Educational Studies in Mathematics

, Volume 94, Issue 1, pp 69–83 | Cite as

The association of precollege use of calculators with student performance in college calculus

  • Yi Mao
  • Tyreke White
  • Philip M. Sadler
  • Gerhard Sonnert


This study investigates how the use of calculators during high school mathematics courses is associated with student performance in introductory college calculus courses in the USA. Data were drawn from a nationally representative sample of 7087 students enrolled in college calculus at 134 colleges and universities. They included information about students’ demographics, standardized test scores, and high school mathematics course enrollment and performance. Factor analysis reduced ten items describing high school calculator usage to two composites: how extensively calculators were employed and teacher-imposed restrictions on their use. Hierarchical linear models predicted students’ college calculus grades, reported by their professor, while controlling for differences between colleges and student backgrounds. The more extensively students had used calculators in high school, the lower their grade in college calculus. However, students earned higher college calculus grades to the extent that their high school teachers had limited calculator use on quizzes and exams and had restricted calculator use until paper-and-pencil methods had been mastered, which offset the negative association of extensive calculator use with grades. The effect sizes of both calculator composites were very small. Overall, the findings raise doubts about any substantial long-term effects on college mathematics performance of calculator use in high school.


Calculus Graphing calculator High school mathematics 



This research was supported by Grant No. 0813702 from the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Without the excellent contributions of many people, the FICSMath project would not have been possible. We thank the members of the FICSMath team: John Almarode, Devasmita Chakraverty, Jennifer Cribbs, Kate Dabney, Zahra Hazari, Heather Hill, Jaimie Miller, Matthew Moynihan, Jon Star, Robert Tai, Terry Tivnan, Annette Trenga, Carol Wade, and Charity Watson. We would also like to thank several mathematics educators who provided advice or counsel on this project: Sadie Bragg, David Bressoud, James S. Dietz, Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Solomon Garfunkel, Daniel Goroff, Ed Joyce, Carl LaCombe, James Lewis, Karen Marrongelle, William McCallum, Ricardo Nemirovsky, and Bob Speiser. Last but not least, we are grateful to the many college calculus professors and their students who gave up a portion of a class to provide data.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yi Mao
    • 1
  • Tyreke White
    • 2
  • Philip M. Sadler
    • 3
  • Gerhard Sonnert
    • 3
  1. 1.Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public HealthBostonUSA
  2. 2.Harvard CollegeCambridgeUSA
  3. 3.Harvard-Smithsonian Center for AstrophysicsCambridgeUSA

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