Have you ever tried to use a cordless drill to drive nails? Good – don’t. It’s not the right tool, it has way too many features and they are not the right ones! The same actually goes for calculators. It’s good to limit our choices and discuss only the recommend calculators for a student currently enrolled in school in Alberta.

In a nutshell, if you are in elementary, junior high school (Grades 9 and below) or University get a

The Right Calculator for the Job-JuniorUniversity (Small)

TI-36X Pro OR Casio – FX-300ES PLUS Scientific Calculator

If you are in high school (Grades 10 to 12) get a variation of the Ti-84 Plus

The Right Calculator for the Job-Highschool (Small)

TI-84 Plus OR TI-84 Plus C OR TI-84 Plus CE

In the ideal case, get the color C or CE version because they plot color graphs and they plot them faster than the other models. This is a huge advantage in Math 30-1.


The first criteria for a school calculator is

What is allowed on the final exam?

For the Alberta Diploma (and Grades 10-12), Alberta Education has approved the following in 2015–2016 (updated annually):
Casio – fx 9750 G Plus, fx 9750 GII, fx 9860 GIIs
Hewlett-Packard – HP Prime
Sharp (no longer manufactured or supplied to Canada) – EL-9900,EL-9600,EL-9600C
Texas Instruments – TI-nspire CX Handheld, TI-83 Plus, TI-84 Plus, TI-84 Plus Silver, TI-84 Plus Pocket SE, or TI-84 Plus C Silver, TI-84 Plus CE

For Grade 9 math and below, any scientific calculator is typically deemed acceptable. This gives us a lot of options!
For University, schools usually state 1 required calculator across all classes or, luckily, at the University of Calgary, most classes look for a “non-programmable calculator”.

The scientific calculator you buy for elementary and junior high school can be used for University – so buy a good one you trust! Don’t buy a bunch of different crappy calculators – stick to one you know. Don’t drive a different car every day of the week!

What makes a good calculator?

I bet most of you have never thought about this. And the answer really is quite simple.
What is a calculator used for? Doing equations and calculations.
What is important in doing a calculation? Getting the right answer.
What makes one calculator better than another in getting the right answer? Your probability of a typo along with the speed at which the calculator gets an answer. Speed is not an issue (and hasn’t been one for years).

Your probability of getting a typo depends on “The least number of clicks to get the operation done”.

The defining factor in your accuracy in math results is the number of extra buttons you need to press to get a result. The less clicks – the better!

With that said, let’s start whittling down our list of calculators. For a scientific calculator for Grade 9 and University, get one that has scrolling and several lines of equations? Why? So you can see all your previous calculations and can click to copy numbers from a previous calculations – this way there’s (MUCH) less transcription error! This boils down to:

The Right Calculator for the Job-JuniorUniversity (Small)

TI-36X Pro OR Casio – FX-300ES PLUS Scientific Calculator

I personally own and use both calculators but I prefer the Ti-36X Pro because it’s button layout is the same as the Ti-84 Plus family – meaning you essentially use the same calculator from Grade 5 to 12 to University.

Earlier, we looked at the Alberta government’s list of allowed calculators. Do NOT get a Casio, Hewlett-Packard or Sharp graphing calculator (Casio scientific 300ES is OK for University/high school). Your classmates will not use these other brands and your teacher uses a Ti-84 for demonstrations. Stick with what you know!

For Texas Instrumentsdo NOT get a TI-Nspire CX Handheld. It is the Cordless Drill to drive nails. I have owned one myself and found that it has a short battery life (you don’t want that kind of stress before an exam) and confusing key and menu layout (compared to the TI-84). It is the Lamborghini of the calculator world – you will have to drive around the city to find a gas station where you can drive in without scratching the underside of your car. It is beautiful but completely impractical. I have seen numerous students make calculation mistakes and graphing errors using a TI-Nspire – it is overpowered and it takes twice as many button presses to do any operation. Hence you are likely to get wrong answers!

Instead, if you are in high school get a variation of the Ti-84 Plus:

The Right Calculator for the Job-Highschool (Small)

TI-84 Plus OR TI-84 Plus C OR TI-84 Plus CE

The calculators above each have the ability to scroll through answers. The Ti-83 models did NOT have this feature – don’t get a Ti-83, get an 84! Additionally, the Ti-84 models plot graphs faster than the older Ti-83 models. Amongst the different Ti-84 models, get the color C or CE version because they plot color graphs and they plot them faster than the other models. This is a huge advantage in Math 30-1.

From the Texas Instrument support site: “On the TI-83 family there is not a way to scroll back up and select a previously entered entry. However, pressing [2nd] followed by [ENTRY] repeatedly will paste previous entries at the bottom of the screen. The TI-84 Plus family and the TI-Nspire in TI-84 Plus mode will be able to scroll up using the directional keypad and select previous entries to paste on the entry line. Please see the TI-83 family and TI-84 Plus family guidebooks for additional information.


Now that we have considerably narrowed our list of calculators to use, what are some additional considerations? The models above are the allowed models that produce the fastest result with the least error. The only other consideration is COST. Generally, new calculators can be had for a decent price at back to school sales. The Casio fx-300ES Plus runs from ~15 $ (back to school sale at Staples) to 20 $. The Ti-36X Pro runs from 24 $ to 30 $.

*The scientific calculator prices have not changed much with the Canadian dollar and are still ~24-30$ at back to school sales – so not much variation there.

The Ti-84 Plus C and CE calculators are 124.99 $ during the staples back to school sale. *With the dip in the Canadian dollar, these prices have changed and the 2016 back to school sale had these models for 140-160$.

With prudent shopping, you can save upwards of 40 $ from the back to school price of some of the graphing calculators. The cost of graphing calculators fluctuates wildly and a great analysis is found at http://www.techpoweredmath.com/graphing-calculator-prices-amazon/. Of course, you always have the option of scanning e-bay or the classifieds for a great price on a used model. If cost really is a HUGE consideration then the Ti-83 or Ti-83 Plus, despite their misgivings, are acceptable and can be found for 40 $ to free on kijiji or at garage sales depending on your luck.


I don’t think kids should be using calculators until Grade 9, and even then, infrequently but this article is meant to give an edge in the current educational system, not criticize it.

I have personally used both the FX-300ES Plus Scientific and Ti-36X Pro and I am a HUGE fan of the Ti-36X Pro. The FX-300ES Plus shows the division sign, the Ti uses a slash ( / ) <– this is great because it gets students used to the idea that division is just fractions and fractions are in fact a form of multiplication. Example – 2*0.5=1 and 2*2=4 but both times I’m multiplying – regardless of whether the number gets smaller or bigger. This is interesting because when we teach BEDMAS, the D and M (division and multiplication) are fundamentally the same operation. As are A and S (addition and subtraction).


Photos of calculators are from Amazon.ca

  • Here is a great review of the TI-84 Plus CE http://www.techpoweredmath.com/ti-84-plus-ce-review/
  • Explains why less clicks and less buttons pressed made RPN calculators less error prone to use than modern calculators. This can also be extended into why a calculator that needs less button presses is better than one that needs more.
    Hoffman, Errol; Ma, Patrick; See, Jason; Yong, Chee Kee; Brand, Jason; Poulton, Matthew (1994), “Calculator logic: when and why is RPN superior to algebraic?”, Applied Ergonomics 25 (5): 327–333, doi:10.1016/0003-6870(94)90048-5.
  • Minimizing the complexity of user interfaces makes people master applications faster


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