The trouble with Khan Academy’s video tutorials for the reading section of the new SAT

This article is not meant to disparage in any way what Sal Khan has accomplished with Khan Academy. I appreciate all the valuable work they’re doing to make college readiness accessible to students from all walks of life.

But as an educator, I feel obliged to offer a little constructive criticism.

Khan has made a name for himself with his succinct, thoughtful instructional videos. With Khan Academy’s new partnership with the College Board, the makers of the SAT, he’s produced a series of videos to introduce his audience to the new test they’ll be taking next year. I’d like to take a close look at one of those videos in order to explore its strengths and weaknesses.

Inspired perhaps by the success of the ACT, the new SAT will introduce reading comprehension sections that use passages drawn from science. Given this new emphasis on science reading, I’ll be examining Khan’s video, Reading: Science, Parts 1 & 2, which together, last a little over 18 minutes.

First off, I appreciate his casual demeanor in the videos. Even though we don’t see him, he narrates over an image of the printed passage as he marks it up with an electronic pen. When I first heard him, I thought he sounded like Seth Rogen. His voice has that same affably bemused baritone quality. At the start of Part 1, Khan reads the citation for the reading passage, adapted from an article by Ed Yong called “Turtles Use the Earth’s Magnetic Field as Global GPS.”

After reading the citation and declaring how interesting it sounds, Khan says:

That’s something I like to do. I like to convince myself that I’m very excited about what about I’m about to learn. And in this case, I actually am.

Khan may well be alluding to the fact that skilled readers have a strong sense of purpose when they read, as he surely does. He’s modeling the mental habit of taking ownership of his reading, even if it’s been assigned to him without his having any say. But it’d be worthwhile here if he spent a bit of time explaining just why he does this. He could also talk about what readers can do when they aren’t naturally interested in a particular topic. Not all readers may spontaneously decide, like Khan himself, that global positioning sea turtles are all that interesting.

Khan proceeds to read the passage sentence by sentence. He underlines with his pen what he feels are the important bits of information. He also takes the time to paraphrase in clear, concise terms key ideas. As he says, he’s modeling his reasoning process as he reads through the passage. A little after the 3 minute mark of Part 1, though, he comes across a word that seems to be unfamiliar to him, “gyre,” which he makes a point of repeatedly mispronouncing. As he says later, at the start of Part 2, he likes to come to the exam questions “fresh,” so that his experience is as novel as those taking the actual exam.

His willingness to acknowledge his unfamiliarity with the word “gyre” signals to his audience that it’s okay not to know every word we encounter when we read. In this case, it’s particularly anodyne since the passage defines the word for us—an ocean current. But this would have been a great opportunity for Khan to discuss strategies for dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary, especially in situations when a definition isn’t explicitly given or when the unfamiliar word plays a key role in understanding the central claim of the passage as a whole.

This speaks to the main problem I have with the video. Although he models his own—granted, sound—reasoning process, he doesn’t do much to anticipate where someone who lacks a sound reasoning process might get confused. He doesn’t show his viewers how to repair meaning when it breaks down.

For example, near the end of Part 1, he says, “I think we understood what’s going on there.” He then frames the passage in scientific terms. The researchers studying the sea turtles made a hypothesis to explain why the turtles are able to navigate vast distances across multiple oceans, which they subsequently tested and verified through a series of experiments. While it’s clear Khan understood the gist of the passage, he can only assume that those watching also achieved the same degree of comprehension. Lamentably, this is largely due to the limitations of the medium. Even if he wanted to, Khan can’t check for comprehension along the way through his guided reading, as any good teacher would do in a classroom environment.

In Part 2 of the Reading: Science video, Khan continues to verbally model his reasoning process, this time as he tackles the test questions in the order they’re presented on the page. After he reads a question and comments briefly on it in a effort to anticipate the likely answer, he uses a process of elimination, going from the first answer to the last, crossing off the ones that are incorrect.

Again, though, he doesn’t offer any strategies for dealing with answers when meaning has broken down. For example, if a test taker were to get Question 1 wrong (“The passage most strongly suggests that Adelita used which of the following to navigate her 9000-mile journey?), they’d have trouble getting the follow-up question correct (“Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?”).

To accommodate impatient attention spans, each part of the video is only 9 minutes long. But that doesn’t give him a lot of time to explore reasoning strategies beyond simply modeling a sound one. Unfortunately, this makes the videos of limited to value to those students who aren’t already adept at reasoning actively as they read.

Another missed opportunity—Question 4 asks: “Based on the passage, which choice best describes the relationship between Putnam’s and Lohmann’s research?” The correct answer hinges on the reader’s ability to determine the relationship between the two scientists—who’s work precedes the other—as well as whether one body of research corroborates or contradicts the other. Khan, of course, reasons correctly as he refers back to the passage. But he doesn’t anticipate how these two distinct vectors, the chronological order of the research and its stance in relation to the other, could easily confuse a weaker reader.

After he’s reasoned through the last question, the video ends abruptly. This feels like another missed opportunity. Khan could have summarized the key aspects of his reasoning process that led him to the correct answers. Then he could have generalized those reading techniques to prepare his audience for passages with altogether different topics.

In a conclusion, he also could have touched on what was missing from the passage. Although such speculation would have little bearing on the comprehension questions to follow, it would help his audience better appreciate the insight that strong readers actively engage with what they read. They ask questions. They make inferences. They come to conclusions. For my part, I was curious to learn how the GPS system inside the turtles worked. How did something organic—a feature of the turtles’ physiology—perform something seemingly technological. I was also curious about the ethics of manipulating the turtles in testing pools.

To reiterate, the main problem with the video as a teaching tool is that however engaging the narrator, videos are limited in their interactivity.

It’s too easy for the viewer to passively watch a video, rather than actively engage with the thought processes being modeled within it. And, concomitantly, it’s difficult for the teacher to gauge all the important intermediate steps that bridge the gap between curiosity or uncertainty to a thorough comprehension of the reading material.

Lastly, the website has made what feels like only a cursory effort to gamify the learning experience. The “energy points” that rack up as the viewer watches the video may only serve to reinforce the benefits of passivity.

In sum, within the new SAT prep section of Khan Academy website, we have two poles between which there’s a large gap. On the one hand, we have videos with limited educational value to struggling readers. And on the other, we have practice exams that simulate the real SAT. There’s not much to bridge—what must be for many—a wide chasm between sitting through a couple videos and being thrown to the proverbial lions.

Dr. Sean

Dr. Sean

Co-Founder at Readerly
Dr. Sean has over a decade of teaching experience at universities in the US and Asia. He earned a BA with honors from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of London. You can read more about his teaching and research here.
Dr. Sean