Do Khan Academy Videos Promote “Meaningful Learning”?

If you ever wondered whether professional scientists are skeptical about some of the incredibly fun, attractive and brief online videos that purport to explain scientific principles in a few minutes, you’d be right.

Derek Muller completed his doctoral dissertation by researching the question of what makes for effective multimedia to teach physics. Muller curates the science blog Veritasium and received his Ph.D. from the University of Sydney in 2008.

It’s no small irony that Muller’s argument, that online instructional videos don’t work, has reached its biggest audience in the form of an online video. He launches right in, lecture style, with a gentle attack on the Khan Academy, which has famously flooded the Internet with free instructional videos on every subject from arithmetic to finance.

While praising the academy’s founder, Salman Khan, for his teaching and speaking talent, Muller contends that students actually don’t learn anything from science videos in general.

In experiments, he asked subjects to describe the force acting upon a ball when a juggler tosses it into the air. Then he showed them a short video that explained gravitational force.

In tests taken after watching the video, subjects provided essentially the same description as before. Subjects said they didn’t pay attention to the video because they thought they already knew the answer. If anything, the video only made them more confident about their own ideas.

Science instructional videos, Muller argues, shouldn’t just explain correct information, but should tackle misconceptions as well. He practices this approach in his own work, like this film about weightlessness in the space station. Having to work harder to think through why an idea is wrong, he says, is just as important as being told what’s right.

Kate Rix is an Oakland-based freelance writer. See more of her work at

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  1. Sino says . . . | June 18, 2012 / 3:05 pm

    Interesting, though Khan academy learning is *not* just based around science videos. There is a whole testing system based on attaining mastery in any given subject (and a system for teachers to use to follow and help their students where khan academy is used as the primary teaching tool).

    Speaking personally, if they introduced common misconceptions within the video itself, it would likely stick with me in the short term, but then become fuzzy in the longer term, as I would forget which thing had been correct/incorrect (that may just be a personal learning preference though!).

  2. David Wees says . . . | June 18, 2012 / 4:34 pm

    Sino, I recommend reading Derek Muller’s research. We have to be careful not to rely too heavily on anecdotal evidence when making claims about learning, which is why Derek used an experiment to test his hypothesis.

  3. Keith Peters says . . . | June 18, 2012 / 6:46 pm

    Admittedly knowing nothing about the study other than what I just read here, it sounds flawed. Taking an uninterested subject and having him or her watch a video and then take a test is one thing. I wouldn’t be surprised by the results found. But I think Khan’s material is great for those who WANT to learn about a specific subject and are looking for easy to understand material about it.

  4. Joe Wagner says . . . | June 18, 2012 / 7:52 pm

    Khan Academy videos are excellent for introducing topics to students, but the real learning takes place with the practice exercises through which students are able to fully grasp the concepts. Whether academics, athletics or just about any other endeavor, practice is the key to mastery. There is no substitute.

  5. Joseph says . . . | June 18, 2012 / 8:33 pm

    I do think that kids need to want to learn the material in order for websites like Khan Academy and to fully benefit the child. However I do wish these websites were around when I was in grade school.

  6. Sino says . . . | June 18, 2012 / 9:46 pm

    David, I’m well aware that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’, which is why I was clear to say that I was speaking of personal learning preference in the second part of my comment.

    As I haven’t had a chance to go over the thesis myself yet, I can only go on what he presented in the video. Naturally, anything that works towards making online educational videos more instructive and efficient is laudable. I’m simply a little concerned at the targeting of Khan Academy in this case, for a couple of reasons:

    1) As stated, Khan academy incorporates a testing system as an integral part of the learning experience.

    2) The study mentioned relies on the fact that the students have misconceptions which they believe to be true. This may well not be the case in students voluntarily coming to Khan Academy (or other!) videos on the internet – many people go looking for these videos as an alternate learning tool alongside study they are already doing because they were confused on the topic. It gives me a small niggling concern that this study has internal, but not external, validity.

    Having said all that, if introducing common misconceptions at the start of a video works for most people, it would probably be sensible of all video providers to try it. Since Khan Academy has that integrated testing system, I imagine it would be fairly easy for them to see if it affected how quickly the students picked up the material.

  7. Siouxgeonz says . . . | June 22, 2012 / 2:47 pm

    How good are the tests?
    Having a sequence of tests based on little skill subsets encourages memorizing those little procedures, as opposed to seeing connections and, yes, undoing misconceptions.
    THere’s a gathering clot of research indicating that, as a speaker at a conference said, “misconceptions trump good teaching every time.” I think this is an old link — has a set of good videos about it.
    What *really* galls me about the Khan Academy, though, is that not only is it procedure, procedure, procedure (an average “sort of represents” a group of numbers…) but in my sample size of half a dozen of the videos, I got to hear him call a multiplication problem a sum (and teach an “intro” to averages lesson using fractions and algebra wiht variables on both sides of an equation), and then tell me that “two plus itself times one” is what that 2 x 1 times table that I should really memorize means. Even *if* they were pedagogically sound, and they’re not, they’re also fundamentally r.o.n.g.

  8. Terrence says . . . | November 27, 2012 / 3:21 pm

    I’m currently studying Psychology and part of our mark is research participation. This is a way to get “volunteers” and it is common practice in academic research. It does make me wonder how many people he tested actually wanted to participate and how many were just there for the marks thus leading to distracted and somewhat unwilling participation.

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