Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

This must-watch video is from our friend Derek Muller, physics educator and science video blogger.


Derek writes:

It is a common view that “if only someone could break this down and explain it clearly enough, more students would understand.” Khan Academy is a great example of this approach with its clear, concise videos on science. However it is debatable whether they really work. Research has shown that these types of videos may be positively received by students. They feel like they are learning and become more confident in their answers, but tests reveal they haven’t learned anything. [ed. note: textbook definition of pseudoteaching]

The apparent reason for the discrepancy is misconceptions. Students have existing ideas about scientific phenomena before viewing a video. If the video presents scientific concepts in a clear, well illustrated way, students believe they are learning but they do not engage with the media on a deep enough level to realize that what was is presented differs from their prior knowledge.

There is hope, however. Presenting students’ common misconceptions in a video alongside the scientific concepts has been shown to increase learning by increasing the amount of mental effort students expend while watching it.


My Ph.D. thesis, which includes the content from the publications below, can be downloaded here: Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education

2008 Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D. and Reimann, P.,
Raising cognitive load with linear multimedia to promote conceptual changeScience Education92(2), 278-296

2008 Muller, D. A., Bewes, J., Sharma, M. D. and Reimann, P.
Saying the wrong thing: Improving learning with multimedia by including misconceptionsJournal of Computer Assisted Learning,24(2), 144-155

2008 Muller, D. A., Lee, K. J. and Sharma, M. D.
Coherence or interest: Which is most important in online multimedia learning?Australasian Journal of Educational Technology,24(2), 211-221

 2007 Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D., Eklund, J. and Reimann, P.
Conceptual change through vicarious learning in an authentic physics settingInstructional Science35(6), 519-533

The implication of Derek’s research, both for online science videos and for in-the-classroom science lessons, are obvious. Derek discussed his PhD research in more detail in his previous post “What Puts the Pseudo in Pseudoteaching?” You can find more of Derek’s videos at or on the Veritasium YouTube Channel. Follow him at @veritasium on Twitter.


67 responses to “Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

  1. This is powerful stuff Frank. I’m sure that this happens in other subject areas as well. I wonder if you watched the “best” math instructors, for example, if you could observe how much time they spend challenging misconceptions and going through common mistakes students make.

    I’ve got some ideas on how to implement this kind of thinking into my own pedagogy, so thanks for sharing.

  2. This is a great post as it clearly explains the problem with lectures.
    Deep understanding does not stem from watching a lecturer but from direct experience. Teachers must address misconceptions in their instruction. That’s why I like modeling so much.
    BTW, the videos he shows are not from Khan Academy though…

  3. A couple of thoughts about this:
    1) There was an article in a somewhat recent Journal of College Science Teaching (from NSTA) where a chemistry professor talked about his flipped classroom. After the first test he took some time to ask students how they used his online materials (voice over power point is what he called them). When students said they “just watched them” others, who, it turns out, did better on the exam, said “what?! I take notes while I watch and pause when I don’t understand something.” The professor went on to say how the class performance on the next exam was much better.
    2) I feel I’ve had more success teaching with a flipped classroom in upper division courses than lower division ones. I’m not sure the reason but there are two possibilities I’ve been thinking about: a) the students care more about the material and hence pay more attention, or b) (and here Frank’s post and Derek’s video seems to support this) in an advanced course there’s less misconceptions because there’s less conceptions. What I mean is, I’ve never taught a student the Lagrangian formalism who has already (mis)used it or frankly even heard of it.

  4. Rick Fletcher @TRFletcher

    The ideas explained in this video match my experiences teaching thousands of first year university students in large chemistry classes. We discuss it a little differently but it’s common, universal even, that the student leaves a lecture confident that they understand a specific concept. Those who immediately engage in practice problems score significantly better than those who wait 2 days to do the same problems. Also, those who immediately do practice problems score significantly on the midterm exams given three times per semester. These are students who are mixed between those who took HS chem and those who did not.
    My understanding at this time of this data are a bit different than the video presents. I would say that all of the students “remember” the lesson that was given in lecture. The lesson material usually conflicts the misconceptions almost all students have. My model says that the students store the new information just like they store their misconceptions and immediately following lecture, can access the new information as readily as they can access the misconceptions. But with time, the ability to access the new information degrades until they fall back on their ability to access the misconceptions. However, if they immediately practice problems over the new material, they strengthen their ability to access the new material until it becomes competitive with the misconception. This is what we define to be learning. If I present a very challenging problem that confuses the student, their is a good chance that the student regresses back to the more easily accessed misconception. In that case, instant feedback that the answer is wrong (or the logic flawed or whatever is appropriate) quickly forces them to locate the competing new information, and after a few cycles repeat, the new information takes over from the misconception.
    Of course, if the student waits to practice the new information, chances are low they will ever create whatever memory pathways are needed to change misconceptions.
    I don’t believe this interpretation is much different than Derek Muller’s way of discussing learning science. Of course, what is most important are results. But in each case, it seems a key to learning is thinking about problems, i.e. doing the work. The conclusion is more problem solving.

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  6. I think the point about videos being more effective in upper-level classrooms is an interesting one, particularly in terms of the preconceptions that students bring into the classroom, and I totally agree with the idea that students need more time and space to actively process (not just absorb) the information.

    Are y’all familiar with MOSART? I love the collection of video misconceptions and the idea that there are assessments designed to elicit students’ preconceptions, but would love to hear a science teacher’s opinion.

  7. Has Sal been contacted?

    • Another reason the upper level classes fair better is that those kids have learned how to learn. More over, a lot of them can learn just from hearing and watching. They have risen to the upper level in a system to rewards students who can learn from lecture, so it would make sense that they can learn in most any way, even if it is not instructionally sound. I accepted long ago that at least 30% of my upper level physics would learn whether I was there or not, it is the other ones that need the additional help.

  8. I’ve posted this link on the this site: which is a ning for people who have the flipped class. I’m really interested to see what practitioners have to say about using screencasting specifically for material with prominent misconceptions.

  9. I have a few thoughts about the recent postings criticizing flipping the class and the flipped class videos I’d like to mention. First, one of the key components about flipping the classroom is that students still attend a “brick and mortar” school where they meet one-on-one with their teacher. It is in spending this time with the teacher that true assessment takes place. In the mastery aspect of the flipped classroom model, students must demonstrate to me that they understand what they are doing. I don’t let them get by with just filling out worksheets. I sit with one student (or sometimes a small group of 3 or 4) and ask a lot of “show me how”, “explain this to me”, and “why?” type questions. They must show me they understand the material. This is also a great time to help identify and clear up any misconceptions the student may have.
    I would agree that in giving lectures and in teaching subject material, there is the real chance that misconceptions can be fostered. That is not a sole product of creating the videos. That is a product of how the lecture is presented and can also occur during “stand and deliver” classroom lectures. I think the criticism that needs to be addressed is in the presentation of the material, not in the method of presenting it. I would totally agree that really good, experienced teachers learn (and are taught) about the common misconceptions pertaining to a particular topic and address those in their lectures or present the lecture in a way to totally avoid them. That is a goal that each teacher should strive for…to become a better teacher.
    As I see it, creating lecture videos is a great tool in dealing with this aspect of teaching. One can plan, edit, re-edit, and continue to improve the video until a well done, final product is produced. (just like Hollywood, right?) As a teacher realizes they may have provided a path for a misconception in a lecture video, they can go back and remake the video or edit it to address the misconception. This is hard to do in a stand and deliver live lecture.

    This said, this is why I am somewhat leery of online learning that leaves out the personal contact of a teacher (instructor, professor, etc). I believe the best of both worlds, online lectures supported by face to face meetings and assessments, is the best method of instruction.

  10. Good Video but you forced these students to watch your videos, people watching Kahn’s videos have acknowledged their lack of understanding and our seeking help. Therefore they pay more attention. Also Kahn has examples now. I do think your insight that showing the error in misconceptions is a powerful way to educate. Thanks for the video I make similar videos for my professors intro chem class.

  11. I believe Eruc Mazur visted a similar, certainly not unrelated problem is his own video Confessions of a lecturer’
    Derek ideas are pretty valid in my own experience but not limited to the screen cast media. The same applied to home reading, but since few students read than watch video there was no challenge to their misconceptions at all.

    In the flipped classroom the teacher will embed the multimedia into a whole pedagogy which include addressing misconceptions. In my own experience I have found (like Mazur) the peer teaching is a more effective way to remove the misconceptions. However I think the criticism of the screen cast style videos is largely dependent on the context in which they are deployed.

    • Following up on John’s post (I regard John a mentor in biology teaching), I think this discussion highlights a specific point: The value of a teacher is not principally to explain the content (though hopefully they can do this adequately). The preeminent value of a teacher is that they understand the content and relate the content to their students in a way that appreciates the individual weaknesses, misconceptions, aptitudes of students, and motivations of each student. In exploring photosynthesis I (a) consider one student’s weak grasp of respiration (a related and parallel topic previously taught) and make sure to highlight similarities and differeces between the two processes; (b) with another language-weak student I emphasize vocabulary and listen to their participation and watch their assignment for improved usage – or not; (c) with a third student who grasps instantly everything they are exposed to, I highlight extra-curricular details like structural difference between molecules or subtle issues of energy conversion.

      In other words, teaching is really the nuanced, human interface: a knowledgeable person with skills for promoting learning, using those skills to help students build their understanding. Videos are a great way to extend learning, promote pre-learning, etc. but the teacher’s interaction is where the student’s growth in understanding takes place. We are so fortunate to be in that place!

      Some good teachers (see: and use technology to enrich and create additional opportunities for processing learning, but continuously engage students in a variety of formats (online chat, electronic assignments, Quia assessments, classroom learning, practical work) so that in this enriched context misconceptions come to light and are clarified.

      Effective teachers help students learn!

      Can learning occur elsewhere? Of course!
      Can learning occur other times? yes!
      Can learning occur from other people? Yes.
      Do some teacher’s not help student learn? Sadly yes, sometimes (in my own experience).
      Can learning occur from impersonal electronic media? Yes; BUT like Frank quantified, this should not be regarded as inherently effective.

      Thanks for keeping us on track Frank! Flipping the classroom is great, (see: but it does not follow that “you will learn more and better from a good visual explanation than with a real teacher.” A teacher helps us leave behind our misunderstanding and shape our understanding.

  12. “A teacher helps us leave behind our misunderstanding”

    Something about this feels not quite right to me. I don’t want my students to leave behind their misunderstandings. I want them to know their misunderstandings–to be aware of and to exhibit some control over the ideas that creep into and out of consciousness.

  13. A lot of these comments seem to assume that teachers assign the videos and never go over the material again. If this is case, of course it will not be successful. To me the Khan videos, and others like them, allow the teacher a decent model to help differentiate the class and attend better to those that are struggling. I tell my students they need watch the videos I post or read the corresponding pages in their textbook (or both) and assign along with it a followup assignment they need to complete online that is graded automatically for them. This allows them to see if they are understanding the material in any way.

    I have only done this for introducing the basic mathematical equations after we have gone through some sort of paradigm lab in class. For example we went through several static electricity demos and labs on class and then I assigned them to watch the Coulomb’s Law video and answer three plug and chug math questions on the Moodle page. The questions also respond with guidance if the students are unsuccessful in an attempt to correct simple mistakes.

    Now, in class after the assignment is due, students that were able to master those questions can work on the more difficult problems, while I assist the students who are struggling. I would have had to do this anyone, but now I have eliminated the whole half period to a period I would have had to spend introducing the equation. I have a feeling that the same number of kids would have needed remediation no matter who introduced the topic, me or Mr. Khan.

    So, just throwing a video at a kid and never challenging them on the material is not going to work. (Just like just telling the kid to read pgs. 412-420 isn’t going to work.) The difference, I hope, is that kids will actually watch the video whereas a lot of them don’t read the book.

  14. Have you seen the part of the khan academy that tests students on what they’ve learned?

  15. Apparently presenting false information can be counterproductive in some cases:

    “people show a bias to think that incompletely remembered information is true, turning “myths” into “facts.” Hence public information campaigns should emphasize information that is true. Repeating false information, even as a warning, can create the unintended consequence of belief in the information.”

  16. I have to wonder if wording is a potential confound here. Were alternates explored? There may be a problem with the wording of this question: “Consider a basketball player shooting from the free throw line. After the ball leaves his hand, the force is (a) upwards and constant, (b) upwards and increasing, (c) downwards and constant, (d) downwards and decreasing, (e) tangent to the path of the ball.”

    The problem may be that the crucial bit of information (and I’m not a physicist, so don’t judge; but I would think the key phrase here is “after the ball leaves his hand”) is kind of buried in an introductory subordinate clause.

    What if the question were this:

    “Consider a basketball player shooting from the free throw line. Which choice best describes the force on the ball after it leaves his hand?
    (a) upwards and constant, (b) upwards and increasing, (c) downwards and constant, (d) downwards and decreasing, (e) tangent to the path of the ball.”

    Now the salient part is more up front and center. I dunno. Was it tried?

  17. Thanks for the query Joshua. The question that I put in the video was not actually used on the pre or post tests (but it was similar). The pre and post test questions were drawn from conceptual inventories (used in research with thousands of students) so they are fairly well guarded. Looking at the actual questions, I find the salient bit is up front and center, eg.
    Indicate the force on the ball:
    a. as it moves upwards after it has been released
    b. at its highest point
    c. as it descends

    So I don’t think students misinterpreted the question. That corresponds to what we saw in interviews as well.

  18. I thank you for your reply, Derek.

    I still wonder if putting the criterial information in the stem would make a difference. That is,

    “Indicate the force on the ball after it has been released:

    a. as it moves upwards
    b. at its highest point
    c. as it descends”

    There’s a kind of honesty to this formulation of the problem that one doesn’t find in the original. In other words, there’s a sneakiness about the question which makes one question the question, no?

    Meh. All we can say is that future studies will blah blah blah . . . : )

  19. Matt Greenwolfe

    “A teacher helps us leave behind our misunderstanding [misconceptions]. Something about this feels not quite right to me.”
    I think the real point is more general. A teacher helps the student learn to use their mind well, to learn to think rigorously in the subject. Part of this is teaching students to introspect their pre-conceived notions and root out misconceptions by comparing those pre-conceived notions to evidence and argument. For most people, this is a very difficult skill requiring a great deal of effort to learn. However, getting students to overcome their misconceptions is only part of a larger story of what students get from an interactive, inquiry-based class that most of them don’t get from clear, concise explanations from an authority, be it a live lecture or a video.

    “Apparently presenting false information is counterproductive in some cases.” Agreed. It would be better to set up a situation in class and get the STUDENTS to present and discuss their pre-conceived notions. The PER literature gives us huge inventories of these common misconceptions, and in my experience (and I think there is some solid evidence from PER as well) it doesn’t help much to forewarn the students about the misconceptions. They need to think about the situation and put their own ideas about what they think will happen into words – raise them to consciousness – THEN examine the other evidence and arguments.

    So even the second video falls short of ideal instruction, but it’s interesting to me that in such a controlled study, there was still a measurable effect. Classroom teaching is messy. There’s so much going on that it’s difficult to isolate variables. In this case, students got two similar treatments of the material, with just the one key difference and very limited possibility that spontaneous interactions with the teacher or peers would introduce confounding elements, and it’s surprising to me that there is such a dramatic difference.

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  21. Thanks for this considered response to the effectiveness of learning through the use of a science video. It is great to receive some academic validation to my own thought process.

    I am presently trying to re-develop my own standard level IB Physics course to integrate some of the ideas of reverse learning using the excellent tools such as those produced by the Khan Academy. To me the challenges do include helping the students to self-evaluate their own understanding against what they are being told. I recongnise this will take some time but I hope that they will become more than passive viewers but use the technology to pause, consider, reflect and review what is being explained. I am trying to provide 3 varying sources of information to not only help different learners but also provide a connectivism that will undermine misconceptions.

    I also hope to take on additional responsibility in developing my lesson time so that I can review key aspects, highlight misconceptions and give the students the time, space and finally support to apply their understanding to problems (in a positive risk-taking environment). I am hoping to also get them to synthesize this understanding through the creation of our own course learning wiki. I hope with these tools, alongside the wonders of true practical science experience that they will use these experience to consolidate true more refined science understanding.

    All that is ahead – for now thank you for helping inform my thinking

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  25. Thanks for posting this Frank. I find it very interesting that slight addition of addressing student misconceptions can have measurable impact on student comprehension.

    I still believe learning through inquiry is the ideal model for science and math in education. Give the students a challenging/open-ended problem that allows multiple entry points for students. Let them solve the problem collaboratively in more than one way. Work with students by asking probing questions rather than funneling them to the right answer. Let them make mistakes with their misconceptions. By the end, you should have a range of student solutions (low to high). However, the true learning and comprehension is when students are given the opportunity to present and explain their strategies/solutions/results and answer questions from their peers. This is an authentic situation where students’ misconceptions are addressed and connections between students’ work can be made. This discussion is facilitated (not directed) by the teacher.

    I believe that videos definitely have a place in student learning, but I also believe that these videos should also be created by students. This would empower and engage students and turn them into digital teachers.

    @katyscott22 has a great blog post that introduced me to the idea of student screencasts, check it out here:

    I also tried screencasting with students when I was in my role as a math facilitator. You can check them out here:

    There’s nothing more powerful than students teaching other students using student language. Students learn more from what they teach than what they see.

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  28. Good video, it was interesting. I’ll consider this as I watch his videos. I think your point about our confidence about wrong concepts can be true, even sometimes for me… I think Sal’s videos are good for introducing concepts or reviewing them. I used his videos to help me with AP bio and now I’m studying for my class next year for AP Physics.

    For Biology, Sal won’t be able to go over every concept but he can help you make the right connections, and faster. I remember before I’d stare at the textbook, memorize facts, but yet be unable to comprehend the big picture. Watching his videos, sometimes I’d have to watch it 2 times, but I’d be able to (or be close to) grasp the concept. After getting the big picture, I’d read the text book to absorb all the details along with it.

    For Physics…I’ve never taken a physics course before so my goal is to cover the first 13 chapters by the end of the summer. (I need to start chapter 3…I should step it up!) But I’ve been watching his videos to introduce me to these foreign concepts. You have to be interactive with the videos. (It makes it *gasp* fun too!) When he does a problem on acceleration, I pause, attempt to do it myself, and then watch and see how he does it when I get stuck. Then I read the text book. Then I do the practice problems in the book…so far this system works.

    • You have to be interactive with the videos. (It makes it *gasp* fun too!) When he does a problem on acceleration, I pause, attempt to do it myself, and then watch and see how he does it when I get stuck.

      Yep. That’s a key learning strategy for any type of lecture. Do it yourself and try to anticipate the answer. The few students that can learn via passive lecture turn it into an active one in their heads using these strategies. But most people don’t (or can’t?) and sit there thinking the concepts are simply transmitted into their brain (which doesn’t happen).

      That is why interactive engagement lessons work so well — the active part is explicit, rather than implicit.

  29. Pingback: Khan is good, but you are probably better. #EdTech #k12 #Education | jackcwest

  30. Just wrote a piece on my blog on this same topic, and referenced your page as the video host.

  31. As a math educator, I usually try to connect new concepts to concepts they already know so they will not feel intimidated by new material. However, I have not considered the power of presenting their misconceptions first. I feel that this could be especially helpful in classes where we “review” often (MS math, Alg 1 then Alg 2).

  32. Very interesting and applicable to many types of educational/informative videos.

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  34. Anna Radovich

    Would like 10 yr old grandaughter to keep learning during the summer.
    Science & Math. I am not proficient with using the computer.
    How do I find Kahn’s free lessons? Thank you.

  35. Is this video supposed to be some kind of joke? No understanding whatsoever is required in order to answer (the very poorly phrased) question whatsoever, once the ‘correct’ teaching video is watched. Why? Because the so-called teaching video uses the exact language of the question, and the exact language of the desired answer. Therefore, only pattern recognition is required.

    We can thus see that the ‘problem’ video was created AFTER the teaching video was found, in order to give a false positive to the so-called act of educational research. This is disgraceful.

    There are individuals stalking every reference to the Khan Academy (on blogs, news reports etc.,) and directing readers back to sites like this. Why? Yes, the despicable Bill Gates has provided funds to KA, long after the project started, but can anyone show how this has changed KA’s free online presence for the worse?

    The suggestion that no-one should ever be exposed to the rigour of the fundamentals that define a discipline, is far from innocent. In a time of increasing war, the most warlike nations (at this time, the USA) require a dumbed down population that will believe what they are told, and have as few critical thinking skills as possible. The propagandists for this state of affairs will become dominant voices as the wars grow larger, more frequent, and more numerous.

    Khan is thus a ‘dangerous’ man in dangerous times. His idea that you can learn for yourself, and think for yourself far better once you have a strong foundation in fundamental concepts, will be attacked in many ways, both crude and subtle. Do not fool yourself into thinking that Khan’s stalkers are in any way engaged in an innocent debate about the best ways to teach.

    • The idea that Khan’s online robot factory encourages free and critical thinking and could be seen as a threat to the state is beyond laughable. It’s hard to believe that this comment isn’t some kind of strange satire.

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry that the question was not phrased to your liking. I should point out that this question was not actually used in the study (but it is similar to a question on the pre/post test). The questions used were from well validated conceptual tests used by physics education researchers (PERs) with thousands of students. I did not include the exact question in this video because the conceptual tests are kept reasonably confidential. If you would like to see the actual questions, please refer to my thesis which can be downloaded from a link on this page.

      You suggest no understanding but only pattern recognition was required to answer a question like this. Even if this were true, the students who watched a direct expository summary should have been able to recognise the patterns (and in fact more easily because the videos were less cluttered with misconceptions). The phrasing used was nearly identical (again for complete transcripts of the videos, please refer to the appendix of my thesis). I think what is interesting is that something one would think is ‘obvious pattern recognition’ or ‘simple recall’ actually requires more than this. That is why I encountered mis-remembering from students after watching the exposition video, mis-believing that they had learned something, and essentially zero gain on well established pre/post tests.

      A few other things are worth noting. My thesis was completed with no knowledge whatsoever of Khan Academy. In fact I commenced my research at the same time Khan started his first video. My objective was not to ‘stalk’ him or discredit his undoubtedly useful work. The goal of this video is to summarise the results of my research in the context of Khan’s videos. The major finding was that direct expository summaries of physics often result in very little learning for novice learners.

      You suggest there are ulterior motives at play but I guarantee you my aim was to find out the best ways to make educational videos (something I do as my full-time occupation). I can also say that virtually all physics education researchers would support your goal of having students learn and think for themselves. We are simply discussing the best way to achieve this. As an aside, I think your voice has the best opportunity of being heard in this discussion if you abandon the conspiratorial rhetoric and aggressive tone and treat others with respect.


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  43. very nice video, very clear and non-confusing, too bad it reinforced my pre-video conviction (;-)) that there is no good “mass-teaching” technique at all, unless there is no variation between the students (I expect an MIT class in sync with regards to knowledge and interests will do better than a bunch of first-graders). The best kind of teaching is the one-on-one interaction, in which the teacher is trained and capable of assessing the degree of understanding the student has on the new material. Is it possible? Probably not, unless the parents have the interest, skill and knowledge. Otherwise (if no one-on-one interaction is possible) it becomes a problem not of getting “better” teachers, but getting better groups of students similar – again – in interests and knowledge, and getting teachers effective in coping with the particular groups. Just my 2 cents…

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  46. All other things aside, Sal Khan’s videos are full of fundamental mistakes. He calls multiplication sums… and the clincher for me was when he blithely stated that 2 x 1 was “two plus itself times one.”

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