Context: I am an associate professor at a small liberal arts institution in the US.

I find in my introductory business math course that students sometimes fail to buy a calculator for the course, despite my frequent reminders. Rather, they get by with their phone calculator or with help from their friends during lessons and on homework. This means that when an exam comes, they are not prepared to use a proper calculator, nor do they have one for the exam.

Typically it is my weakest students who fall into this category, so this problem exacerbates the gap between the strongest and weakest students.

Ideally, students would be confident using a real calculator to accurately compute functions involving parentheses, logs, and exponents. I recommend that students purchase a TI-30XIIS or similar, although they are allowed to use any calculator that doesn't have CAS capabilities.

Does anyone have any suggestions for how to deal with this? Here's what I see as my options:

  1. Keep a few spare calculators for students to borrow during exams. This has the added benefit of helping those who legitimately forget their calculator on exam day, have their batteries die, etc. (This is what I currently do. I tell students that I am happy to show them any computations before the exam, but I can't show them anything about a calculator once the exam is started.)
  2. Do the same thing as #1, but "tax" students some amount of points or provide some other disincentive for borrowing one of my calculators. (I had a high school teacher who would make you leave one of your shoes at her desk if you wanted to borrow something from her--the embarrassment/inconvenience incentivized students to remember their stuff.)
  3. Require that students bring a calculator to class every day, and penalize them some small amount of participation credit for not doing so.
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    $\begingroup$ This is basically a duplicate of a question I asked on SE Academia: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/181561/… $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ Is it forgetting or is it a question of money? Especially that it is the students judged as the weakest suggests this. $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ Money is possibly an issue for some of the students who do not get a calculator, but I believe that the primary cause disinterest/disengagement from their studies. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ "I believe that the primary cause disinterest/disengagement from their studies" If this opinion is strongly supported by evidence, then the best thing to do is just tell that whoever doesn't bring a calculator will have to do all computations by hand, period. Once they realize that you mean it on one quiz, they will rethink their approach. Providing calculators for such students is just spoiling them. However, you should be completely sure that it is the true reason, so I would talk to each calculator-less student one on one about why they come under-equipped before implementing this policy. $\endgroup$
    – fedja
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ How feasible are exams that don't require calculators for this class? $\endgroup$
    – TomKern
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 5:50

7 Answers 7


To summarize what I arrived at, based on the top answer on my prior parallel question on SE Academia, OP's #2 is the way to go -- keep a small supply of calculators on hand, but assess a usage penalty to incentivize students to bring their own.

I'm guessing that I'm in a roughly analogous situation -- urban community college, many liberal-arts math courses, and a significant proportion of disengaged and/or challenged students. The constraints are something like this:

  • Many of our liberal-arts students (the largest major at our college, in fact the default for incoming freshmen) don't even know their basic times tables, negative numbers, estimations, etc., so calculators are required for them to do anything.
  • Even if that weren't the case, the received, accredited, and articulation-approved curriculum from the larger institution expects and requires work with calculators, and we can't change that (e.g., real-world statistical problems with square roots, compound interest, etc.).
  • Phones can't be permitted for any reason by department policy -- and it's sensible, because students would absolutely cheat with internet access. We also need to scrupulously demand removal of earbuds, watches, etc.
  • If there were an open-access provided calculator policy, students would absolutely come to depend on that, and the majority of a class would expect to receive one on tests.
  • The college and department have zero money to provide any equipment whatsoever, to say nothing of a large supply of calculators.
  • There's no instructor time, and no TA's, with which to manage a large supply of equipment, or monitor device usage for one function but not another.
  • A notable number of students will simply not read or listen to anything you say, until informed that they've lost points for something.

So a small number of calculators to fill in some gaps, with a points-penalty to discourage use, is the best option I've seen. I picked up 3 calculators to cover classes of 25 registered students, with about half that usually attending, and that's covered my needs in the last few years. You can find packs of around that number via online retailers.

  • $\begingroup$ Can I ask for some specifics/advice on usage penalties? What has worked well for you? I was considering the following: -0 the first time, -2 the second time, -4 the third time, etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @AegisCruiser: I've been taking 5% off each time to date (specific number not stated on syllabus, so it could change to taste). I'd recommend not having to track documentation in order to assess sliding penalties. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 15:07

My intuition is that further penalizing already disengaged students will likely lead them to become even less engaged.

It also sounds like some of these students might not know how to use scientific calculators.

Freely lending out calculators for student use during exams, providing them instructions on how to use the calculators, and giving them in-class time to practice using them should help clear these obstacles to engagement.

If you get a calculator per student, you also get the added benefit of having calculator uniformity. Small differences like whether a calculator can do arbitrary logs or just logs base 10 and $e$ can affect students' grades, reducing the quality of their measurement of student learning outcomes.


Allow the students to use Desmos Test Mode.

The app allows students to lock a phone or other android/iOS device in single-app mode and use the Desmos graphing calculator that we know and love in an exam environment.

When the student leaves single-app mode, the app displays the amount of time that the app was locked. If the time is too short, it means the student closed the app in the middle of the assessment, so you need to give them a new one or accuse them of cheating with the device.

Some of my students bring spare old iPads; most students just use the device they have with them. A few stick with their TI-84.

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    $\begingroup$ Small tip: In the current (2023) version, android users have to put their phone in airplane mode to allow the app to lock itself. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ Myself, I am not at all confident that I can keep 20 year olds from doing things to their phones other than exactly what I want. That is particularly true when there are 60 of them in the room so I can't check in with each very often, and the seats are bolted to the floor such that I cannot see very well what someone more than two in from the aisle is doing. Besides, it makes me a policeman, which I don't think is good for the classroom atmosphere. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JimHefferon Maybe you missed it, but the app reports to you how long it has been locked, so you do not have to watch the whole time. If at the end of the exam, the phone reports that it has only been locked for 10 minutes, then you don't accept the exam; send them to the testing center with a makeup or give them a zero. If you are worried that our students are going to be so expert at technology that they will subvert this mechanism, then you should also be worried that they will take out the inside of their TI-84 calculators and replace them with internet-connected hardware. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yes thank you, I see that the app says it does that. But all of us can name dozens of ways in which people have subverted well thought-of software, and even if a student could not find such a way through online searching, they could just borrow a phone from a friend and use it while putting their own phone in the mode. I expect that all of us have experience with students going to lengths rather than just studying. So I'm sorry but I'm shy of technical solutions. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7 at 11:12

In my opinion, all of your decisions should be based on the following question: What is the pedagogical goal?

In my classes, I generally try to focus on the mathematics and on basic (basic) "how to college" skills. I assign my final grades based on a combination of (1) hard skills (i.e. being able to solve problems), and (2) soft skills (such as attending office hours, turning in homework on time, etc).

However, many (if not most) of my students are quite poor. A significant number of my students do not have running water or electricity at home, let alone reliable internet access or cell phone coverage. I have students who hitchhike for several hours a day to get to one of our campuses.

As such, I don't think that it is reasonable for me to base any portion of my grading scheme on something which many students are going to have a hard time with for reasons beyond their control (e.g. getting a calculator for my class). So if I were in a position similar to the original asker's (I am not, as I write exams to be done without a calculutor), I would simply have several calculators ready to loan to students with no penalty. In the "real world", someone with a job should have the tools they need provided to them by their employer. In as much as it is possible, I would prefer to model that. In my classroom, I would use option (1).

That being said, I know instructors who believe that more advanced "how to college" and "life skills" should be part of their pedagogical goals. These instructors will penalize students who don't have the right gear. This is reasonable, if your learning objectives include these skills. In this case, I would prefer (3) over (2) (so that students are not surprised at the last minute in a high-stakes situation),

So, again: What is the pedagogical goal?


Frame change.

Can you imagine a way to let them use their phones without allowing/encouraging cheating? Then they have access to a calculator, even to google for calculations. That would match what would happen with a real problem at their work. I understand that it would make constructing and grading difficult. But perhaps worth the effort.

  • $\begingroup$ Reasonable challenge. I tried this in the semesters immediately following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic because it was too hard to ensure students who were attending remotely weren't already using the internet during exams. It wasn't disastrous, but it was a huge relief to return to "normal" assessments. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 11:23

Departmental Fund Raiser!

Charge a small fee, maybe $2, to borrow a calculator during the exam.

This is my suggestion. We've been loaning them out for free for a couple years, but it occurred to me we're wasting an opportunity to capitalize on the situation. You could even offer a subscription option for frequent forgetters. Much to think about here.

  • $\begingroup$ I must have offended some anticapitalist. Oh noes. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10 at 14:26

"Giving" calculators to "weak" students is one of the worst things you can do: it's not just about bringing a calculator to the exam, but they also need to learn how to operate it. If a student does not master this, (s)he might have a serious disadvantage compared with other students during the exam. (So in fact, while trying to help "weak" students, you're discriminating them even more.)
Therefore I advise you to stand your ground: all students must have a calculator, and it must be the type you have mentioned (you might give a choice between 2-3 types, and keep that for several years, so students can pass it on to younger ones after they've finished school).
You check if students actually have a calculator during the year and in case they don't, you punish them for that. At the exam, if a student has "forgotten" his or her calculator, you might loan a spare, but you only do this for students who clearly own one.

Remember: fighting poverty might sound like a noble goal, but IT'S NOT YOUR JOB!


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