Students fail to spot simple calculator errors

Researcher says experiment demonstrates that students mistake benefits of technology for increase in ‘internal ability’ to solve problems 

October 31, 2019
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New research suggests that students’ reliance on technology could be undermining some of their basic mental and critical thinking skills after many failed to spot major errors in simple mathematics calculations.

The study programmed an on-screen calculator to “lie” by changing the answers displayed on certain problems and tracked whether students explicitly reported suspicion, overrode the errors or rechecked their calculations.

While students with higher numeracy levels tended to be more dubious of incorrect answers, the results found that overall “suspicion behaviour was surprisingly rare”.

Only 21 per cent of students showed suspicion when they were told that a woman born in 1942 was 60 in 1994, for example.

When the study was repeated to add 120 per cent to correct figures, students were more likely to be suspicious, but a relatively high share did not spot any errors. Forty-seven per cent of respondents did not show suspicion when they were told that a woman born in 1945 was 114 years old in 1994, for instance.

The study was reproduced again to offer students an incentive for good performance, but while this raised their accuracy across maths problems overall it did not increase suspicion behaviour, according to the research.

The paper, “When calculators lie: A demonstration of uncritical calculator usage among college students and factors that improve performance”, which was published in Plos One on 30 October, was based on responses from a total of 482 undergraduate students from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Texas Tech University.

Mark LaCour, a researcher in the department of psychological sciences at Texas Tech and lead author of the study, said that in today’s technology age students have had “less practice calculating simple problems by hand” than previous generations.

“A lot of research in this area seems to suggest that when you give people access to a technology that opens up what they can do, like a search engine…people are mistaking that expansion of their abilities due to the technology for some sort of internal ability,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com 

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Students fail to spot major calculator errors

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