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## Using a Scientific Calculator In Mathematics Exams

With exams coming up, this is a short article with reminders and tips for anyone who is about to take a maths exam and will need to use a scientific calculator. The most common problems with the calculator are:

– set the calculator in the correct mode

– unable to find the calculator manual!

– Remembering to change calculator modes

– Rounded and inaccurate answers

**Why use a scientific calculator?**

All scientific calculators use the same order to perform mathematical operations. This order is not necessarily the same as reading a calculation from left to right. The rules for doing mathematical calculations specify the priority and therefore the order in which a calculation should be done: scientific calculators follow the same order. This order is sometimes abbreviated with terms such as BODMAS and BIDMAS to help students remember the order of doing calculations.

**1st Parentheses** (all calculations in parentheses are done first)

**2nd operations** (eg squaring, cubing, square root, sin, cos, tan )

**3rd Division and multiplication**

**4th Additions and subtractions**

Knowing this order is necessary to use a scientific calculator correctly. This command should always be used in all mathematical calculations, whether or not a calculator is used.

**Scientific calculator check**

There are two types of scientific calculators, the newest type being algebraic scientific calculators. Algebraic scientific calculators allow users to type calculations in the order they were typed. Older scientific calculators require users to press the math operation key after entering the number.

For example, to find the square root again (with an answer of three), press: [button]

Algebra Scientific Calculator: [SQUARE ROOT] [9] [=]

Non-Algebraic Scientific Calculator: [9] [SQUARE ROOT] [=]

These two types of scientific calculator are fine for exams, but make sure you know how to use your own type.

If you are not sure whether you have a scientific calculator or not, type:

[4] [+] [3] [x] [2] [=]

If you get an answer of 14, then you have an unscientific left-to-right calculator.

If you get an answer of 10, then you have a scientific calculator because it has solved the multiplication part first.

**Lost calculator manuals**

Calculator manuals tend to be very easily lost or never found when an exam is coming up. A frequent request is what can you do if you have lost your calculator manual? If it’s a relatively new model, you can download a copy from the manufacturer’s website. If it’s an old Sharp or Casio calculator manual, you can still find them online. Even with search engines, finding these manuals can take a while – the following link has information on new and old calculator manuals for Casio, Sharp, Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments – here.

**calculator mode**

Now that you have the calculator manual, you can set up the calculator with the correct settings. Standard parameters are usually:

**COMPUTATIONAL:**

(use MODE button – choose normal not state) NO: SD or REG

**DEGREES: **

(use MODE or DRG button) NO: RAD OR GRAD

**NORMAL:**

(use MODE or SETUP and arrow keys) NO: FIX, SCI, ENG

Many calculators have a reset button on the back that you can press with a pen or paper clip if you want the original factory settings.

The most common mistake is to leave the calculator in a previous mode and FORGET TO CHANGE IT BACK! (We’ve all done it, just try to avoid it in the exam!)

**Common calculator errors**

(a) Pressing the DRG button by mistake and not doing trigonometry questions in DEGREES mode. (If you’re doing more advanced work, forget to exit GRADE mode!).

(b) Borrowing an unfamiliar calculator or getting a new calculator too close to the exam and not being familiar with the keys and how to change modes.

(c) Forgetting to write and check work. Any calculator exam should have a warning! It is essential to write down the calculations you are doing so that you can get method notes. You should also try to check all calculations in case you hit a wrong button.

(d) Rounding before the end of a calculation. Store calculations in memory and use all decimal places during calculations. If you use a rounded value too soon, it will lose precision.

(e) Forgetting to use square brackets in division calculations (for example, when dividing by ALL the lower part of the fraction).

Many calculators are now very powerful and have incredible computational power. Some of the programmable calculators are mini computers. Although they will all calculate with 100% accuracy every time, unfortunately they are only as good and as accurate as their operator!

It is often the case that candidates perform better without a calculator as it is very easy to make simple mistakes when using one. If you can do that, it certainly helps to have an idea of the approximate size of the answer, so you can see if an answer is reasonable or not. It’s also a good idea to repeat all the calculations in case you’ve made a keypress mistake.

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