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KA's content creation principles

Welcome, teacher, to KA's content principles documentation. These principles were cobbled together from many writings over the years. It will continue to evolve as we learn.

Key points

Khan Academy content...
  1. Knows its audience
    Most learners use Khan Academy as a supplement
  2. Is focused
    It's easiest to learn one thing at a time
  3. Is simple, yet deep
    Answer the question "What's really going on here?"
  4. Is structured intentionally
    Whether a student is skimming for facts or is deeply engaged, we can help them get what they need with careful structure
  5. Uses the medium effectively
    Our content should be made for phones and use images and interactions judiciously
  6. Was created by a nice person
    It should feel like a family member or friend is sitting down to help
  7. Is technically sound
    Factual accuracy and stylistic consistency help learners trust us
If you haven't seen it yet, take a look at this video of Sal explaining how to make a "Khan Style Video". It's specific to videos, but it sums up many of the general points.
Khan Academy video wrapper
Blackboard style videosSee video transcript

1. KA content knows its audience

Most learners use Khan Academy as a supplement.

Student-centric content

Our consumers are students. Unlike textbooks and other resources, we don't have to worry about going through difficult adoption processes with administrators, academic experts, teachers, and parents to reach our students. These are important stakeholders, and we want them to be satisfied as well, but our platform allows us to focus completely on the student.
This means we’re writing for novices, not experts, and novices are easily overwhelmed. Your goal is not to show other experts how smart you are. Our content will be successful if it's thorough, slow, avoids jargon, and is well organized.

But what kind of student?

Not only are our consumers students, they're largely just-in-time learners who use Khan Academy as a supplement. The vast majority of folks visiting the site come for one, maybe two sessions per month.
And according to student surveys and interviews, many of these sessions happen late at night, when a student is preparing for a test or trying to complete homework.
Take all this together, and you get someone who's probably already frustrated when they get to us. To best serve these students, we need to give them confidence as quickly as possible that they're in the right place, and we need to communicate efficiently.
Here are some take aways from Project Torch, a student research project from 2015. It's extremely worth looking at the entire slide deck this came from, which you can find in the "Further reading" section at the end of this article.

How do we make content for just-in-time learners?

Realize that many learners will get to your content straight from google and that they can go back to google just as quickly. Your content should be focused and structured in a way that gives the learner confidence they're in the right place to get the help they need. (More on these points in later sections)
You also can't assume a learner has seen the content nodes leading up to the one you're working on. Always ask yourself whether a particular piece of content can stand on its own. This is tricky to do, because concepts are highly dependent on each other in many subjects. We can't re-explain everything in every piece of content, so you will sometimes have to expect prerequisite knowledge and vocabulary. When you have to depend on pre-existing knowledge, ask yourself these questions:
  • Do I really need to use this concept?
    A student has probably seen fractions by the time they're learning negatives, but it's still a bad idea to put fractions in your first negative numbers example.
  • Is it possible to give a one-sentence refresher on this concept to help students stick with me?
    If so, do it. If not, fully re-explaining the prerequisite concept will just distract from your main point, and students who are confused might just be in the wrong place.
  • Am I depending on a concept and not KA's specific previous explanation of that concept?
    If you do have to depend on a prerequisite idea, make sure you're just using the concept. For example, don't use acronyms or refer to examples from other content pieces.

2. KA content is focused

It's easiest to learn one thing at a time.

A well scoped goal

Individual pieces of content, whether they're videos, exercises, articles, or anything else, should address the smallest possible cohesive idea. Exactly what this means is usually a judgement call, but textbooks are often a good model for how things can be organized.
Beyond looking at textbooks for structure, it's also helpful to split content by the teaching goal. If you're making an interactive exercise, is your goal to let students practice or to assess their skills? In a video, are you explaining the intuition behind a big idea, doing an example problem, or giving a formal proof? Articles can get away with slightly broader scopes than other content types as long as they're structured thoughtfully. (More on this in section 6)
We do it this way because people have limited attention spans and learn better when they're given a chance to take a break and digest. This is known as the segmenting principle. (See the "Further reading" section at the end of this article.)
Additionally, breaking our content into smaller segments allows us to make the body of content on KA more navigable as a whole.

Less is more

Once you've determined the small, cohesive idea your content is addressing, keep that purpose in mind throughout the creation process. People learn better when extraneous words, pictures, sounds, and ideas are excluded rather than included. Interesting tidbits and asides can are usually opportunities to be distracted from the main point. This is known as the coherence principle, and it's related to cognitive load. (See the "Further reading" section at the end of this article.) Deletion is progress.

3. KA content is simple, yet deep

"What's really going on here?"
Brace yourself for some Einstein quotes.
He apparently said a lot of things in that pose.
Our goal is to make deep ideas accessible. This is hard, but here are a few things you can do to help make your explanation both simple and deep.

Constructive ways to simplify

Cut to the core

If you had fifteen seconds to explain the concept to somebody, what would you say? You're almost always going to need more than this to give the full picture, but If you can come up with something short that gets at the essence of the idea, it's probably going to help a student cut to the core and gain intuition.
Resist the temptation to craft an elaborate learning journey that doesn’t align with what the student needs or wants.

Use plain language

Human brains have a limited amount of computing power (a concept known as "cognitive load"). The less computing power a learner spends parsing language, the more they have to spend on the concept they're trying to learn.
You can express some pretty sophisticated ideas with pretty simple language. The creator of XKCD, Randall Munroe, wrote a whole book of explanations that only use the top one thousand most popular words. It's a little more extreme than we need to be, but consider it a proof of concept. The "For Dummies" and "Idiot's" guides are also good inspiration for simple phrasings.
For text content, it also helps to keep paragraphs short.

Ways to help students gain deep understanding

Ask dumb questions

Throughout an explanation, don't be afraid to ask questions that might seem silly. "Wait, why did the US care enough about slavery to go to war with the Confederacy?" "Why do we need an integration constant again?" These "dumb" questions are usually very important to answer and much less obvious than they seem to an expert (you).

Don't skip details

Skipping steps in a calculation or a line of reasoning gives students an opportunity to get lost.

4. KA content is structured intentionally

Whether a student is skimming for facts or is deeply engaged, we can help them get what they need with careful structure.

The signaling principle

People learn better when there are cues to highlight the organization of the essential material. This is known as the signaling principle. The best way to do this varies by content type and style. We won't attempt to describe all best practices in this article, but here are some quick examples.

Videos

When making a blackboard-style video, pay attention to the spatial arrangement of the words, pictures, equations, and diagrams as the explanation develops. Color can also be used to highlight relationships.

Text

When making text-based content, use clear headings when transitioning between ideas. Within sections, make intentional use of prose, lists, and tables. (Images tie in here too, but we've already talked about those.)
Text structureUse it when...Because...
ProseIdeas (sentences) build from one to the nextThe easiest way to absorb prose is to from beginning to end
Bulleted listMaking several related points that don't depend on each otherThe list format makes it clear that you can take things one at a time
TableWhen describing several things that have parallel attributes (or whenever possible)Spatial arrangement conveys relationships, reducing the amount of language needed and making the content more scannable
This particular table is a little text-heavy and doesn't look so great on the mobile preview. I still think it gets the point across more effectively than prose, so I'm sticking with it. You'll have to use your human brain to weigh trade-offs, but the important thing is to understand your options.

The pre-training principle

It's hard to learn something all in one gulp, so begin your explanations with concrete concepts for students to grab onto. Then, use these concrete concepts as building blocks toward the larger learning goal of understanding a complex process or general principle.

Make the key concepts and players known

Clark & Meyer use the examples of the human digestive system and a car transmission (see "Further reading" below). Students had a much easier time understanding these complex systems if they first learned the names and functions of individual pieces of the process.
In a more abstract area like math, we can practice the pre-training principle by stating the main conclusions toward the beginning. Students learning the material for the first time probably won't fully appreciate the conclusions without going through the whole explanation, but giving the conclusions ahead of time allows students to have some conception of where things are headed.
The pre-training principle is meant to apply to deeply engaged learners, but putting key concepts toward the beginning serves the extra purpose of helping just-in-time learners know they're in the right place.

Build from concrete to abstract

Explaining an economic principle? Start by telling the story of a specific good or service. A math principle? Start with specific numbers (or functions, or whichever mathematical object makes sense).
This might seem to contradict the above advice about putting key points at the beginning, since those key points can be abstract, general statements. But this advice is meant to apply to the meat of the explanation, once a student has already been "pre-trained" with the key points.

5. KA content utilizes the medium effectively

Our content should be made for phones and use images and interactions judiciously.

Mobile-first

Three main points here:
  • Mobile is the future (and, honestly, the present). No matter what content you're making, it will be viewed most over its lifetime on a phone than on any other device.
  • Mobile is the future (and, honestly, the present). No matter what content you're making, it will be viewed most over its lifetime on a phone than on any other device.
  • Mobile is the future (and, honestly, the present). No matter what content you're making, it will be viewed most over its lifetime on a phone than on any other device.
We're just beginning to design mobile-centric experiences, content tools, and content. But internalizing the fact that we're primarily creating for mobile devices and keeping it front-of-mind will help us transition most easily to a truly mobile-first product.

Images

The idea that people learn better when words are accompanied by visuals is both intuitive and backed by research (see the multimedia principle in Clark & Meyer in the "Further reading" sections below). Some specific purposes images can serve:
  • Signal ahead
    If someone is skimming an article, the first thing they'll look at is the images. When someone starts a video, they'll immediately survey what's on the screen.
  • Support the explanation
    A well constructed diagram can reinforce, reduce, or even replace a part of a verbal explanation, making things easier for the learner.
  • Add color and context
    Sometimes, images can serve purposes that elude words completely. There's no substitute for seeing a photograph of the organism you're studying in biology or a civil rights leader you're studying in history.
When possible, images should follow Khan Academy's illustration Style Guide. If you're not an experienced visual artist, it might be kind of hard to do this all the time, though. Here's a guide for deciding how and when to make, source, and commission images.
The above points apply equally well to animations when an appropriate animation is available.

Interactions

The digital medium is unique in its ability to interact with its user. A word of caution, though...
An interaction doesn't always make the learning experience more enjoyable or effective. In fact, it can often turn into a distraction for both the learner and the creator. Ask yourself, if it’s going to take me twice as long to create this, will it really help the student?
Interactions are only useful when there's a good reason for them. If you're making content for practice or assessment, it's a no-brainer that you need interaction. If you're making content whose purpose is to convey information, though, be skeptical of interactions.
In an article, you might highlight the core point by asking a simple multiple choice question about it (an example), or you might add some questions to the end for a student who gets to the end and wants to engage, but in general, we should minimize the action required by the student. People just want to scroll.
As time goes on, we'll have better tools, a better understanding of how to use them, and more baseline content coverage. Parable of the Polygons is a classic example of just how useful and interesting interactions can be. Someday. (Sigh)

6. KA content was created by a nice human being

It should feel like a family member or friend is sitting down to help.

Be nice

Respect the learner

Many people come to Khan Academy because they're confused, and the worst thing we can do is destroy someone's confidence when they're in this vulnerable state. We can respect the confused state of a learner by never assuming they're having an easy time. Never say something is easy, and don't skip details (e.g., in a calculation), assuming students will be able to connect the dots.
At the same time, don't dumb things down. Not even six-year-olds like to be talked to like six-year-olds. Your audience is a smart person who just doesn't know this stuff yet.

Be inclusive

Keep in mind that we are reaching an incredibly diverse audience of people from all over the world. Avoid jargon, idioms, and US-centric references. Use diverse characters in your examples. We want to make sure that our content not only helps people feel that KA understands them and believes they matter, but also helps everyone imagine a positive future where it doesn’t matter who you are as long as you have a willingness to learn and grow.

Be modest

You were new to this stuff once too, so let students know what confused you when you were starting out. They'll appreciate it and begin to identify with you. On the other hand, if you act like an all-knowing authority, you risk intimidating people or making them dislike you (and they'll leave). Your goal is not to show other experts how smart you are.

Be a human

Use natural language

Language complexity, as discussed in the "simple, yet deep" section, can have a large effect on cognitive load. Language can also be a valuable tool for creating a bond with your audience.
(Wow. That last paragraph was kind of hard to read, and I sound like a weirdo when I read it out loud. Let's try again.)
We already talked about how language choices can affect cognitive load in the "simple, yet deep" section. Language can also help people relate to you.
(Ah, that's better!)
Whether you're writing or speaking, make sure you sound like a person who's sitting down to have a relaxed conversation about a topic. One way to do this is to talk or write directly from your mind. People are receptive to what’s happening in the speaker/writer’s brain. Prepare your mind, then speak directly from it.
This idea is also captured in the literature as the personalization and voice principles.

Be inquisitive, be yourself

Passion and curiosity are core parts of being human, and they manifest differently in everyone. Let your excitement show. It'll be infectious.

7. KA content is technically sound

Factual accuracy and stylistic consistency help learners trust us.
The factual accuracy part hardly needs to be stated, but it seemed weird to leave it out.
Style guidelines for specific content types are out-of-scope for this article. They're captured in various other guides.

Summary and further reading

Wow, did you read that whole thing? Good on you. Here's a recap and Keanu Reaves eating a cupcake.
Khan Academy content...
  1. Knows its audience
    Most learners use Khan Academy as a supplement
  2. Is focused
    It's easiest to learn one thing at a time
  3. Is simple, yet deep
    Answer the question "What's really going on here?"
  4. Is structured intentionally
    Whether a student is skimming for facts or is deeply engaged, we can help them get what they need with careful structure
  5. Uses the medium effectively
    Our content should be made for phones and use images and interactions judiciously
  6. Was created by a nice person
    It should feel like a family member or friend is sitting down to help
  7. Is technically sound
    Factual accuracy and stylistic consistency help learners trust us

Further reading

Educational materials research

Interactivity

Learner research

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