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Go Figure

Calculators don't always add up to better math power

MONDAY, May 14 (HealthScout) -- Calculators may not count as much as good old-fashioned memory when it comes to arithmetic.

A new study from the University of Saskatchewan found differences in math skills between students who use calculators and those who don't. Kids who went to school in China, where calculators are rarely used in elementary and middle schools, were faster at mental math chores than students educated in Canadian schools, where the answers are available at the push of a button. While students in both countries got the right answers, the Chinese students got them faster.

"Their speed made the difference," says Jamie Campbell, cognitive psychologist at the University of Saskatchewan, who headed the study, which is described in June's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The study looked at three groups of college students: Chinese nationals educated in the People's Republic of China, Chinese adults educated in Canada, and non-Chinese adults, primarily white, who went to Canadian schools. Deprived of calculators, all students were asked to solve a series of math problems in their heads. Some questions involved simple arithmetic -- 5 times 7, for example, or 9 minus 3. Other problems were more complicated, such as 127 plus 45.

The researchers also asked the students about how much they used calculators in their earlier schooling.

Without calculators, Canadian students used backup strategies like counting and grouping to solve the problems. While those techniques showed a sound understanding of mathematical principles, they were more time-consuming than rote memorization, which the Chinese students from the People's Republic used to outperform their white peers in both simple and complex math questions, the researchers say.

The white Canadians took an average of 1.1 seconds to correctly answer simple math questions, while the Chinese-Canadians and students from the People's Republic took 0.9 seconds. The differences, while small, tended to add up, Campbell says.

In more complicated math questions, students schooled in China out-distanced the other two groups. Chinese nationals answered 58 percent more problems than the white students and 33 percent more than the Chinese-Canadians.

The biggest difference between the three groups seems to have been how often the students relied on calculators to help them in class and on homework. Students from China rarely used them, and their mental muscles got a good workout as a result, say the researchers. Other factors that may have played a part were cultural, including family support, stress on achievement and extracurricular instruction, the researchers say.

"Complex math puts a heavy load on short-term memory. It's a demanding task. If you practice doing it without a calculator, you develop more efficient memory skills for complex math," Campbell says.

American math educators defend electronic tools, saying students should strike a balance between calculators and mental math. A calculator should be a tool, not a crutch, says Lee V. Stiff, professor of mathematics education at North Carolina State University and president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Stiff says he has examined math education in the People's Republic of China and found a dearth of calculators, mostly because of a problem in supply, not demand.

"The Chinese would love to have greater access to calculators in their classes," Stiff says.

While Campbell says he's not suggesting students toss the hand-held tools, he says it wouldn't hurt to do a little more math in their heads.

"If you use calculators to solve everything, you become a skilled calculator user. If you want the ability to do mental arithmetic, do it without a calculator, because in real life, you won't have one with you every minute of the day," Campbell says.

Calculators aren't the only thing slowing students in math.

Another study, also published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that people who think they're bad at math may just be worrying themselves into failure. Mark Ashcraft, professor of psychology at Cleveland State University, found that people with math anxiety have short-term memory problems when doing computations because they let worry and self-criticism interfere with their thinking.

"Rather than devote their working memory to doing the problems, they're wasting their capacity worrying," Ashcraft says. The solution may be for math-anxious students to learn anxiety-busting techniques like biofeedback, and for teachers to allow extra time to complete tests.

What To Do

To learn more about managing math anxiety and other worries, try the Anxiety Disorders Association of America or Professor Freedman's Math Help. Or check this previous HealthScout story, Music as Brain Food, on how music may boost math power.

Or, read these previous HealthScout stories on problems students have.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jamie Campbell, Ph.D., professor of psychology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada; Mark Ashcraft, Ph.D., professor of psychology, Cleveland State University, Ohio; Lee Stiff, Ph.D., professor of mathematics education, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.; June 2001 Journal of Experimental Psychology: General
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