Khan Academy: Students Regain Confidence to Tackle Math Challenges

Learning

Co-written by David Castillo and Peter McIntosh

Poor study habits result in a domino effect of poor confidence

Many of our students at Oakland Unity High School in Oakland, Calif. lack confidence in their ability to solve a simple problem like the one show below. Combined with the poor study habits we discussed in our previous article, “Khan AcademyAcademy: LearningHabits vs. Content Delivery,” students have declined in the habit of mental effort and perseverance. Several seconds of counting out a solution is just too much, and they take no responsibility for resolving this problem. However, their false sense of confidence triggers serious frustration and anger when they make repeated errors. I am frequently called over by a student working on such problems who wants to complain, “The computer is wrong!”

This basic problem is very challenging for many of our students. Why? Could the difficulty be caused by a lack of knowledge? Observing students struggle with these problems suggests a simpler explanation: poor habits fueled by low confidence. Students take a quick glance at this problem and then make a series of careless entries. In the same amount of time, they could have simply done a little counting on the number line and found the correct answer.

A visual demonstration of how one student regained confidence

The graph above records one student’s effort on a series of problems similar to the one above (number line). Each vertical bar represents one problem from this category of exercises. The height of the bar is the length of time spent on each problem. The camera icon on the first bar indicates that this student chose to watch a video related to the concept after starting the first problem. The question marks indicate that the student asked for hints – detailed steps for solving the specific problem.

Looking at this portrait, you can see that the student began to confront his false confidence, recognizing that he does not know how to do the problem. The student must take responsibility for his learning, using the videos and hints on the system or seeking help from a teacher, tutor, or peer. As he begins to put in real effort, the student completes 35 problems, most of which are answered correctly.

This is a clear example of a student repairing the bad habits that were preventing learning. This also is an example of the freedom that opens up with online learning. Students are able to struggle and persevere at their own pace and on their own time.

24/7 access to Khan Academy Academy unleashes significant effort for one student

The chart below relates to one of our high school freshman algebra students who failed every major assessment through Semester 1. This is a graph of the student’s activity in Khan Academy from January 10, 2012 through February 20, 2012:

It shows many days of significant time completing exercises or watching videos, some of that time in class, but much of it at home. A majority of this work and effort was above what was required. There was a dramatic increase in effort compared with his first semester work in Khan Academy. When asked about this, he said that he simply decided to start working harder. The online environment in Khan Academy allowed him the flexibility and freedom to push ahead, outside of school hours.

“What changed is that it helped me to understand algebra a lot better now and it helped me understand systems,” said the student. “[My] favorite thing is how there are so many exercises to do and you earn badges and points and it encourages to do more.”

This new sense of responsibility and the burst of effort resulted in a major breakthrough for this student on a February assessment covering systems of equations. This was a very difficult test. As discussed in our prior article, last year’s class average was 37 percent and this year’s class average was 74 percent. This student’s score was 92 percent. A week later he earned an 87 percent on an assessment covering exponents. This was one of the highest scores in the class.

“Now, I understand better than last year because I understood like 40 percent and now I understand 75 percent,” he added. “Khan has helped me raise my confidence because I can solve the problems a lot faster now.”

We believe that our use of Khan Academy is resulting in a fundamental change in student character – with responsibility replacing apathy and effort replacing laziness. We believe that this character change is the primary reason behind the stunning results we are beginning to experience – at both the class level and in individual students.


David Castillo is the Principal at Oakland Unity High School where he researches, promotes and leads the implementation of technological tools that provide real-time data and individualized learning programs. 

Peter McIntosh, a math teacher at Oakland Unity High School, has worked at the Oakland pubic schools for four years. Prior to teaching, he was a consulting partner for PriceWaterhous and later an Executive Vice-President of Operations and Call Centers for Charles Schwab.

Follow David and Peter on Twitter at @OaklandUnityHS.

3 Comments

Dallas Bluth /

Great job of walking through the details of how the technology helped changed the entire outlook for the student. The connections between individual confidence, personal accountability and the level of student performance really are fundamentally linked.

heidi /

my couthch rocks

Leo A. Duran, Sr. /

How old does the student have to be for these program?
Thank you