Submitted by Chip Nataro / Lafayette College on Fri, 08/19/2011 - 08:50

My wife (a high school math teacher and huge graphing calculator supporter) was asked by one of her science colleagues (not a graphing calculator fan) what kind of policies there were in colleges about calculator use in chemistry classes in particular. I knew immediately where to go to get answers. As inorganic chemists there is a good chance we spend some time teaching gen. chem. (if your school has such a beast). I was just curious as to what kind of calculator policy (if any) other places had. We at some point in the past became very paranoid about students cheating using graphing calculators. We require students to buy TI-30X IIS and those are the only calculators that can be used in class for our gen. chem. I would appreciate any feedback even if your policy is similar to ours.


Barbara Reisner / James Madison University
About 10 years ago, we moved to a single calculator policy. Because our classes are large, we require that all students buy a speccific model of a calculator, the blue Sharp El-531W or Sharp EL-531V calculator. We have to be able to quickly identify that it is a non-programmable and this makes it easy to do so. The calculators are relatively inexpensive - about $10.  This calculator must be used in lecture for both semesters of genchem. Different lab instructos have different policies. A number of years back, these calculators were also required for physics, but that policy has changed. 
Mon, 08/22/2011 - 05:51 Permalink
Betsy Jamieson / Smith College
We don't have an official policy on calculators.  I have worried a bit about students programming in information into their calculators, so I do write a sentence or two on my exam cover sheets about how doing so is against our honor code.  My experience is that students are perfectly fine with an inexpensive scientific calculator for general chemistry, and I've never really seen a need for them to have a more expensive graphing calculator. 
Tue, 08/23/2011 - 13:33 Permalink
Jeffrey Rood / Elizabethtown College
Just this year we've implemented a policy requiring a non-programmable scientific calculator for general chemistry. Last year my colleagues and I heard indirectly that a few students had been programming information into graphing calculators for quizzes and exams. To be safe and level the playing field, we decided to try this requirement this Fall. Also, we now give the ACS exam at the end of the semester which requires students to use a non-programmable calculator. I'm interested to see student response to this. I'm a bit torn because our students are also required to purchase graphing calculators for calculus.
Wed, 08/24/2011 - 07:40 Permalink
Adam Johnson / Harvey Mudd College

I had a nice expensive graphing calculator and it was stolen my very first day of college and I replaced it with an cheapo solar scientific calculator that I still use to this day.  I managed to get a PhD in chemistry (albeit, synthetic...) with only this calculator.  If you need more calculational horsepower than that, you're better off using Excel, Kaleidagraph, Maple, Mathmatica or Gaussian. 

Our students all have big ginormo programmable graphing calculators that I am incapable of using and I spend a lot of time telling first year students that if their answer to a chemistry problem is 10^-34 g of something, they need to check their math, and that a little common sense is a lot more important than a big fancy calculator.

 We also have a strong honor code and I usually provide all equations they might need on the exam.  That's how I try to circumvent the problem.  Plus, if they don't show their work, they won't get full credit.

Thu, 08/25/2011 - 06:42 Permalink
Lori Watson / Earlham College
We allow students to use whatever calculator (graphing or not) but my observation is that most students with graphing calculators have no idea how to use them.  In fact, they regularly borrow our "regular" cheapo deptarmetnal calculators.  We have recently, however, forbidden the use of cell phone calculator apps for calculators.  Just too much temptation, I'm thinking!
Thu, 08/25/2011 - 08:30 Permalink
Betsy Jamieson / Smith College

I agree with Lori in that I often find that students often have trouble using the graphing calculators, and, like Adam, I am also incapable of using them, so unless one of their peers can help them, we end up using my inexpensive, solar powered scientific calculator to work through a problem.

In the past 10 years, there was only one time that I ever saw some value to using a graphing calculator.  This was during a titration lab in general chemistry.  One student spontaneously used her calculator to plot the titration curve as she was doing the experiment.  Of course, that was before we got the pH probes that hooked up to laptops.  Now we have laptops and software that make the plot in real time, so there goes that use for graphing calculators in our labs.

Tue, 08/30/2011 - 12:56 Permalink
Chip Nataro / Lafayette College
Well, I keep telling my wife these graphing calculators are pointless. If you can't do it on your phone yet it won't be long. She says that the graphing caclulators are used on standardized testing and phones can't be used there. Guess she has me on that one.
Tue, 08/30/2011 - 13:14 Permalink
Abby O'Connor / The College of New Jersey
The department bought enough TI-30X IIS calculators (non-programmable) to provide each student in general chemistry with one on all exams. That is the only calculator that can be used on exams. The faculty haul a huge box of calculators to all exams and the final (the final is a mass final so we have a lot of calculators!). We hand them out to ensure no papers are fed into the cover of the calculator and collect them back. 
Tue, 08/30/2011 - 15:17 Permalink
Chris Hamaker / Illinois State University

We don't have a departmental policy, but my personal policy when teaching Gen Chem (or any other class) is NO graphing calculators.  Our bookstores stock TI-30X IIS calculators, and I tell students that they can buy a scientific calculator at the local Dollar Tree stores for $1.  Its actually pretty good battery operated scientific calculator.  Our department has about 100 scientific calculators that faculty can use in their classes, and they are used by many of us in all areas.

Tue, 01/17/2012 - 14:39 Permalink
Shirley Lin / United States Naval Academy

A couple of years ago our institution adopted the TI-nspire CX. It has a color screen and so many capabilities that it could probably rule the world if it became sentient. In general chemistry, the only function we use that isn't usually part of a non-programmable calculator is the SOLVE function, mostly for quadratic equations during equilibrium. We allow students to use the calculator in its fullest capacity on all general chemistry exams. However, just a few weeks ago we discovered the the TI-nspire has a capability that we were not previously aware of and could be a game changer: it can store and display scanned images. Apparently some students have discovered this function and now are scanning and loading images of past exams and quizzes into their calculators. We are now discussing buying enough non-programmable calculators to distribute to students for exam situations.

Fri, 05/03/2013 - 12:34 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

We have a steadfast non-graphing scientific calculator requirement in gen chem when it comes to exams (we can't enforce what they use on homework outside of class). Therefore, we ask students to get the calculators early and bring them to class and use them so they get used to them before the exam. We don't care what kind, although we suggest a few types in the syllabus and make sure at least one kind is stocked in the bookstore, except that it needs to be something you can't graph/store programs/keep info/etc on. We used to have ones to give out at exams but it was a giant hassle because they students didn't know how to use them and had to ask the instructors or TAs, which basically just takes precious time from them doing their exams. These calculators aren't that expensive and they use them all year in gen chem and also in lab.  

Wed, 09/25/2013 - 00:28 Permalink
Sheila Smith / University of Michigan- Dearborn

ony non-programmable on exams for us, although I recommend the CASIO 115 ES because it can solve quadratics, and I'm not interested in testing my students on algebra (even though I do).  Since they need to be familiar with this calculator on exams, I do not allow them to use the programmable ones in class, lab or recitation either (I can't stop them on their homework)



Wed, 09/25/2013 - 20:07 Permalink
Shirley Lin / United States Naval Academy

Sheila, I appreciate your recommendation of the Casio with the ability to solve quadratic equations. We are still using the TI-nspire but have stipulated that this academic year it must be in press-to-test mode (which disables certain content such as files uploaded). It's several button pushes to get it into and out of press-to-test mode and you need to have at least one calculator not in press-to-test to help all the others get out of that mode. But we're making it work so far. The thought is that next academic year we will require something like the Casio instead.

Fri, 09/27/2013 - 20:35 Permalink
Anne Bentley / Lewis & Clark College

Thanks for sharing that, Kyle.  I think some of my notes from the recent BCCE include something about the MUST instrument.  I'll have to look into it.

I enjoy doing math without a calculator - remember when we had to do long division by hand?

Wed, 08/29/2018 - 12:19 Permalink
Nicole Crowder / University of Mary Washington

I tried a variation on the MUST with my gen chem classes this year. We added some simple word problems and took out the chemical equation balancing. I heard more than one student say "I know how to do this stuff WITH my calculator."

I'd be happy to share if anyone is interested.

Tue, 09/04/2018 - 14:42 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

I'd love to hear any findings you get from using your assessment! 

Tue, 09/04/2018 - 17:56 Permalink
Anne Bentley / Lewis & Clark College

The day before our first general chem exam last week, a student showed me the graphing calculator that they had purchased at our college bookstore.  It was some kind of TI thing.  It had a program, as the student demonstrated, that spit out ground state electron configurations and other minutae for all the elements on the periodic table.  

Hmph.  We gave the exam as is anyway. FWIW, the student showed me Pd, and I didn't agree with the program's electron configuration. It had ground state Pd as [Kr]4d10, where I would have said it's [Kr]5s24d8.


Sun, 10/07/2018 - 18:37 Permalink
Chris Hamaker / Illinois State University

This is all very interesting. I am teaching Gen Chem I again this semester (and Gen Chem II for the first time ever next semester), and have always said no programmable and/or graphing calculators. I highly recommend the TI-30X IIS, but am flexible. I use clickers in lecture and write my questions so that, most of the time, a calculator isn't needed (ie, What is the molarity of a solution containing 5.844 g of sodium chloride (MM 58.44 g/mol) in 100 mL of solution). Most students can't do that without their calculators. I conatantly let them know that the need to, at the very least, estimate the answer before using their calculator to make sure the number makes sense, but they don't (as I am sure most of you are aware). 

Thu, 10/11/2018 - 11:14 Permalink