November 16, 2012

Calculators In College: A Crutch Or A Key?

A recent study by University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research & Development Center probes the question. Do calculators actually help us learn?

Ahh calculators… A time tested companion to any and all right brain students, or really anyone trying to get the grade, for that matter. As long as you know the formula, or you at least have it written down somewhere, you can “plug and chug” to come up with the answer. That’s assuming you remember where you wrote down that stupid formula.

I am terrible at math, and I always have been. I admittedly started slacking off when it came to math probably as early as elementary. As soon as division and fractions came, I lost all hope for myself. Then in junior high school they added letters? Get out of here! No, 4 does not equal X; that doesn’t even make sense. 4 equals 4, and X is the old bald dude in the wheelchair from the X-Men; that’s the end of the story.

According to Samuel King, postdoctoral student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research & Development Center, I’m not the only one.

It seems many college students use calculators as a crutch. Instead of delving into the subject at hand and fully understanding the formula and its components, they just use the trial and error method until their answer seems right.

This could be part of the reason why America is scoring 23rd in Math when compared with students from around the world. Mr. King intends to study this a little more, and surely propose a solution.

“We really can’t assume that calculators are helping students,” said King. “The goal is to understand the core concepts during the lecture. What we found is that use of calculators isn’t necessarily helping in that regard.”

With a well-equipped team, he interviewed 10 second-year undergraduate students enrolled in a competitive engineering program. “The students were given a number of mathematical questions related to sine waves—a mathematical function that describes a smooth repetitive oscillation—and were allowed to use calculators to answer them. More than half of the students adopted the option of using the calculators to solve the problem.”

Once the testing concluded, the students were interviewed about their processes. “A student who had used a calculator noted that she struggled with the answer because she couldn’t remember the “rules” regarding sine and it was “easier” to use a calculator. In contrast, a student who did not use a calculator was asked why someone might have a problem answering this question. The student said he didn’t see a reason for a problem. However, he noted that one may have trouble visualizing a sine wave if he/she is told not to use a calculator. “

While the research was drawn from a small pool of students, I’m sure the results would be similar if the experiment were done again on a larger scale.

I know from experience, and I’ve shared this concern with some of my college peers: we have a tenancy to just want to get the grade. That sidetracks us from actually learning the information at times.

We get so caught up with making high marks on our assignments, that we lack the comprehensive skills to work through the processes. There are also those who simply don’t care, and for those students a calculator is a far better alternative than actually learning the material.

Imagine the “good ole days” when our grandfathers figured problems with slide rules! Furthermore, imagine this: we were at the top of the world standard when it came to mathematics. What’s changed? Maybe it’s less than the calculator issue, and it’s more of a cultural issue.

Do calculators actually help us when it comes to learning, or do they just provide an easy endgame and crutch us when it’s application time? Unfortunately, this research seems to suggest the latter.

Like I said, I’m not mathematically inclined, and never have been; that’s probably why I chose to be an artist, but if proposed the option of learning the material thoroughly or using a calculator and getting it over with, I’m probably going to use the calculator-crutch or not.

I’m probably what’s wrong with America though.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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