NOTE: A later version of the following article appears as sec-
tion 8 in the paper "Eight Features of an Ideal Introductory 
Statistics Course", which is available at

Subject: Computers vs. Calculators in Intro Stat

     To: EdStat-L Statistics Education Discussion List,
         ApStat-L Statistics Education Discussion List, Usenet Newsgroup

   From: Donald B. Macnaughton <>
   Date: Wednesday June 10, 1998


(The following material is from a paper I shall present on August 
12 at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Dallas.)

Nowadays there is broad agreement that computers or hand calcula-
tors are important aids in the introductory statistics course.  
These aids relieve teachers and students of the drudgery of sta-
tistical computations, enabling them to focus instead on statis-
tical concepts.  However, there is presently controversy among 
teachers (especially high school teachers) about which is more 
appropriate -- computers or hand calculators.  

Note that computers and calculators are essentially the same de-
vices (i.e., computing devices) although they differ widely on 
various properties.  Thus it is helpful to make a list of the 
properties on which computers and calculators differ as an aid to 
understanding the differences and as an aid to choosing the best 
device for the introductory course.  Let us compare properties of 
the popular TI-83 calculator from Texas Instruments with proper-
ties of a typical generic low-end non-portable computer system 
containing, say, either ActivStats or the student version of 
Minitab.  The following table lists some relevant properties and 
their values:

         Values of Properties of Two Computing Devices

                             Property     TI-83      Computer
     extensive online help available?       no          yes

screen size (pixels), which speaks to    96 x 64     800 x 600
 the ability of the device to display
    large bodies of text and detailed
                 statistical graphics

     number of statistical procedures     lower        higher

   ability to run integrated software     (none)        high
   that actually *teaches* statistics

              software upgradeability     (none)        high

 keyboard familiarity and ease of use      low          high
                        for new users

 usefulness in real-world statistical      low          high

                  printing available?   usually no   usually yes

    ability to share information with     (none)        high
         other software on the device

      ability for students to use the     (none)        high
    device for other functions (e.g., 
   writing essays or Internet access)

                        color screen?       no          yes

 space available for program and data      27 KB       300 MB+

                      programmability    severely    effectively
                                         limited      unlimited

                          portability      high         low

           permitted in examinations?   sometimes      usually
                                           yes           no

                                 cost      low          high
* KB = 1024 bytes, MB = million bytes.  The 300 MB is an estimate 
and varies from computer to computer.

Note that computers lead the TI-83 by a substantial margin on all 
but the last three properties, which I now discuss in turn.  

First, (assuming that students have computer access at the loca-
tion where they study, a cost issue -- see below) the low port-
ability of fixed computers is not a serious disadvantage because 
it is not necessary that students be able to perform statistical 
computations "on the street".

Second, the fact that calculators are permitted in some examina-
tions is not a significant argument in favor of using calculators 
during the term because the use of calculators in examinations 
has little to do with the practical use of computers or calcula-
tors to solve real statistical problems -- it has only to do with 
the decisions of examination designers.  (That is, the choice of 
examination designers should not drive the choice of computing 
device used during the term -- rather, the preferred device 
should drive the choice of examination designers.)

Thus it appears that computers are superior to the TI-83 on all 
important properties except the property of cost.  Thus it ap-
pears that computers are preferred to the TI-83 in all situations 
in which the cost problem can be solved.

Finally, it is important to note that in situations in which the 
cost problem *cannot* be solved, hand calculators such as the TI-
83 are a practical alternative since, although they are inferior 
to computers, calculators are far better than nothing.  I look 
forward to the day when all students can have the substantial 
benefits of full access to computers.

Donald B. Macnaughton   MatStat Research Consulting Inc      Toronto, Canada

Home page for Donald Macnaughton's papers about introductory statistics