Math instructors promoting calculator usage in college classrooms may want to rethink their teaching strategies, says Samuel King, postdoctoral student in the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research & Development Center. King has proposed the need for further research regarding calculators' role in the classroom after conducting a limited study with undergraduate engineering students published in the British Journal of Educational Technology.
"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."
Together with Carol Robinson, coauthor and director of the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University in England, King examined whether the inherent characteristics of the mathematics questions presented to students facilitated a deep or surface approach to learning. Using a limited sample size, they 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.
"Instead of being able to accurately represent or visualize a sine wave, these students adopted a trial-and-error method by entering values into a calculator to determine which of the four answers provided was correct," said King. "It was apparent that the students who adopted this approach had limited understanding of the concept, as none of them attempted to sketch the sine wave after they worked out one or two values."
After completing the problems, the students were interviewed about their process. 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.
"The limited evidence we collected about the largely procedural use of calculators as a substitute for the mathematical thinking presented indicates that there might be a need to rethink how and when calculators may be used in classes—especially at the undergraduate level," said King. "Are these tools really helping to prepare students or are the students using the tools as a way to bypass information that is difficult to understand? Our evidence suggests the latter, and we encourage more research be done in this area."
King also suggests that relevant research should be done investigating the correlation between how and why students use calculators to evaluate the types of learning approaches that students adopt toward problem solving in mathematics.
University of Pittsburgh: http://www.pitt.edu
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Institute for Highway Safety is known for crash-test safety ratings, but as cars get smarter there's a need to look beyond crashworthiness
Researchers have long struggled to resolve what happens to information when it falls inside a black hole, but the famous physicist says he has a solution
Researchers have been using muons to take a peek inside the nuclear reactors in Japan that melted down in 2011. The results could aid the continuing cleanup operations.
Neutrinos, created by violent phenomena such as black holes and exploding stars, could hold the key to the universe’s most distant and mysterious events
Better MRI scanners could result from a trick in which a magnetic field springs up from nowhere, using materials famous for their link to invisibility cloaks
Water locked away in rocks for 1.5 billion years reveals conditions were right for complex organic molecules to form in deep sea hydrothermal vents
Helium, used in nuclear, medical and, yes, party industries, has become scarce, but new research has revealed a possible way to pinpoint fresh sources
New lab results show how collisions between comets and planets can make the molecules that are the essential building blocks of life.
A startup company says it is expanding the language of DNA to create new tools for drug discovery.
If scientists can convince people to use the app, they hope it will help them solve a cosmic mystery. This story originally aired on March 27, 2015 on All Things Considered.