Steven Walker, Maths Subject Advisor
This blog was previously published on 11 October 2022. It is updated regularly to ensure centres and students have the latest information about the calculator requirements for the assessment of the qualifications.
What a calculator should and must not have for assessments is covered in two documents, the JCQ’s Instructions for Conducting Examinations and the specification document for your particular qualification. There is a wide range of calculators that satisfy the requirements, and there are computer based emulators that teachers can use to demonstrate in class (and could be used as part of special access arrangements).
Section 10 of the JCQ Instructions for Conducting Examinations 2023-2024 includes information on types of calculators permitted in exams.
These requirements ban symbolic functions or Computer Algebra Software (CAS), along with the ability to communicate with other machines or the internet. This precludes some graphical calculators, though many are still valid for use in exams.
A useful FAQ document on using calculators is also available from JCQ. The main change is an explicit mention of Exam mode. This is not only an issue for A Level Maths/Further Maths, so please share with your colleagues teaching subjects with high maths content (especially chemistry).
Requirements for a particular qualification will be given in its specification. I’ll deal with Maths first, then Further Maths. Note that this guidance is correct for both AS and A Level Maths A / Further Maths A and Maths B (MEI) / Further Maths B (MEI).
The only paper with its own different rules for technology is the Further Maths B (MEI) option Further Pure with Technology, which is beyond the scope of this blog. For more information on that, please see its specification or get in touch.
Any calculator that meets the AS and A Level requirements will also be permitted for the calculator papers in GCSE (9-1) Maths, Level 3 FSMQ: Additional Maths, Core Maths A and Core Maths B.
For A Level Maths, calculators must have an iterative function, as well as the ability to compute summary statistics and to access probabilities from standard statistical distributions. The iterative function can be as simple as the ‘Ans’ button, which can be used to perform repeated iterations efficiently. Almost all scientific calculators now have this button and students may be familiar with using it from GCSE (9-1) Maths. Students could learn to use the table or spreadsheet functions on their calculator for this technique, but there is no need for these.
Summary statistics required for A Level Maths include mean, median, quartiles and standard deviation. There will be questions where knowledge of statistical formulae is needed, but there is an expectation that students will be able to off load these calculations to the calculator when appropriate. This will be reflected in the number of marks.
Accessing probabilities from the required standard statistical distributions is something that students can struggle with, so ensure that your class are familiar and confident with this. Our A Level Maths specifications clearly state that it is the binomial and normal distributions that students need.
Graphical calculators can be used in exams if they have the relevant functions (check these if you have an older model) and meet the standard requirements (they don’t have computer algebra software, ways to communicate etc.), but they are not necessary for the exams. Question authors take care when setting questions that students using a graphical calculator will not get an unfair advantage over those students with a scientific calculator. At the time of writing the Casio CG50 and the Texas Instruments TI-nspire are available and suitable for use in exams.
Newer models of scientific calculators that include binomial and normal distribution functions provide a good compromise between ease of access to the probabilities and cost/complexity. This includes calculators such as the Casio fx-991EX ClassWiz and the Texas Instruments TI-30X Pro.
For the classroom, scientific calculators such as these, along with software such as Excel, Geogebra, Desmos or Autograph (accessed via computer or handheld device), form a complete technology package for teaching A Level Maths. For those with an interest in programming, Python appears to be the popular option. Take a look at the material produced by IMA, Python for A Level Mathematics and Beyond.
We would not recommend that students use less sophisticated calculator models.
It is possible to memorise the normal distribution function to calculate the required values manually and to use a summation function to calculate cumulative binomial probabilities but this would require teaching extra content and questions would need more time to answer.
Inverse functions would also require trial and improvement and finding values for the binomial distribution with large n would require the normal approximation to the binomial, on-spec but only in an informal manner.
For Further Maths, the DfE’s subject criteria include the additional requirement that calculators must have the ability to perform calculations with matrices up to at least order 3 × 3. The only requirement beyond this is that if students are taking the Statistics option in either Further Maths A or Further Maths B (MEI), they should also be able to access the Poisson distribution. The four calculators mentioned above include both matrices and Poisson, so with these a single calculator can be used for both Maths and Further Maths.
For all our current AS and A Level Maths and Further Maths qualifications, allowed calculators may be used in the exams for any function they can perform.
This allows technology to permeate the teaching and learning and also gets rid of the awkward grey areas that existed in previous specifications about what was or wasn’t allowed to be done on calculators.
The current qualifications allow students to use calculator functions such as polynomial solvers, definite integrals, gradient at a point and simultaneous equation solvers.
However, knowledge of how to perform these functions is still required by the content and may be assessed through questions using command words such as ‘In this question you must show detailed reasoning’. For more information on these and other such questions, please see our ‘Exploring our question papers’ guides for Maths A or Maths B (MEI).
Teachers may also be interested to know that most of the newer calculator models also have computer based emulators, which are useful for whole class teaching demonstrations. Teaching resources are also available from manufacturers such as Casio and Texas Instruments.
Emulators can be used by candidates as part of special access arrangements. For more information, please see our associated blog Mathematics assessment – the use of computer technology as part of special access arrangements.
We are running a series of ‘Enhancing your teaching’ webinar events looking at the effective use of technology in teaching and assessment of Maths. These events have a small cost and bookings can be made using the following links:
Efficient use of technology in A Level Further Maths – 6 Nov 2023 4pm – 5:30pm
Efficient use of technology in A Level Maths – 22 Nov 2023 4pm – 5:30pm
One unusual query we get periodically is from students asking if they are allowed to take both a scientific and a graphical calculator into the exam. There is nothing to prohibit this, however we would advise that it is better to develop confidence with one model.
We have a selection of resources focused on developing confidence with calculators available on Teach Cambridge. There are many great online resources available, so join the conversation by sharing your ideas and links to all your favourites in the comment box below.
If you have any questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Maths. You can also sign up for email updates to receive information about resources and support.
Steven joined OCR in 2014 during the major qualification reform period and now primarily focuses on supporting the Level 3 maths qualifications. He originally studied engineering and then took an extended period to work and travel around the world before completing a PGCE in secondary mathematics. Steven began his teaching career with VSO in Malawi and has taught maths in both the UK and overseas.