This Simple Khan Academy Interface Hack Improved Learning By 5%

In a recent demo, Khan Academy showed how analytics are being used to reinvent learning–massively and online.

Sal Khan‘s website Khan Academy applies everything from graphical modeling to “brute force empirics” and a/b testing to test tweaks that can make all the difference in students’ learning. The ultimate hope is to providing a free, accessible education to 140 million children around the world who are not in school, not to mention one in four American kids who drop out of high school.


In the video above, one of Khan’s quants, Jace Kohlmeier, explains a test in which a seemingly innocuous slogan was added to the page next to, say, a math problem: “The more you learn today, the smarter you’ll be tomorrow.” That simple line of text, along with a link to further explanation, led to a 5% increase in problems attempted, proficiencies earned, and return visits to the site.

How can this be?

The explanation starts at 11:35 in the video below, which is part of a regular in-house educational series hosted by Mixpanel. Basically, Khan Academy is borrowing from the groundbreaking work of Stanford’s Carol Dweck, who has found in a series of studies that inducing a “growth mindset”–an awareness of the brain’s flexibility and plasticity, based in neuroscience–has a lasting and positive effect on mental performance.

“Measuring learning is a nontrivial task,” Kohlmeier says, as you have to get into trade-offs like breadth vs. depth and speed vs. accuracy. Nevertheless, tracking each problem solved and answer submitted allows Khan Academy to map a literal “learning curve” to model the acquisition of a concept such as fractions. They found that carefully matching the next problem offered to the student’s demonstrated level of skill led to faster acquisition of a concept.

One day, better analytics could even free our school system from the tyranny of high-stakes testing. If students did all their homework within a smart platform like this rather than using pencil and paper, rich, up to the minute feedback to students, teachers, and parents could replace those end-of-year bubble tests.

[Image: Flickr user Abstract Duck]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.