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Should Students Be Allowed to Use Mathematica on Tests?

Posted 11 years ago
Hi all,

Would love to get your thoughts on this...

In this Customer Story Professor Alain Carmasol encourages his students to use Mathematica on exams. He believes that making students complete calcualtions by hand no longer has any value in the classroom.

Do you agree?

POSTED BY: Emily Suess
5 Replies
Hello Emily,
It depends on what is being tested, but I agree in general.

My rationale for agreement is:
  1. It is important to assess whether a student can utilize what they have learned to a non-test environment. I would hope that a student would know how to use the "right tool" outside the classroom.
  2. A student will be able to get insight on whether they are getting the problem right during the test.  This is a learning opportunity and allows the student to do self-assessment.
  3. The test problems can be more open-ended: students could achieve higher scores with deeper or more "aesthetic" answers. This translates into real world assessment.
  4. The student will have the exam returned to them as a notebook and will be able to compare it to a prototype "instructor's answer". It will be a living document for the student.
  5. The burden of the mechanics of doing a problem by hand and worrying about mistakes is shifted towards a burden of understanding applying the concept being tested.
  6. This is similar to historical arguments about whether students should use sliderules, use calculators, use graphing calculators, etc.  All objections to progress tend to evaporate as the tools become more mainstream.
  7. Testing with access to Mathematica will create good coders.  Coding is an element of technological literacy.
  8. Testing with Mathematica will encourage students to use Mathematica on their homeworks. Homework is where learning takes place; exams are where assessment takes place.

However, there are some issues that have to be thought through carefully.
  1. Real world testing has elements of thinking on one's feet:  most initial impressions of professional colleagues involves ability to converse rapidly and clearly. This may be lost.
  2. I can imagine that Mathematica could be useful on a history exam, or even in some essays.  One should be careful to distinguish "allowed to", "encourage to", and "required to". However, it will be difficult to grade exams if students have an option to use mathematica on any exam or not.
  3. One would need to think carefully about how to handle crashes or other external technology failures in an exam environment.
  4. While I am enthusiastic about Mathematica, I would be uncomfortable requiring Mathematica without allowing access to similar tools.
There are likely to be an objection associated with cost and licensing.  However, I think this is a red herring.  Calculators and subsequently PCs, laptops, etc, evolved from a luxury to de rigeur in most educational environments.  Let's hope that society would provide modern tools to those who can't afford them.

Pardon the longish answer!
POSTED BY: W. Craig Carter
I think this depends on the class. Certainly, if I had had Mathematica available to me when I was taking Calculus I, I could easily have cheated my way through it.  I would not have had to work very hard and I would not have learned the concepts at the time. On a higher level course, like Differential Equations, there is not too much that I could use Mathematica for to cheat. I mean, I could get a solution to a specific problem but it would be clear as day that I had not done the work. This sort of assumes that the courses are set up in the very traditional way I was taught math though. I would be much more interested in studies showing outcomes in independent examinations for courses taught Mathematica vs without when using modern teaching methods and focusing curriculum in more creative ways. The old answer these fifty questions by the end of the hour method seems awefully dated.
POSTED BY: Jason Grigsby
For courses like Numeric Method or Finite Element Method, I would definitely go with having Mathematica in exams. On the other hand, for a course that really emphasizes on understanding the concepts and limited amount of hand work is necessary, a traditional exam sheet would be more suitable. 
POSTED BY: Shenghui Yang

I totally agree. Moreover, the authorization of Computer Algebra Systems (CAS) like Mathematica during exams would kick start initiatives like Computer-Based Maths of Conrad Wolfram. For example, this policy change has already happened in Victoria state, Australia. Does anybody know other places where CAS are officially allowed during exams?

POSTED BY: Pavlo Fesenko
Posted 9 years ago


As a graduate student myself, I do see some benefits and it depends on the course level in my opinion.

However, should the toolbox be limited to Mathematica or should it be left to the student to use the tool of their choice and comfort?

My concern is the advantage that such approach gives to some students over others depending on their ability to use a specific computational tool. On the other hand, such advantage is usually echoed in the job search process ...

Very interesting discussion !

Saliou Telly

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