Students Using Khan Academy on iPads

How Khan Academy Saved My Math Class

When I first started teaching math, I had a problem. I gave my 5th graders the pre-assessment from the textbook, and the whole class bombed.  At the time, I’d never considered using Khan Academy as a classroom tool.

Sure, it was great to know that they struggled with place value and whole number operations. But what was I supposed to do with this information? The first chapter of the textbook expected them to do multi-step word problems with decimals. And I didn’t have another resource to teach from.

Khan Academy and the Personalized Learning Classroom

I had long been daydreaming about developing an online math program. It would ask questions to identify what a student could already do. Then, it would assign whatever they needed to work on next.

One day, I was talking with the technology director at my school. I explained the problem with my math class, and told him about my idea. He said he had good news and bad news. The bad news was that my idea was far from original. The good news was that I could start using Khan Academy in my classroom right away, for free.

Soon, Khan Academy became a regular part of our classroom routine. And the results were astounding. I was no longer bound to teach every child the same lesson, at the same time, on the same day.

More importantly, my students felt less pressure to “perform” math and compete with each other. Instead, they started to enjoy math. As each found the level that was right for them, students who had struggled got the support they needed. Students who had been bored were challenged, tackling work from higher grade levels.

Overcoming Objections

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Any major change comes with hidden challenges. Over time, I gradually tweaked how I was using Khan in class. As well as the way I assessed their work on the platform. But there was also some initial resistance to the whole idea of personalized learning.

When the program assigned work that was two or three years “below grade level,” the students didn’t mind. They were grateful to learn material that was accessible to them. The parents, on the other hand, weren’t always so understanding. Some questioned whether it was right for students to work on computers in school. Others challenged the accuracy of the assessment.

But when I invited parents in to see what a Khan Academy classroom looked like, most came around. They saw their children actively engaged and having fun. Students were calling me over to ask questions or having vibrant math conversations with each other.

It was nothing like what the skeptical parents had imagined. (Kids sitting zombified in rows. Me out in the hall drinking coffee and shooting the breeze with other teachers.)

And when our tests scores came back, it was clear that personalized learning was working. Our average score (on the ERB) had jumped from the low 40th percentile to the low 60th. Our top students had gone from the 70th percentile to the 90th. But the most growth came from the struggling students. Many had started the year in single-digit percentiles. In one year, most had moved into the teens. A few were in the 30’s and 40’s.

I’m happy to see similar results in other schools that adopt this approach. The key is setting aside class time every week for Khan Academy missions. Classes that make the commitment, see growth in achievement and engagement.

So What Is Khan Academy?

Khan Academy is an online adaptive math platform. “Adaptive” because it uses an algorithm to adapt to student needs. A teacher doesn’t even need to assign work. The platform figures out the best topic for each student to work on. It gives students a problem set, tells them how they did on it, and passes the data on to the teacher.

There are many online math platforms now available to schools – some adaptive, some not. But I think Khan Academy is the best, not least because it’s free.

I’ve written previously about what to consider when choosing an online math platform. While Khan Academy meets all the basic criteria, it goes well beyond the basics.

Khan Academy’s key features are its mission: to bring a world-class education to anyone, anywhere. And its Missions: the “product” (part of their site) that generates personalized recommendations and data.

Khan Academy has also introduced a “product” that aims to mix personalized and teacher-centered learning. Called “Mastery,” it promises to adapt to student need while also keeping students focused on grade-level content. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to square that circle. Fortunately, Missions is still available, but you do have to look for it.


Sal Khan’s Passion for Personalized Learning

Khan Academy began as a labor of love from Salman Khan to help his niece. It has grown to become a world-wide phenomenon. Rather than spending time and money on marketing, Khan Academy is a non-profit. It focuses only on providing a high-quality free product.

In his TED talk, Salman Khan describes the central problem facing today’s schools: scale. To educate many students at once, teachers march through content at a uniform pace. Rather than teaching for mastery, we measure understanding in percentages. Once the teacher “covers” a topic, the class moves on to the next.

This model is centered around curriculum and standards, not on student needs. It eventually creates gaps for some students that prevent future learning. Other students learn new content quickly and become bored or disengaged. In either case, by middle or high school, many students feel frustrated by their schools’ inability to meet their individual needs.

This was the exact issue I was facing with my math students. And the more I talked with other educators, the more I realized we are all experiencing the same struggle. The problem wasn’t teachers not caring enough, or even not differentiating enough. It’s a systemic issue, built right into the way that schools are designed.

The Benefits of Khan Academy in the Classroom

Using Khan Academy isn’t about replacing teachers. And it’s not about having students spend every day on computers.  It’s about providing teachers with options.

Teachers who use Khan Academy in their classrooms can allow each student to progress at a comfortable pace. They can address gaps from prior grade levels and accelerate ambitious high achievers.

Here are some of the most compelling benefits of personalized learning.

Increased Student Ownership

When students work at their own levels, they develop a healthier relationship with math.

One reason why Khan Academy missions are so effective is that they give students control over their learning. Teachers can notify students to start a “mission” (grade level). But students can still choose to explore different levels or topics.

Some see this as a bug, but I see it as a feature. Students lose motivation when they are don’t have any choice in their learning. When we give students ownership, some will make poor choices. But these twists and turns become crucial life lessons.

Helping students set goals and manage difficulties is what personalized learning is all about. And in the long run, this approach supports both academic and social-emotional learning.

Reduced Teacher Workload

Using an adaptive platform like Khan Academy saves teachers prep time in two ways.

First, when students spend one to two classes per week on Khan Academy, that’s two less lessons to plan. And these lessons aren’t just filler. They’re highly engaging and completely differentiated.

I have students take an inquiry-based approach to using Khan Academy. Rather than watching videos, I encourage them to focus on problem sets. Students use reasoning or trial-and-error to learn new skills. Only when they want help, do I encourage them to use the built-in ‘hints’ and ‘videos’ as a resource.

Khan Academy Classroom Problem Set with Hints and Videos
Problem Sets Allow Students to Use ‘Hints’ or Videos as Needed

Inquiry-based learning has been scientifically proven to support improved student outcomes in several areas. The results are clear: deeper understanding, better retention, and increased engagement.

Khan Academy also saves teachers time on grading. Students receive instant feedback, which has a number of benefits. The research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown that instant feedback is central to creating “flow states.” Flow states are defined by extreme happiness and intense learning curves.

Khan also records data on student performance in a way that’s easy for teachers to interpret. (And to copy into their grade books). This further reduces the time teachers spend on paperwork each week.

Increased Student Performance

Perhaps the greatest benefit is Khan Academy’s impact on student achievement.

Part of the reason personalized learning is so effective is that it addresses “the iceberg problem.”  Typical assessments measure students against a uniform standard. For example, ‘Harold has mastered 60% of the unit on fractions.’

But this type of data is just the tip of the iceberg. Such assessments may be useful for evaluating teachers and schools. But it does little to help teachers help struggling students. To use assessment to inform instruction, we need to know why a student is struggling. The answer usually lies in foundations from prior grade levels.

Khan Academy’s ability to see beneath the surface is a big piece of how it supports achievement. The program also allows students to move at their own pace. Combined, these two innovations are central to the platform’s impact.

Personalized Learning, Traditional Schools

While its designers originally made Khan Academy for independent home use, it is fast becoming a popular classroom tool. Teachers can use Khan Academy as a standalone tool. Or they can use it to inform planning of whole group and small group lessons.

Khan Academy Classroom Data Sorted by Skill
Khan Academy Data ‘Skill View’

The student-centered philosophy is still reflected in the design of the platform. But it can be challenging to make personalized learning work in traditional schools. Almost all schools are built on a curriculum-coverage model. We expect teachers to “cover content.” We expect students to “keep up.”

As I’ve introduced Khan Academy to more classrooms, I’ve seen the  challenges first-hand. Some teachers feel that personalized learning takes away class time needed for grade level work. Others simply override the algorithm and assign every student the same activity. While this approach is marginally better than a worksheet, it’s certainly not personalized.

Others use Khan Academy just for homework. Again, better than worksheets. But it still sends the message that what matters is grade level work. Unit tests and standardized tests count. Individual needs remain the student’s responsibility. Something done outside the classroom.

For students to get the full benefits, personalized learning should be a part of the weekly routine. Even one period a week can do wonders for students’ confidence and competence in math.

The Three-Bridges Design for Learning.

These challenges inspired me to create the Three-Bridges Design for Learning. The idea is that different teaching strategies promote different outcomes.

Three Bridges Design for Learning Balances Differentiation and Content Coverage

It’s quite simple, really. If we want to meet individual student needs, we need to measure (and value) individual growth. A student who gains two grade levels in one year is an enormous success — even if she ends the year below grade level. A student who starts out one year above grade level and learns nothing shouldn’t be considered a success — even if he passes the test.

Schools also need curriculum plans that build-in time for personalized learning. Many schools are amazed at how efficiently they can cover content…when they have a customized curriculum map.

Creativity, Collaboration, and Conceptual Learning

Schools that implement Three-Bridges Design increase student engagement and achievement. For more stories about innovative education strategies, subscribe to our Educator’s Newsletter

You can also join educators from around the world in our Facebook community. We’re dedicated to bringing creativity, collaboration, and conceptual learning to every student, in every classroom.

Subscribe to our newsletter today, and you’ll receive a free copy of our Personalized Learning Quick-Start Guide.