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The Value of Self-Paced Learning

Why do we expect a C student to have a shot of understanding the next concept when they have gaps on a more basic one? 

The Value of Self-Paced Learning


There are two layers to self-paced learning, from a Khan Academy point of view. One is the videos that students can watch at their own pace, and there’s also the exercise portion which the students get to complete at their own pace.  

I have learned that there is an academic term for this, which is mastery-based learning.  In a traditional model, what happens is we’re all sitting in a class together. There’s a lecture, we do some homework, some practice, and at the end of a week or at the end of a semester we get an exam.  And on that exam, maybe I get a 95, maybe you get an 80, and maybe you get a ‘C’ put on your forehead or your permanent transcript. I get an ‘A’.  I feel good about myself; you don’t feel so good about yourself.  And then we move on to the next concept, the concept that is going to build on what the assessment just recognized as both of us being deficient in.  You didn’t know 20 percent of it, and I didn’t know five percent.  And most of those assessments, frankly, don’t even measure everything you need to know.  

So there’s probably even a bigger gap than that 20 percent or my five percent.  But no one even questions this.  Why do we expect that C student to have a shot of understanding the next concept when they have gaps on a more basic one?  

So, our thought process is it's a waste of time for someone to move on to calculus if they don’t get algebra yet.  I’ve seen people who can’t recognize an algebra problem who have been through calculus and physics and all the rest and that’s because they didn’t master anything.

So what we’re saying on some level is radical but on another level it’s common sense. Before you learn a more advanced topic, master the more basic one.  Before you ride the unicycle, master the bicycle.  Before you juggle knives, juggle oranges.  It’s something that won’t cut you.

In this paradigm, students can watch the videos, and pause and repeat as much as they want. Now that we have the software and the exercises, we start the students at the most basic concepts and we give them as may as they need.  They’re computer generated problems and so they have do a million questions if they have to have a million questions. But they keep doing them until they get 10 in a row.  Until they show that they’ve mastered that little nugget, that little concept, then they move to the next concept.  

Our whole goal is so that students don’t end up in Calculus with gaps in Trigonometry and Algebra.  And what you see over and over again is students flunking out of math and algebra and calculus.  And they have good algebra teachers, they have good calculus teachers and these kids are hard working. They want to learn.  And no one can figure out what the problem is.  And the problem almost always is a gap that that student had in fourth grade or seventh grade math. It’s almost impossible to diagnose in an algebra or calculus classroom.

Sal Khan, Founder & Executive Director, Khan Academy, will be appearing at Techweek Chicago, on June 27, 2013.

Now is your chance to submit questions for Sal Khan to be asked at the event!

Please submit your questions in the comment section below. 

Click here for more information

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