The Parts of Khan Academy That Work (Really Well)

Khan Academy is one of the more high profile members of the rapidly growing online education world. Plus of course the "traditional classroom supplemented by online content" world, the home schooling world, the additional stuff to prevent smart kids from getting bored world and probably a lot more. Although I am a professional in my early 30s I recently decided that I really needed to brush up on my math skills. Starting with addition and fractions Khan Academy provided instruction and exercises as I worked my way all the way through to Trigonometry and the beginnings of Calculus. As of right now I have completed all of the available activities available on Khan Academy (although they're always adding more).

The potential flaws in Khan Academy and its usage in the classroom are a popular topic for blogging and discussion. If you want to read about the potential ways Khan Academy can be misused in the classroom or why it's not a silver bullet for every problem (duh) do some googling. It's easy to find. Today however I'd like to go through what I think works really well. This is primarily going to be about their systems, not how it would work in a classroom full of students. While I've tried to consider how it will work under different circumstances my experience here is, quite naturally, biased towards independent self paced learners.

First up, you need some idea of what the activity set up looks like. Rather than me trying to paint a picture with words it will be simpler if you just go and have a look. When a student first arrives and clicks on "practice" they are taken to the "knowledge map". Click here to see the knowledge map.

What you're seeing is an interconnected network of the topics that are covered. You can zoom in to see individual activities within those topics.

As someone who started at the beginning and worked their way through, this view is great. It's great because it makes it easy to look ahead. That means that you can get excited about what's coming up. Motivation is a major issue regardless of whether you're in a class of 30 or on your own. Being able to see the exciting things coming up and being able to see how what you're doing now will get you there is inspirational. I hit flat spots like anyone else but looking ahead and wondering what on earth "complex numbers" are helped get me through.

Now click on a topic. Say, "angles" or whichever one tickles your fancy. That will take you to the activity screen. On the left is the stack of cards representing upcoming questions. In the centre is the current question. The student works there way through a block of questions before their progress towards competency in the act is displayed. Answer questions correctly and you progress towards being declared competent in the relevant activity. There are two things to be aware of.

Firstly, if you get an answer wrong it sets your progress back. If you get the first eight questions correct with no mistakes it will send you on your way to the next activity. However, if you get any wrong it will take additional convincing that you know what you're doing. While the questions are presented in fixed sized sets the number of questions you may face for a given activity is potentially infinite. While they still have work to do to prevent you seeing the same problems repeated when you do find yourself struggling Khan Academy will quite literally quiz you for however long it takes.

Secondly, you can access hints and instructional videos without leaving the page. Hints set your progress towards passing the activity back. The instructional videos do not. Being presented with a neat little bundle containing both the instructional material and the activity is really handy. I dont need multiple windows open. Everything I need is right here and I can rewatch the initial demonstration and explanation however many times I need to.

The activities are highly varied and are custom to the activity in question. It's not all "read the question, type in the answer". Some of them are very visual. Some examples.

"Graphing parabolas in standard form" involves answering the question by dragging around points on a graph.

"Parabola intuition 1" involves manipulating parts of a graph's equation to get it to look a certain way.

Activities that require the student to work in both directions are common. In the above case, the student first goes from an equation to a graph and in the next activity they go the other way, from a graph to an equation. It's the kind of thing that's hard to replicate using pen and paper or even most computerised learning environments. Khan Academy have polished the activities to the point where the mechanical act of completing the activity, physically plotting a graph for example, are dealt with automatically letting the student focus on the concepts and ideas.

Frequently the activities appear to have been built from the ground up with a specific activity in mind. Some, such as "congruency postulates" and "derivative intuition" are incredibly specific. This is not a general purpose quiz tool. Personally, I found the derivative intuition activity in particular extremely impressive for how effortlessly it illuminates a fairly abstract idea.

Finally, review questions. I'm unsure of the algorithm it uses but virtually every time I log into Khan Academy and go to the knowledge map it will notify me that I have review questions available. Review questions are drawn from your previously completed activities. For example, if it has been some time since I completed the "midpoint of a segment" activity I will be asked a single question. If I answer it correctly the activity goes back in the pile of completed activities to be reviewed again in future. An incorrect answer will lead to follow up questions. I typically spend five minutes each day answering review questions before moving on to new material. This pattern of continuous light weight revision seems to have been extremely effective in promoting retention.

My experience with Khan Academy has been extremely positive. It's not perfect. It's not a silver bullet. But for self paced learners and for a lot K-12 students it's an incredible tool. It's also a continuously evolving system. It's unrecognisable from when I first signed up a mere eight months ago and it seems to be evolving faster and faster with every passing day. Despite its faults Khan Academy seems to have a very bright future.

5 comments

    • Andrew 12 October, 2012 at 08:48 Reply

      Patrick is definitely a great resource. I’ve gone there a few times when I needed clarification on something. The ability to access a second perspective on a topic, especially when that second perspective is as clearly explained as Patrick’s, is one of the great things about the current boom in free online resources.

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