I want to share 2 tricks I have come up with for making Khan Academy a really great homework system. The first trick is very simple, and I’ll describe it here. The second involves a really complicated spreadsheet, but now that I’ve made it I think you should be able to start using it almost immediately.
The adaptive aspect of Khan Academy makes it almost unusable for me in the classroom. Because the adaptive software picks students’ next exercise, what the system picks may have nothing to do with what I’m teaching this week in class. Now, KA does have a way for teachers to add an exercise to students’ dashboards: you “recommend” an exercise to a student, and it shows up on top of their agenda like this:
But here’s the thing: the way this feature is implemented actually defeats the main advantage KA offers over traditional pencil-and-papeer homework. What is that advantage? While it’s terrible for teaching new concepts to students, Khan Academy is pretty great at detecting when they’ve forgotten something. The system includes a built-in generator of adaptive quizzes (called “mastery challenges” in Khan parlance) that check whether a student still remembers something she may have learned a few months ago.
So here’s the problem with the teacher recommendation feature of Khan Academy: yes, it lets you add an exercise to the top of a student’s agenda — but once the student achieves that initial success, she no longer sees that exercise on her dashboard, even if she later shows that she has forgotten the skill and needs to re-do it.
Here’s a really simple trick for getting around this: first, have your students add their own usernames in their list of “coaches”. Once they do this, you can post a link to a coach report that is filtered for just the exercises you want them to do. For example, here is a link: http://bit.ly/1SzQw8F. You will not be able to access the link unless you have a Khan Academy account and have at least 1 “student”; if you don’t have any students on KA, just add your own username as your coach, and you’ll be able to view the link. I’ve found that Bitly is a good way to post the link because the length of the links overwhelms my school’s website hosting platform. Students will click on that link and pull up a report that shows their progress on only those exercises.
All non-assigned exercises are filtered out, and the report updates (with a browser refresh) as soon as a Mastery Challenge changes the skill level in any exercise.
In my class, I post 3 links per week: 20-point exercises, 4-point ones, and 2-point ones. There are usually about 4 exercises in the 20-point category per week. These are new exercises, and they are the core that I need everyone to learn for the week. The 4-point exercise link is cooler, from a teacher perspective, because it contains every 20-point exercise I’ve ever assigned the class. If a Mastery Challenge shows that you have forgotten a skill, then that skill’s bar may turn gray on the coach report for 4-point exercises. In that case, you’d need to go back and re-do the skill from scratch before trying to level up on it again. That’s really where Khan Academy pays off: it has this great built-in detector of student retention and forgetting. And, increasingly, it has high-quality practice on skills your students should already have learned through your lessons.
The 2-point exercises are challenging ones I’ve selected for ambitious students to try if they’re done with everything. They’re related to what we’re learning in class but go beyond our expectations. Students who complete the 2-point exercises can earn extra credit by working on exercises automatically recommended by Khan Academy on the student dashboard.
So that’s the simple trick. In a later post, I’ll describe how to use the spreadsheet I’ve designed to assign points for different exercises based on the downloadable report in the top right corner of the “Student Progress” report on Khan Academy. [That post is here.] Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I do hope at some point some KA people actually read these ideas. There’s no reason why it should take so much hacking to expose (what I think is) their site’s main benefit to students.
11/9/15 Update: For those interested, one of the KA employees in charge of the Mastery Challenges system describes the way they work here.
10/25/16 Update: i significantly changed description of the point allocations (20 points, 4 points, 2 points) to match what I now do. It’s been an improvement. I also deleted the description of the 2-week cycle (Week A and Week B) of each assignment, because I now require students to go from grey to dark blue in a single week.