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Vito Prosciutto: Teaching community college math on the road to a PhD.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

10:13
Some thoughts on calculators and teaching students things that they should already know 

My current teaching load consists of pre-algebra and introductory algebra.

These are college students.

My policy is that I allow the algebra students to use calculators, but not the pre-algebra students. Part of that is I've decided that if my students don't know how to do arithmetic by the time I have them as algebra students it's too late. I'm not really interested in spending my time teaching them arithmetic at this point. If they need a calculator to do 2+3, then let them use the calculator.
But for the pre-algebra students, I think that the arithmetic skills are an essential part of what we're learning. I need for them to develop some intuition about what happens when they multiply numbers and what factors really mean. We'll come back to this in algebra and I'll let my students use their calculators to look for factors, but those who have had more extensive practice working with this by hand will have the advantage, but we just don't have the time to do this in the algebra class, at least not as a class.

At the high school level (and below), however, I think it's an entirely different story. During my month of teaching high school math, I had a no calculators policy. Part of this was dictated by the fact that the annual standards tests that the students would be taking didn't allow calculators. And if they couldn't use calculators on those tests, then they shouldn't use calculators in the class which presumably is preparing them for that test.

Part of what's inspired me to write this is looking over some of the test materials left behind by my predecessor for the pre-algebra class. While I think that drilling students on arithmetic is important in the pre-algebra class, having them add and subtract 3 digit numbers (and, for that matter 2 digit numbers) is kind of behind the point. It would be nice if they could do this, but to be honest I'm more than happy to pull out a calculator for this sort of thing. Not that I can't do the calculation, but let's be honest, I'm going to be more accurate if I use the calculator where appropriate. For the purposes of this class, I can more effectively test my students' knowledge with 2-5 than I can with 234-531. After all, what I want to see is whether they know that the answer should be a negative number. Allowing the use of a calculator if this is my objective doesn't let me check this.

On the other hand, in algebra, I'm much less concerned with whether they can get this result by hand (although I did teach them the rules). I just want to make sure that they can get the answer. There are more important things before us that I need to make sure that they know.

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