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Only Getting the Right Answers is Wrong

Before I start with this post, apologies for the past weeks of silence here on Disrupt Education. I had to travel a lot and moderate an event in Germany so blogging came short, unfortunately. The good news is that I met and talked with a lot of interesting people in education 2.0 in between, so I have many interesting aspects to share with you in the coming weeks. 

Back to business. One of the people I recently had the chance to talk to is Dr Derek Muller or as I refer to him, the “Australian Khan”. Derek is the founder of an online video education project in Physics called Veritasium, and he immediately became one of my favorite teachers. 

I incidentally found Derek’s work during one of my random strolls across the web. To be precise I came across the video embedded below where Derek describes some of his findings from his PhD thesis “How to create films to teach science (specifically physics)” in which he comes up with the result that there is doubt whether students who watch Khan Academy or any other kind of educational videos in science actually learn something.

Before we go on, we need to make clear that there is a difference between learning and refreshing. The doubts Derek has about the efficiency are not based on the quality or information Khan and others present in their videos, it’s about the effect they have on someone who is starting to learn about a new topic. If you use the videos as a resource for classroom teaching or as a refresher, they work very well. 

I think Derek’s findings are very interesting and though he states that those misconceptions primarily exist in the science sector, I have seen this phenomenon in language learning as well. At the time, I was still teaching languages to adults and my student had a certain basis in a foreign language, let’s say he learned it for one or two years in college and then decided to brush it up 10 years later, learning vocabulary was pretty hard. This was especially when the learner used one of the new language learning services or applications available on the market. 

As Derek describes in the video, the learner thinks “I know this already” and then skips through the vocabulary without really learning anything. One of my long term goals has been to brush up my Spanish, and I noticed the same effect about myself. I learned new vocabulary and one or two days later I had forgotten almost everything. 

Mental effort seems to be the driver behind good learning progress. If an educational video is “clear, concise and easy to understand” it does not trigger that effort and the results are very limited. A recent experiment that caught some attention seems to prove this point. The progress of two parallel classes was being measured, one learned the classic way, the other got an extra “Khan Academy treatment”. At the end of the five-week-period, the class with the extra Khan Academy treatment only scored 1,2% better than their peers without it. 

Derek even goes so far that he thinks that education videos that just present the right answers could have a negative effect on learning. As he states in the video

If you present the right information in the video only, five things happen.

1) students think they know it

2) they don’t pay their utmost attention

3) they don’t recognize that what is presented in the video is different from what they are thinking

4) they don’t learn a thing

5) they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before

So how to implement mental effort into learning videos and break this circle? Veritasium always starts with the most common misconceptions about the topic covered in the video first. This way the student gets “confused” as all of these ideas might be true. After the experiment is done there is another discussion segment talking about the outcome and providing an explanation why it happened exactly that way.

Maybe even more importantly, Derek’s findings prove to me that “learning by doing” and “trial and error” will remain the best ways to learn and that there is a need for hands on learning in the group and classroom. Videos can only get that close to the real world experience.

If you are interested in learning more about Derek and Veritasium, you can watch my two interviews I did with him. On EDUKWEST we talked about YouTube as a place for educational content in general and how to create learning videos. On KWestions we got more into detail about his methodology.


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