One thing that I often see come up in the discussion of Learning Disabled students is the use of calculators. Now calculators are obviously a double edged sword. If we give students calculators too early, we stop them from properly developing their computational fluency. However, it does seem cruel to make a grade 8 student do complex math problems, without a calculator, if they have a learning disability. Personally, in my own practice, I teach grade 8 and I let students use calculators for all math that is not arithmetic. However, I have my students use a calculator for all other math, as I want their success to be determined by their conceptual and procedural knowledge, not their computational fluency.
Surprisingly, there does not seem to be a lot of research in this area, however there was a 2003 meta-analysis of the topic, done by Aimee Ellington. Her meta-analysis looked at 54 K-grade 12 math studies. All studies had control groups. While this meta-study was older, the inclusion criteria, moderate results and high number of studies gives me greater faith in the results.
The results of this study showed students in primary, junior, and secondary grades all learned faster with the use of a calculator. The only age range that did benefit from using a calculator was intermediate. These results definitely did not confirm my biases. I would assume that computational knowledge would have shown the highest results. However, it was operational and procedural knowledge that benefited the most. I cannot think of any logical explanation for this, other than the use of calculators does not look to be an important factor, one way or the other, with the exception of for middle school students.
While I think it makes sense that denying secondary students calculators showed such a negative effect, as their math seems far too complicated to do without calculators. I really do not have a good explanation as to why middle school students benefited from not using calculators and primary/junior students did not. I would have expected the opposite trend.
Despite the evidence which seems glaringly against my bias here, I do think we can make the rationalistic argument that it makes sense to teach primary students computational knowledge, without calculators. That being said, I think this information makes it clear that it is unlikely we are hurting students' mathematical development, if we do give them calculators. Where I think this might be important, is for students with math learning disabilities or intellectual disabilities. Given the lack of evidence of harm for using calculators, I think it makes sense to offer them to students with learning disabilities, and allow those students to focus on developing their conceptual/procedural knowledge. This is not to say that we should automatically give all struggling students calculators. However, if a student has a learning disability and is struggling to keep up in math, because of working memory problems or because of weak computational knowledge, I think it appears perfectly harmless to offer them a calculator; indeed I think this research would suggest that it would likely benefit their overall math progress.
Written by Nathaniel Hansford
Last Edited 2022-03-30
Myers. (2021). Mathematics Interventions for Adolescents with Mathematics Difficulties: A Meta‐Analysis. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice., 36(2), 145–166.
R, Getsen, Et al. (2009). A Meta-analysis of Mathematics Instructional Interventions for Students with Learning Disabilities:
Ellington, A.J. (2003). A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Calculators on Students' Achievement and Attitude Levels in Precollege Mathematics Classes. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 34, 433.