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Vacation Skills Practice: Khan Academy

Math skills are often top of parents’ lists of things they wish their children would work on over school vacations. Whether you would like for your child to catch up, avoid the summer slide, or get ahead, it can be hard to find an appropriately challenging way to practice. One tool that addresses these challenges is Khan Academy.

Khan Academy is a free website with practice problems and instruction. Most of the site’s material covers math and science topics. The site is, however, expanding to address an increasing number of topics, such as history, economics, and computer programming. Khan Academy also offers instructional videos. Users can access these videos during activities on the website or directly through the Khan Academy YouTube channel.

Using Khan Academy is fairly easy – for children and adults alike. One can create a Khan Academy username and password or use an existing Google or Facebook account to log in. Once an account is established, users can add a coach, such as a teacher or tutor, as well as a parent to their account. This step allows authorized adults to monitor a child’s progress – everything from the number of minutes spent on the site during a time period to which skills have been practiced or mastered. Equally impressive are Khan Academy’s Privacy Principles. You will not see advertising on this site, nor will personal information be collected and sold to third parties.

The strength of Khan Academy is that children can work on it independently – most of the time. After a little adult guidance to find the appropriate starting place, students get to work solving problems.

A sample problem with the "scratchpad" option in use

If a child knows how to find a solution, he types it into the answer box and waits for it to be checked before moving on. Students who are uncertain about how to solve a problem can click on a button for a hint, while students who need more help can watch brief instructional videos.

View of the hint screen

Still from a video explaining the same problem as the hint shown above

It is a great way to move fairly quickly through learning or reviewing math skills.

The reason I write that children can work independently most of the time is because monitoring one’s own learning is challenging, particularly for younger folks. It is a good idea to have an adult nearby when a child is logged on to Khan Academy; some supervision helps avoid excessive frustration with challenging problems, distraction from other apps and websites, and over-focus on already mastered skills – all difficulties I have experienced when my students have been using the site.

There are a few drawbacks to Khan Academy. (I should add the caveat that no educational website or curriculum is without its flaws.) By design, Khan Academy teaches skills, so it is not a good site to help with memorization of math facts or formulae. Nor is Khan Academy ideal for developing problem-solving skills. The biggest problem I run into when using Khan Academy, though, is that a lot of children find it dull. The customizable avatar, points, and badges cannot overcome the simple lecture-style math videos and the straightforward presentation of problems. I think that families and educators both will be most successful with Khan Academy if they use it just a few times a week for 10 to 30 minutes at a time . My other quibbles with Khan Academy have to do with the instructional technique. The videos do not employ teaching strategies that help students to remember material. Nor is there much about the way the material is presented that forges connections to the real-world applications of the mathematics. I do not think that any of these minor flaws should stop families from using Khan Academy, however. I simply recommend being mindful of the website’s limitations so as to adjust one’s expectations or home instruction plan accordingly.

If math or science is a priority for your family this summer, give Khan Academy a try. Once you have established a log-in for your child, it will be there when you need it, whether that is for a little summer skills review or to get some extra help with homework or studying during the school year.


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