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The mechanics of computation and human thought

journal contribution
posted on 2012-01-01, 00:00 authored by Kieran LimKieran Lim
Thousands of students are preparing for chemistry examinations in June. An unresolved debate is whether they should be permitted to use graphics and programmable calculators in those examinations. Some educators have not only advocated the use of graphics calculators, but have also pointed to the Danish system in which students are permitted to use computers in senior school examinations.

In some Australian jurisdictions, graphics calculators are permitted in year 12 mathematics examinations, but not in chemistry examinations. The reasoning is that information or methods of solving numerical chemical problems can be stored in the memory of graphics calculators, giving some students an unfair advantage. This means that chemistry students either have to learn how to use (and buy!) two types of calculators or, if they only have one calculator, are disadvantaged in using non-programmable calculators in mathematics examinations.

The use of technology (or its lack thereof) can limit how and what students learn. “The mechanics of computation and human thought” is an allusion to Asimov’s short story, “A Feeling of Power” in which, overuse of technology has caused people to forget how to do simple arithmetic. In our current assessment system, the insistence that students must be able to do simple chemical calculations has lead to underuse of available technology. The misperception is that the ability to do calculations is linked to understanding of concepts.

Graphics calculators, programmable calculators and computers are tools. Instead of banning or limiting technology, we should take the opportunity to rethink what is being assessed and how it is assessed. It is the proper use of technology, by combining the mechanics of computation and human thought to deepen understanding and to ask probing questions that truly leads to a feeling of power.



Chemistry in Australia




39 - 39


Royal Australian Chemical Institute


Melbourne, Vic







Publication classification

C4 Letter or note

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