Students fail no-calculator math

Failure rates are very high for community college students who start in remedial or low-level math classes, writes Community College Dean. Students who struggle with math are likely to drop out;  remedial English students are more persistent.  A remedial math instructor blames calculator dependency:  High schools let students use calculators; the college does not.

:The dean worries about students who don’t know when they’ve pushed the wrong calculator button because they have no sense of  what’s a reasonable or ridiculous answer. Apparently, these students haven’t used their calculators to achieve deeper or higher understanding of mathematics.

But he also worries if developing number sense is “worth flunking out huge cohorts of students because their high schools let them use calculators and we don’t.”

At my job, I use statistics all the time. Most of the statistics I use are computer generated. Excel and its progeny (I’m an OpenOffice fan, myself) can crunch huge sets of numbers much faster than I ever could, leaving me free to do other things. Although I like knowing that, in a pinch, I could do a whole bunch of arithmetic myself, I typically don’t. And in most jobs, most people don’t. I agree that it would be better to have the ability than not to have it, but if the cost of holding the line against calculators is turning half a generation away from college, is it worth it?

This raises another issue:  How much math do community college students need? Are we asking students to learn math skills they’ll never use in vocational classes or in future jobs?

Like the dean, I learned to do mental math in the pre-calculator era. But I’ve encountered many successful professionals — OK, journalists — who manage to get along with very minimal math skills.

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON July 30, 2010

Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Post a Comment


The dean worries about students who don’t know when they’ve pushed the wrong calculator button because they have no sense of what’s a reasonable or ridiculous answer.

So if they’re graduated from CC and go into the workplace with no sense of what’s a reasonable or ridiculous answer, that’s okay then?

The obvious answer is that it’s time to ban calculators from K-8, and only allow them after students have demonstrated full competence in use of pencil and paper.


The professor can start by getting educated about what passes for math education K-5, those formative years where the foundation for higher level math begins – or is supposed to begin. For decades now, elementary ed math, led by the NCTM, has been about “discovering” math. Let’s not teach the kids algorithms, let’s let them discovery their own. Let’s not make them learn math facts because that will stifle their creativity. And then people wonder why kids get to college and are calculator dependent? It’s not because they aren’t capable of succeeding, but because they’ve never been given the foundational framework for later success. Colleges have been remiss in not addressing what “math educators” at the K-12 level have been pushing on kids for years. Educated parents like myself have had to fight with school administrators and teachers alike, and many times end up taking care of our kids ourselves. It’s one of the reasons you see achievement gaps – kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds don’t have parents with the time/money/education to supplement what the schools are not teaching.


I completely agree with you Carla. That’s why I have always forbid my kids from using calculators except to check their work. My kids (now teens) have averages in the 90′s in mathematics. Furthermore, they barely use calculators at all for tests. That’s the right way to learn.

Your email is never published nor shared.