those skills. 

Learning mathematics can help a learner to train and discipline their mind. When someone is working by themselves to solve a problem, they need to know what they are doing. It also helps acquire logical reasoning. While they use calculators to do all the work for them, none of these happen.  

Where should we draw the line? 

As we cannot discard calculators completely, we need to figure out a way to stop the young learners from becoming reliant on them.

Unless a student becomes dependent on it, using a calculator can actually be helpful. However, calculators should never be given to students without making sure that they have mastered the topic. Teachers should discuss the topic first without the calculator, and after the students have mastered the topic, they should introduce the calculator. One way to do this is to test the students both with and without the help of calculators.

When students are given a problem, they sometimes start solving it without even reading the whole problem. The teachers can make them complete the KWHL charts. These charts include four questions:

“What do I Know?”

“What do I Want to know?”

“How do I find out?” 

“What have I Learned?”

This will help the students organise their thoughts before starting to solve a problem. Besides, the students will need to do some thinking while completing these charts. Thus, they cannot just use their calculators blindly.¹

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in the USA published a guideline for mathematical instruction in 2000. Where they stated,

“Calculators do not replace fluency with basic number combinations, conceptual understanding, or the ability to formulate efficient and accurate methods for computing.”  

They also stated, “Technology should not be used as a replacement for basic understandings and intuitions; rather, it can and should be used to foster those understandings and intuitions.” ²

Finally, we need to understand that the problem is never with the tool, but with how one uses it. Therefore, we should be very careful while letting students use calculators. In order to prevent them from becoming reliant on calculators, students must not be allowed to use calculators from fifth/sixth grade.    



1. Calculator Dependency and Operations With Exponents in an Introductory College Mathematics Class 

2. The effects of calculator and technology on mathematical academic performance


 The writer is a full-time couch-potato, and a part-time reader, writer, translator, and reciter. She is also a member of TDA Editorial Team.


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