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Using a Scientific Calculator In Mathematics Exams
As exams approach, here’s a short article with reminders and advice for anyone about to take a math exam and who will need to use a scientific calculator. The most common calculator problems are:
– configure the calculator in the correct mode
– not finding the calculator manual!
– remember to change calculator mode
– rounded and inaccurate answers
Why use a scientific calculator?
Scientific calculators all use the same order to perform mathematical operations. This order is not necessarily the same as simply reading a calculation from left to right. The rules for performing mathematical calculations specify the priority and therefore the order in which a calculation must be performed – scientific calculators follow the same order. This order is sometimes abbreviated by terms such as BODMAS and BIDMAS to help students remember the order of calculations.
1st. Brackets (all calculations in parentheses are performed first)
2nd. Operations (e.g. squaring, cubing, square root, sin, cos, tan)
3rd. Division and Multiplication
4th. Addition and subtraction
Knowledge of this order is necessary to properly use a scientific calculator. This order should always be used in all mathematical calculations, whether or not using a calculator.
Checking scientific calculator
There are two types of scientific calculators, the newest being algebraic scientific calculators. Algebraic scientific calculators allow users to type calculations in the order in which they were written. Older scientific calculators require users to press the math operation key after entering the number.
For example, to find the square root of nine (with an answer of three), press: [button]
Algebraic Scientific Calculator: [SQUARE ROOT]  [=]
Non-algebraic scientific calculator:  [SQUARE ROOT] [=]
Both of these types of scientific calculators are suitable 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:
 [+]  [x]  [=]
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 calculated the multiplication part first.
Lost calculator manuals
Calculator manuals tend to get lost very easily or you may never find them when an exam is approaching. A common 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 on the internet. Even with search engines, finding these manuals can take some time – the following link contains information on new and old calculator manuals for Casio, Sharp, Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments: here.
Now that you have your calculator manual, you can set your calculator to the correct settings. The standard parameters are generally:
COMPUTER SCIENCE :
(use MODE button – choose normal not stat) STEP: SD or REG
(use MODE or DRG button) STEP: RAD OR GRAD
(use MODE or SETUP and arrow keys) NOT: FIX, SCI, ENG
Many calculators have a reset button on the back that can be pressed using a pen or paper clip if you want the original factory settings.
The most common mistake is leaving your calculator in a previous mode and FORGETTING TO CHANGE IT AGAIN! (We’ve all done it, just try to avoid doing it on the exam!)
Common Calculator Mistakes
(a) Pressing the DRG button by mistake and failing to answer trigonometry questions in DEGREES mode. (If you’re doing more advanced work, forget about exiting DEGREES 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 the work. Any exam with a calculator should come with a warning! It is essential to write down the calculations you make so that you can get method notes. You should also try to recheck all calculations in case of a wrong button press.
(d) Rounding before the end of a calculation. Save calculations to memory and use all decimal places when calculating. If you use a rounded value too soon, you will lose precision.
(e) Forgetting to use parentheses in division calculations (for example, when dividing by ALL the lower part of the fraction).
Many calculators are now very powerful and have incredible computing power. Some of the programmable calculators are mini computers. Although they all calculate 100% accurately every time, unfortunately they are only as good and accurate as their operator!
Often candidates perform better without a calculator because it is very easy to make simple mistakes when using one. If you can do that, it’s definitely helpful to have an idea of the approximate size of the answer, so you can see if an answer makes sense or not. It’s also a good idea to repeat all the calculations just in case you made a mistake pressing a key.
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