Sharon Guan

Summer Math Class with Khan Academy: A Case of “Manipulated” Learning

Teaching—when you think about it—is a process of manipulation.

Dr. Tom Angelo made this point when he was wrapping up his keynote presentation at the DePaul Faculty Teaching and Learning Conference in May 2017. Since then the idea of “teaching by manipulating” kept popping up in my mind like a little bud seeking its opportunity to break through the ground.

It seems to me the best place to sow the seed of manipulation is my home. As I once heard a conference speaker joke, “Do you know why psychologists have kids? No IRB!”

IRB stands for Institutional Review Board, a committee that reviews and approves (or disapproves) studies that use human subjects. It is a hoop that researchers must jump through—well, unless they are dealing with the human subjects that they’ve produced themselves.

So far I have produced two viable research subjects: Grant, a 12-year-old boy, and Granita, an 11-year-old girl. The idea of running a little experiment with Grant came to my mind when he refused to go to any summer camp, even though his photo was on the cover page of the summer camp brochures!

Grant pictured on summer brochure cover
Grant on 2017 Summer Camp Brochure

The way he prefers to spend the summer is to simply stay home and hang out with friends! Troubled by his version of a summer plan, I decided to execute some manipulation (a) to avoid turning him fully loose, and (b) to investigate a long-standing question: with sufficient motivation and adequate resources, can a student—even one at a younger age—learn by himself?

Research Design

My little experimental research is designed as follows:

  1. With sufficient motivation, will a sixth-grader be able to master seventh-grade math by himself?
  2. Can Khan Academy be used as a teaching tool that replaces the presence of a teacher?
Experimental Design

I will pay Grant $25 every week if he earns 70 points in mastering seventh-grade math with Khan Academy. Point review is due every Sunday and payment will be released at the same time. Not making the required 70 points will result in not earning any money for the week.


A 12-year-old boy who aced sixth-grade math but received no additional math training or tutoring prior to the experiment.

The Participatory Nature of the Design

This is a fancy way of describing all of the changes I had to make during the process. For example, a week after starting the experiment, Grant’s sister Granita asked for a Khan account because she wanted to do what Grant’s doing! So I used the same payment structure for Granita: 70 points per week and $25 weekly pay.

While secretly cheering for the doubled research population, I realized that Granita, who claimed that she’s never good at math, may need some help for the content and for keeping herself on task. Will monetary reward motivate a student to learn more by teaching others? I wondered.  I decided to give that a try by cutting another deal with Grant. He will make another $20 a week for reminding his sister to do Khan and for tutoring her when she’s stuck. Whenever Granita finishes on time, Grant will receive the payment, SECRETLY because if Granita finds out her brother is making money for her work, she will definitely quit.

Granita doing Khan with her tutor Grant
Granita doing Khan with her tutor Grant

Progress Report

According to Grant’s calculation, one-third of the summer has passed and he has completed half of the seventh-grade math series. In the meantime, he has become the “richest man” among his friends. And by paying him a $25 studying reward and $20 tutoring fee, I have saved a weekly charge of nearly a thousand dollars it would cost me to send him to a math training camp. The level of intensity and the amount of knowledge gained from Khan vs. a formal training camp may vary, but it is so nice to see Grant willing to study on his own instead of blaming me for making him a “typical Asian kid!”

Granita’s progress turned out to be way above my expectation. She’s made 210 points and is on schedule to finish before the summer ends. She said that one day she accidentally did a whole lot more without noticing she just kept answering and clicking through the questions.

Her behavior demonstrated how engaging the Khan Academy program is designed. The program incorporates a number of game elements, such as:

Encouraging feedback,

Khan student feedback

A second-chance opportunity,

Khan feedback: try again

Just-in-time support,

Khan feedback and support

and a dashboard (progress report).

Khan student dashboard

In addition to these gamification elements, Khan Academy also implemented some “anti-gaming” design, such as restricting the number of questions released once the learner has mastered the subject to avoid repeated point gaining, deducting points for wrong answers to avoid careless guessing (one day Grant actually regressed by three points), and awarding points for doing practices.


Though the experiment is still in progress, as a mom and an instructional designer I have seen the value of online learning tools on the growth of kids. To a boy like Grant who claims that he gained most of his knowledge from YouTube (instead of school), learning math from Khan Academy seems like a natural solution. He can and will do it as long as you give him a reason. At this point, it is money for Pokemon cards. Sometime down road I hope it will not be just for that.

I also find that online learning seems to have become a trend among middle-schoolers. Yesterday I was driving Grant and his friends Nat and Sean back from the Pokemon club house. I heard Grant ask Nat if he had completed his Khan for the day. Intrigued by the conversation, I asked if Nat’s parents have also implemented the Khan experiment—because they apparently had copied my idea!

“But Nat only has to do 5 questions a day!” Grant corrected me by pointing out the workload difference. Well, I thought, a copy with a twist then! Nevertheless, this shows that the idea of manipulated learning has been shared among parents as they hear their kids talk about what other kids are doing—to make money!

If learning can be quantified and rewarded by money (which, in Grant’s case, eventually become the Pokemon cards he bought to show off to his peers), it won’t take many reminders from parents to make kids embark on some learning activities. When these little gamers are so busy with earning and spending their money, they may not notice who’s sitting behind the scenes blowing a triumphant whistle of GAME ON!








Sharon Guan

About Sharon Guan

Sharon Guan is the Assistant Vice President of Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS). She has been working in the field of instructional technology for nearly 20 years. Her undergraduate major is international journalism and she has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in educational technology from Indiana State University. She has conducted research on interpersonal needs and communication preferences among distance learners (dissertation, 2000), problem-based learning, online collaboration, language instruction, interactive course design, and faculty development strategies. She also teaches Chinese at the Modern Language Department of DePaul, which allows her to practice what she preaches in terms of using technology and techniques to enhance teaching and learning.

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