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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Comments (9)
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  • Sino says:

    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!).

  • David Wees says:

    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.

  • Keith Peters says:

    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.

  • Joe Wagner says:

    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.

  • Joseph says:

    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.

  • Sino says:

    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.

  • Siouxgeonz says:

    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.

  • Terrence says:

    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.

  • David says:

    This guy is a prick! If I ever see him, I will kick his head in.

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