English: Salman Khan, famous for the Khan Acad...

Salman Khan of Khan Academy (Image via Wikipedia)

In “The Problem Solvers,” Steve Kolowich (Inside Higher Ed) discusses Salman Khan’s very popular learning website that offers tutorials and exercises to students. The whole IHE article is a worthwhile read; first, it’s exciting to learn about the ongoing engineering research behind Khan Academy’s academic exercise platform. Most intriguing to me, though, are Khan’s own views on the state of education in general. (He is, after all, referred to straightaway as “a fledgling voice of reform in higher education.”)

For one thing, Khan believes students have trouble retaining concepts, and sees this as a significant problem. Kolowich’s article explains Khan’s contention: that “completion [of academic programs] means nothing . . . without comprehension – a command of crucial skills that stick around long after the test, and the course, are over.”

This belief is manifested in Khan’s exercise and analytics project. But I’m happy to hear it wherever it’s spoken – for I believe it ties in closely with a student’s academic attitude. I’ve seen students of all ages who undervalue the prospect of an education; they seem to believe their classes are merely hoops to jump through for that diploma (“pay your fee, get your degree”), and seem disinclined to internalize that what they’re learning can have a real impact on their lives. This particular attitude can poison individual students, and sometimes the toxins spread through entire classrooms. If students see the class as a pesky hurdle, those students are more likely to view their prof as an unfriendly roadblock; to see no good reason to try their best; and perhaps, even, to have cavalier attitudes about academic dishonesty.

If students, on the other hand, truly understand that comprehension is critically important for their futures, those students also will understand the professors to be helpful, valuable resources (likewise tutors, librarians, and advisors); they’ll work hard to learn the maximum; and they will know that cheating is utterly pointless (as the saying goes, cheating in school is only cheating yourself).

I appreciate and celebrate Mr. Khan’s focus on comprehension. A student at any level will do well to keep the goal of comprehension and understanding as his or her personal learning lodestar.