Khan Academy and those free online tutoring platforms are going to show you how to do a math problem. But is that really enough?
Because you know the deal: Your child and you (by default) are sitting at the kitchen table.
You are frustrated. You are confused.
And you’re tired because it’s late into the night and you two still haven’t figured out this one math problem on your child’s math homework.
Can an online program really help? Don’t you need a live person to help understand math?
Don’t get me wrong: Khan Academy is great. As a high school teacher, I suggest it for my own students. But Khan Academy is a tool.
The platform’s functions are simply a part of what it takes to achieve true proficiency in math.
This article isn’t a Khan Academy review. It’s to help you decide Khan Academy is good enough over getting a math tutor. I’d be happy to help if you decide to go the tutor route.
First, let’s better understand Khan Academy, its intended uses, its limitations, and how it differs from a tutor.
What is Khan Academy?
Most students and parents have already heard of this online educational platform.
Khan Academy is a multi-dimensional website with tons of video lessons, articles, and practice work that’s free and accessible to anyone. So while a lot of public school teachers assign Khan Academy for their classes, students can also create their own account.
The lessons explain common math concepts from Algebra to Calculus, everything in between, and then some.
Students have the choice of only going through the questions in the practice work — a helpful option if the student is already familiar with the material and just wants the practice. This is called fluency among education professionals.
Khan Academy’s been on the scene since 2008, but I first heard about it in 2015, the first year of my teaching certification program. My professor described it as an educational resource with videos. Then during my student teaching internship, I saw my mentor teachers assign Khan Academy to their students as additional homework to be completed outside of class.
So Khan Academy is a trusted resource among educators.
If you’ve never used it before, here’s what to expect:
Khan Academy’s format includes about four to seven questions on a math topic. Students answer the questions as best as possible.
For any incorrect responses, students can redo until they get it correct if they want a higher score. But redo-ing the work is not required. The system still keeps it marked as incorrect for data purposes.
Khan Academy offers the student an instructional video related to the incorrect response.
Khan Academy says their material is aligned with Common Core Standards and actual math teachers review the problems.
Khan Academy can work well for practice and it can work for students just starting out learning a topic.
Where Does Khan Academy Fall Short?
I think Khan Academy is a good thing, but it should be used in moderation.
The limits to Khan Academy and other similar platforms are:
- Lack of customization
- Lack of initial individualized analysis (diagnostic test)
- No study skills development
- Depth of knowledge
Students can’t track their progress on Khan Academy in the same way and to the same depth as the Progress Monitoring that teachers do in the classroom. Progress Monitoring is valuable to see if a student is growing and determine if adjustments are needed.
And the platform doesn’t differentiate well for exceptional learners. It also doesn’t keep up with students’ individual needs by adjusting difficulty based on the student’s ability to answer the problems.
Incorrect practice problems on Khan Academy don’t indicate where the student went wrong. It just gives the student the option to try again and an option for a hint. Students are only inputting the answer and doing their work on their paper, so the platform doesn’t even see the steps the student took to get their answer.
But that’s not just a Khan Academy shortfall. Most virtual learning platforms don’t pinpoint the student’s error.
And that’s where technology has its limits. Only a human can rise to that level of deduction and teaching.
The Khan Academy instructional videos are step-by-step, so the student can rewatch to try to figure it out. However, the videos are not always aligned with the provided practice questions. The videos go over a variation of the problem, but not the exact same question.
Some students may be able to figure out where they went wrong. Most students won’t and need real-live help from the teacher or a tutor.
Khan Academy creator Sal Khan has said his goal for creating the non-profit platform was for accessibility, a place where any student can get math help. No one is left out because of cost or distance.
That’s a huge plus for public school teachers, who are always looking for different ways to have students practice problems. Khan Academy offers that, at a minimum. And that’s helpful for students and teachers alike.
In my opinion, the videos are very close or on-level with the quality of a teacher. But there have been complaints about lessons in the higher level maths, like Calculus.
Khan Academy has mastery badges, a type of point system incentive for completing the work, and moving on to higher-level lessons.
Is Khan Academy Good for Learning Math?
Yes, Khan Academy is good for learning math. But a student shouldn’t just use Khan Academy on its own. There’s more to learning math that a student won’t find on Khan Academy.
Learning math, being truly proficient in it, takes five major components, according to the Adding it up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics.
I condense it down to three:
- Conceptual Understanding
- Procedural Fluency
- Critical Thinking
Khan Academy offers the first two, but the lack of critical thinking development makes me nervous about suggesting only Khan Academy to learning math.
Math students can’t be robots, just spitting out what was put in.
Khan Academy also takes a kind of discipline, initiative, and maturity.
For example, I find that many of my students usually don’t watch the videos or read the articles on Khan Academy.
These students are doing the problems because they are assigned. That’s it, just because a teacher is making them do it for some sort of grade.
In addition, Khan Academy covers a lot, but it doesn’t cover everything on everything.
A few days ago, I was looking to help a student with converting a linear equation to a different form. But I couldn’t find it exactly on Khan Academy.
The platform has material related to that, but it was only changing from standard form to slope-intercept form. Not what I needed at the time.
I’m sure those situations are few and far between, but it’s worth noting. In those situations, students can always try to do a search for material that will match their needs.
To get better at math, students also need a starting point, some sort of analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. And Khan Academy doesn’t offer an initial assessment. It doesn’t tell the student where the student needs help.
Khan Academy or Get a Tutor?
Let’s put it this way: Khan Academy is good medicine, but you still need someone to diagnose and oversee that the medicine is properly administered.
People typically can not diagnose themselves (and probably should not). Most doctors don’t self-diagnose. Doctors still get checked out by another doctor.
A tutor is like a doctor, in terms of oversight, assessment, and prescription.
A tutor can actually monitor a student’s growth. The tutor analyzes the student and determines what can help them grow to become better.
Most students are not mature enough or have the know-how to do a self-assessment, especially when it comes to math. They need someone to help.
So, Khan Academy is a great tool, but it’s not going to tell a student what they really need.
How is Khan Academy Used in the Classroom?
Khan Academy lessons may not accurately reflect or be completely aligned with the grade level, student ability, and/or what’s taught in the classroom.
That aside, classroom teachers mainly use Khan Academy as practice.
I don’t think Khan Academy should be a quiz grade or anything more than just practice.
That’s because the results may not be an accurate reflection of the students’ needs or ability level. If used correctly, it can.
It takes a really dedicated cheater to be able to misuse Khan Academy. It won’t let you skip or go to the next question without submitting an answer that looks like you put some time into it.
To make sure students are properly using the platform, they need to be closely monitored.
This makes sure that students who are really struggling are making 100s on Khan Academy. To do that, parents and teachers need to consider how many attempts it may have taken for the student to get a 100.
Khan Academy is so user-friendly that it’s easy for teachers to just throw Khan Academy at the students without trying out the problem, for example. Plus, the assignments are already graded, another big attraction for teachers.
That said, I do assign some work from Khan Academy as a tutor. It does help as a good assessment of what the student knows, BUT that’s only because I’m analyzing the data. Khan Academy itself is not an assessment.
Teachers need to have some knowledge on what Khan Academy is and what it is not. Otherwise, it’s not going to be a good measure of what the student knows. That goes for many of the technology programs out there.
Teachers like that Khan Academy is free, online, and it can be integrated with Google classroom for grading purposes.
My goal for this article wasn’t to bash Khan Academy or keep students from using it. This article is just to explain if Khan Academy good enough on its own.
Mind you: It’s a free service, so you can’t be too picky.
At the same time, you can’t put all your stakes in it, like it’s a magic pill bringing a failing student to a passing, successful student.
Khan Academy can be used to help guide and help teach a student. But it’s not a replacement.