September 5, 2008

Brains Beat Buttons for Learning Math, Indiana County Native’s Study Finds

By Brian Bowling

Third-graders learn multiplication better when they use their brains before they use a calculator, a new study has found.

Pocket calculators have been ubiquitous since the 1970s, but educators still argue over whether they help or hinder learning, said Bethany Rittle-Johnson, assistant professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

The Indiana County native said the study she conducted with Alexander Kmicikewycz shows calculators can do both.

"Whether it helped or hurt you depended on what you knew coming in," she said.

The study's results will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

The study started by giving third-grade students a multiplication test. The next day, some students spent the class period solving multiplication problems with a calculator while the others solved them manually. The researcher then tested the students the following day and two weeks later.

In general, students who tanked the first test did better on the following test if they did the manual practice but not if they did the calculator practice. Neither type of practice significantly affected the performance of the students who did well on the first test.

Rittle-Johnson, who holds a doctorate in developmental psychology from Carnegie Mellon University, said the test verifies a basic concept.

"The classic finding in psychology is that we remember stuff better when we come up with it on our own," she said.

Once students gain basic competency, however, the calculator becomes an asset because it allows them to do more problems during a practice period.

"The more often you see things, the better you remember it," Rittle-Johnson said.

The trick is to know when the student knows enough to switch to the calculator.

"We don't have a good answer to that," she said.

Ed Clark, a sixth-grade math teacher at Perrysville Elementary in Ross, said his students don't use calculators until the end of the school year.

"Math should be seen, and that's the hard part," he said. "Take the calculator out, and you can talk about what the numbers really mean."

Clark said many students have trouble creating a word problem to illustrate something as simple as 2 + 3 because they know from the calculator that it's 5. Without a calculator, they learn to visualize an example, such as adding two dogs and three cats to get five animals or two quarters equaling a half-dollar.

Once students grasp the underlying meaning of numbers, they can start using calculators to take on more advanced math, he said.

"Math is relationships. That's all it is -- a bunch of relationships. They have to understand those facts to understand those relationships," Clark said.

Melissa Bracco, an assistant principal at Homeville Elementary in West Mifflin, said the goal of early math education is to give students a feel for numbers, rather than number pads.

"If a child doesn't have number sense starting in kindergarten and first grade, then it's going to domino," she said.

Bracco taught fifth-grade math for five years.

"You can't give kids a machine to do the work they don't know and expect them to learn it," she said. "I never let a kid use a calculator if they didn't have those basic skills."

Students start learning to use calculators in the second grade at Homeville, but only to check their work, she said. In fourth grade, they use them to figure out percentages and decimals, but it's only in fifth grade that they start using them regularly, she said.

While using calculators too early can hinder learning, the machines have an undeniable appeal for students in the digital age, she said.

"They love calculators. They get really excited," Bracco said.

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