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Calculators in NIU Math Courses

Here are some tips for students about selecting and using calculators in courses in the Department of Mathematical Sciences. In addition to the comments for specific courses, you should also take a look at the frequently-asked questions section, especially if you intend to take several math courses at NIU.

Guidelines by course

Note that individual instructors may set policies slightly different from what is listed below, in order to match the instructor's teaching techniques.

Math 101: A hand calculator which can do basic arithmetic, exponents (a "yx" key), and square roots is required. A calculator with parentheses is recommended. You may wish to avoid calculators which can display answers in a format which you don't understand (e.g. complex numbers) to avoid confusion. A calculator which can perform some financial functions may be useful but is not required (and may be more confusing than helpful!)

Math 108-9: Calculators are allowed for Math 108 except for the Basic Skills Test; they are required for Math 109. You will be expected to learn to distinguish situations in which the calculator is helpful and when it is not. Remember that you are taking this course only to cement your basic algebra skills. This largely means spending a lot of time practicing the skills by hand until they feel very natural. Your calculator doesn't need the practice.

Math 110P: This is the two-semester version of Math 110 (below). Part of the additional time is used to explore the uses of a graphing calculator. You will be expected to learn to carry out specific calculator tasks in addition to the ordinary Math 110 material. Part of the final exam will test this additional material, so the graphing calculator is required.

Math 110: No particular calculator is required. You will not be allowed to use a calculator for hour exams or on the final exam. You are welcome to use a scientific or graphing calculator to help you understand the concepts and to check your homework; but it is one of the primary goals of this course to enable you to accurately and quickly work out algebraic manipulations by hand and with understanding.

Math 155: A scientific calculator is required for this course. You will need to be able to use it to compute the numerical values of trigonometric and exponential functions and their inverses; you will also be expected to know a few exact values of these (e.g. the cosine of 0) without using a calculator. You will be expected to be able to sketch by hand the graphs of some of these functions; you might find it helpful to be able to compare your answer to the display on a graphing calculator but of course you will have to demonstrate your understanding of this at least occasionally on exams where these calculators are forbidden.

Math 201: At various times you will need a simple calculator (as well as other tools common in an elementary-school classroom such as scissors, ruler, and markers). You will also be expected to explain aspects of what is displayed on the calculator.

Math 206: No calculator is required but an engineering calculator capable of representing numbers in binary or hexadecimal may be helpful.

Math 210: A hand calculator which can do basic arithmetic and exponents (a "yx" key) is required. During the course you will spend a fair amount of time working with graphs of straight lines in the plane, and with combinatorial functions such as the factorial function ("n!"); calculators with these features might be helpful to you to speed up your work, but we will typically only ask you to work with small whole numbers. No calculators with text or graphing capabilities are allowed on the exams.

Math 211: A four-function calculator is sufficient but probably unnecessary, since students should not take this course without confidence in their skills manipulating fractions and algebraic expressions; tests will reflect this assumption. One portion of the course introduces the logarithm and exponential functions; you can gain familiarity with these functions if you have a scientific calculator or a graphing calculator, but you will be expected to demonstrate a basic by-hand understanding of these functions on the tests. No trigonometry is used and there is no reason to have trig functions on your calculator.

Math 229: A graphing calculator is required for the course, as most assignments will include some problems for which the calculator is intended to be used. The 'zoom' and 'trace' features can be especially useful to help clarify the importance of the derivative. A symbolic calculator can be helpful in checking your homework but thorough facility with algebra is assumed before beginning this course. You may prefer a calculator which can be programmed for one or two specific algorithmic topics in this course. The exams will largely test concepts and there are typically some exams, or parts of some exams, on which graphing calculators will not be permitted.

Math 230: A graphing calculator is expected, and students may be asked to bring the calculator for certain classroom presentations. Some of the exercises involve lengthy algebraic manipulations, and students may prefer to have a symbolic calculator which can check their algebra. During exams, students will be asked to show the steps on simpler examples, and these calculators will not be permitted.

Math 232: No calculators are particularly recommended. Students with access to three-dimensional graphing software may find that it can assist with visualization.

For most courses past calculus (Math232), there is little emphasis on computations more complicated than integer arithmetic. Calculators will typically be neither required nor forbidden. Students are expected to be comfortable with whatever blend of hand- and technological methods they use to carry out routine computations. Students who prefer to have access to calculators should ask their instructor whether there is any restriction on their use during the exams in these courses. Among courses at this level, only the exceptions are noted below.

Math 240: This course is very explicitly oriented away from computational matters. Students might prefer to have access to calculators which can solve systems of linear equations and manipulate small matrices, in order to check their homework, but these will not be allowed on exams.

Math 336: A graphing calculator is recommended but not necessary. (Note: We are investigating the use of good visualization and numerical software for future semesters.)

Math 339: A scientific or graphing calculator is expected; calculators which can handle functions of a complex variable are preferred.

Math 360: A four-function calculator is expected but not typically necessary. Basic statistical features and/or linear-algebra facilities can be helpful. Spreadsheets and related software will be needed for projects (not exams); popular products are available in the computer labs for student use.

Mathematics Education methods courses and clinicals (Math 401-416): Students must have and be familiar with the use of calculators which are appropriate for the grade level under study, as well as other technologies useful in the classroom.

Math 434-435 Calculators may be useful for experimentation but students are expected to use computer software such as Matlab to develop and use algorithms for solving problems numerically. Programming in Fortran or C is a prerequisite for this course.

Math 444 A four-function calculator is sufficient for classroom use. Students will be expected to use demonstration software which accompanies the text. Access to other optimization software is not required but may be helpful.

Statistics For courses in Statistics, contact the Division of Statistics.

General guidelines

Why do we need calculators? The courses in our department focus on the theory, application, and presentation of mathematics, and are not specifically designed to enable you to use a calculator. Nonetheless, we often suggest or insist that you buy a calculator because we believe it will help you learn better. We want you to interact with it to try pertinent examples which will help you learn ideas better; we want to give you more realistic applications involving very large numbers or many digits of accuracy; and we want to allow you to focus on the analysis of your problems without having to grind through calculations you have already practiced for a long time. On the other hand, we don't want you to think that mathematics consists only of grinding out computations, and we don't want to deny you the practice with skills you'll need later; so we often insist you work things by hand, in steps, and explain what you have learned.

How will we use calculators? Calculators and other electronic devices will often be used for classroom demonstrations if the instructor can use the demonstration to motivate or clarify a concept. Students are encouraged to experiment with their own calculators at home to further explore the patterns and ideas suggested. Your instructor may also suggest or require that you bring your calculator to class for precisely this purpose. Finally, calculators will be used to enable the student to work with more interesting examples.

Please remember that your goal as a student in the class is not to mimic what the calculator does (which is pointless!) but to understand what it is doing and what the underlying ideas are. In particular, during exams we will usually prohibit the use of calculators from which you could simply copy an answer, just as we generally prohibit the use of books or notes from which you could simply copy answers.

Do I have to buy a particular calculator? Maybe. Consider your circumstances, and contact the department if you're not sure.

It will often be sufficient that you have access to an appropriate calculator, perhaps borrowed from a friend. However, please anticipate the possibility that the borrowed calculator may not be available at an important moment (such as during finals week!). Most of the calculators that students are expected to have in pre-calculus courses are inexpensive; you might consider buying your own.

The Department of Mathematical Sciences does not require or endorse a specific brand of calculator, so if you are required to select a particular brand of calculator for a course outside our department, feel free to do so as long as it has the right features for your math courses.

There are special-purpose and advanced calculators on the market. These will generally be of little use in your mathematics courses. If you have access to a personal computer, you might find your money better spent buying educational or graphing software which is easier to see and manipulate on a larger machine.

Students who expect to take multiple mathematical sciences courses may find that different calculators are required for them. If you know which math courses you plan to take at NIU, it should be possible to make do with a single calculator, or at worst a simple one (under 20 dollars) plus a graphing calculator.

What should I do when I get my calculator? Remember that, like any tool, the calculator is only useful if you know how to use it. If you purchase a deluxe calculator, plan on spending a good deal of time experimenting with its features before you need them for a class. Keep your calculator's manual where you can find it, and if you need to ask the instructor's help, bring the manual with you. (The faculty are not familiar with all makes and models.)

Remember to mark your name indelibly on your calculator. If it is an expensive model, take a moment to record its serial number. Many of these are lost and later found but ownership cannot always be determined. Remember also that batteries must be replaced occasionally.

Do I need any other technology? All students are strongly encouraged to prepare for the use of technology after they leave NIU. The skills developed can enhance their success in mathematics courses, even though they are almost never explicitly required. This is especially true of the ability to retrieve helpful information from the Internet, and the ability to evaluate and adapt to emerging technology. Students taking a terminal class in the mathematical sciences (such as Math 101 or Math 210) are particularly encouraged to learn to use the tools as they would use them after completing their course. (On the other hand, students in courses designed as preparation for another course, such as Math 110 or Math 155, are particularly encouraged to focus on the fundamentals and theory and to learn to carry out the necessary computations accurately and efficiently by hand.)

Among the Internet tools available we mention some on-line calculators which you may find helpful when checking your homework:

Can I always use the calculator in the course? There will be obvious restrictions on the use of calculators and similar devices on exams. Unless your exams allow consultation with other students, you cannot use a calculator as a communications device. Unless your exams allow open notebooks, you cannot use a calculator as a text-storage device or as an Internet connection. If you have a calculator programmed to run algorithms which are part of the course goal, you cannot in fairness to others be allowed to use it on an exam unless it is made available to all students. If your exams are intended to test your use of the concepts to lead to a numerical answer, you cannot use the calculator as a computational device. A violation of any of these guidelines is considered a breach of academic integrity and can result in dismissal from the university or other sanctions as outlined in the Undergraduate Catalogue.

In order to enforce these regulations, your instructor may require that the memory of a calculator be wiped clean, or may prohibit an entire category of products (e.g. calculators with QWERTY keyboards), or may simply forbid all electronic calculators.1 Of course, the exams are written accordingly: when calculators are allowed, the students are asked to work with them efficiently and accurately on numerically-complicated problems; when calculators are not allowed, the students are asked to show an understanding of the concepts, illustrated with simpler numerical computations.

Can you explain the rationale which leads to this detailed set of policy decisions regarding the use of calculators in the NIU math classes?

Yes, but you'll have to look elsewhere.


1In no instance in recent memory has an abacus been forbidden on an exam. You may borrow a slide rule at any time from Watson 338. [HOME] Back to the NIU Math Department Web page
Last modified: 2006/05/01 (djr) Email: ugradprog@math.niu.edu