If you take a look at the anatomy of the SAT, you’ll see that it has two math sections: one where you’re allowed to use a calculator, and one where you’re not. Lots of students wonder, “What’s the point? Why not let test-takers use a calculator the whole time, or else not allow them at all?” The answer is that the two sections test different–but equally important–sets of skills that will serve you well throughout your college and professional career.
Students have heard all about why they should learn to do math without a calculator, but a lot of it boils down to, “You won’t always have a calculator in the real world!” Except it’s 2022, and we all carry whole computers in our pockets, so that doesn’t hold water anymore. Getting good at mental math is important for reasons that many teachers don’t really articulate:
- At its core, math is just logic. Becoming fluent in the language of numbers is a good way to train your brain to think logically, which is a key foundation for being a good test-taker.
- Practicing math without a calculator is how you develop number sense, or a good grasp of how numbers add up, multiply, divide, and break down into factors. With good number sense, you don’t have to pull out a calculator to know that 8×5=40; you just know.
- Using a calculator can actually waste a lot of time on tests if you use it as a crutch. Without one, you’ll have to trust your number sense to get the right answer instead of second-guessing yourself and using a calculator for basic math.
With all that in mind, why use a calculator, then? Lots of math teachers treat calculators like luxuries that they only grudgingly allow in their classrooms, but they’re highly useful tools for several reasons:
- They broaden the horizons of math that a student is capable of doing. Lots of problems on the SAT would take forever to solve by hand, but they’re real-world problems that need solving.
- Speaking of the real world, calculators are around whether we like it or not, and it’s important to know how to use the tools you’ve got. Ask any engineer or architect if they solve all their equations with paper and pencil… they don’t.
- Calculators don’t do the work for you! It’s still up to you to know what formulas to use and when, and that takes critical thinking and math skills that calculators can’t give you.
- Not only does it take math skills to use a calculator, it takes technology skills, too. You’ll have to learn to ‘speak calculator’ to use it to its full potential. Also, learning proper syntax and data entry is crucial for things like programming computers or doing database research with SQL.
So, if you’re nervous to work without a calculator or daunted by the longer calculator section, just remember that the two sections are meant to test different skillsets that you’ve picked up in your math classes. Together, these sections give you the opportunity to flex your mental math and problem solving ability along with your mastery of your graphing calculator, so be sure to prepare for both before test day.