Interview with Oren Jackman, examPAL Co-Founder
With 20 years’ experience in the test prep industry, Oren Jackman, one of examPAL’s founders, came to the conclusion that the industry was ripe for a change. He’s leading a team of over 50 people towards revolutionizing the online test prep industry with a smart, adaptive and ultra-personalized online learning experience that studies the way students think and helps them find their fastest way to solving each question.
What is examPAL trying to do?
The test prep industry is very outdated. Instead of reproducing the same old teacher-in-a-classroom experience online, we’re using personalized machine learning to bring the best out of each student. And it’s fun! examPAL was created by more than 50 talented people from different industries and professions: from teachers, designers, and video editors, through data scientists and programmers.
Why did you create examPAL?
It’s 2016, and yet most GMAT students are still missing the interactive, entertaining, personalized learning experience that one would expect from online education companies. When we discovered the fastest way to solve any GMAT question, our mission was to share this with as many students as possible.
How was the GMAT being taught before?
Although GMAT is a computer adaptive test, it’s weirdly-amazing that preparation usually takes place in classrooms, with the use of books, and everybody gets the same course! Online courses usually “copy and paste” this model to the web – long videos that don’t interact with the student or even-longer texts which are actually books copied into a database.
We flipped things around, giving students a gamified experience which fits around them. That means engaging, clever videos with rich animation and interaction; a system that studies the way you think and gives you real-time feedback; and practices in which both questions and solutions are picked at the right time to fit your needs.
What should students expect from examPAL?
First of all, prepare for addiction! The entire course is gamified, so that you can feel the urge to improve and get immediate satisfaction once you do. It’s also fun. Yes, fun. People think I’m crazy when I say that test prep can be fun, but people become test prep teachers because they like riddles and challenges. Once you get the logic, rather than technique, and see how your mind starts working in a different way, you’ll start enjoying it. And I’m not even talking about the humor that we put into it…
What else is new about examPAL ’s approach?
During our school years we got used to “one-solution” kind of questions. But GMAT questions can sometimes have up to ten different ways to solve them, and this is where the frustration kicks in. A teacher may show all the different solutions and tell the students that it’s up to each one of them to find which is best for them. But how can they tell? Alternatively, the teacher may decide to show only one way and say “this is the best one. You should all use it.” But, this is never the case – there is no “one way” that’s better for everybody! That’s why we set about enabling students to find their most effective route to the right solution.
As every GMAT student knows, the real work happens back at home, outside the classroom, when you practice and try to figure out solutions by yourself. But how can unexperienced students tell which way is better for them in each question? This is why students turn to private tutors. Putting cost aside, even the best private tutors only know what you tell them about yourself or what they see in the few questions that you’ve solved in front of them. How can they tell which solutions are best for you? Did they measure which students used which tools when they answered correctly? Why they got certain questions wrong, or how much time it took them to answer?
For this you need big data crunching computers – and that’s what we’re bringing to today’s mature, professional GMAT students who need that kind of efficiency.
What was going wrong from the student’s point of view?
The test prep industry has developed to the point when students are flooded with practice questions, tips, articles – far more than they can handle, so that they feel that if they succeed, it’s thanks to the company that helped them, and if they don’t – it’s their own fault. After all, how could they not have succeeded after everything they’ve been given?
But we believe the best results come when things are more two-sided: we can only provide you the best of our experience, but it is useless without the input of your performance and your needs.
What led you to this realization?
I left teaching classes with a feeling that students paid too much for the wrong thing. At first, we came up with the idea of creating a “flipped classroom” course, in which the student could get all the lessons and practice materials online, and only come to class to work on his/her personal difficulties. But then we realized there was little use meeting the students in class if we hadn’t seen everything they’d been doing at home, which was virtually impossible – unless we designed a system that studied the student while practicing the material. Eureka! That’s what we needed to do…
How did your experience as a test-prep teacher help in making developing examPAL?
Teaching more than 4,000 students has given me a pretty good perspective on the GMAT test. I asked myself: how come I can solve these questions very quickly (and I’m no genius), but my students find most questions hard and waste a lot of time on inefficient preparation? By just reading the question, my experience seemed to direct me to the most efficient way of solving each question even before starting to solve it. Students usually start with the first thing that comes into their minds, and if that doesn’t work, they try a different approach, and so on. If you’re not lucky, you waste a lot of time…
This led us at examPAL to develop one simple method to find the fastest way to solve each question. That’s the PAL in examPAL – Precise, Alternative, or Logical. And when there’s more than one way – our system studies the way the student thinks in order to find the best way to the right answer. We call our system ‘The PALgorithm’.
So that’s the basis to your GMAT ‘training’?
The greatest benefit of PAL is having one clear way of thinking, which makes all solutions easier and faster. It also leads to an easier preparation process and to better absorption of the materials. And The PALgorithm changes the entire perspective on practice. You don’t just solve questions and get easier or harder solutions. You work with the best possible (or impossible!) private tutor: one who monitors each and every answer you give, sees all the answers that thousands of other students have given, and finds the perfect match between your way of thinking and what proved effective to others. Not because that’s what we think that will help you, but because the objective data shows that this is the best solution for you.
How did examPAL evolve?
In order for the PALgorithm to be effective, it was not enough to just build the system. There were many other variables we needed to add: all the solution tools for solving each question; all possible reasons for mistakes; defining how hard each question was; the interconnections between different subjects, and a lot more. It takes 20 years’ experience to know that, but we don’t assume that we know everything about you. That’s why the system asks you if you’ve used a tool that was not on the list or have a different reason for giving a wrong answer, and that’s why it keeps learning which solutions are better than others, in terms of how long they take and which kinds of students use them efficiently. It is not a lucky guess – we know for a fact which solutions are best for you.
When did you realize you were on to something different?
I re-visited the materials written by other schools, watching their videos, and experiencing how puzzled a student must feel when he or she is faced with so many different solutions without the ability to know which one to use or even how to tell when he/she can use it. It made me confident that we were giving a life-line to students!
What happened next?
This gave us a boost of creative energy and a real motivation to give students a way to find their own best path. Actually, what we are doing is even greater than that: if you want to ace the GMAT, it isn’t enough to find the best solutions. It’s about making your mind “flexible” enough to move from one approach to another very quickly. As in any other kind of fitness, it takes some time to master it, but once you are “in the zone”, you’ll be able to get to your highest possible score in no time.
What were the reactions of educators and students?
Teachers at leading test prep schools were amazed. One teacher from Kaplan said, “Do you understand that our company would have to fire thousands of teachers all around the world if they were to use this system?” Teachers understood the benefit very quickly and how much easier learning becomes when you can tell not only exactly what you did wrong, but what to do differently next time. Students who take the test for the first time feel relieved from the stress of covering new ground, and students who have taken the test before say things like “this is just what I needed all the time”, or “if only I had met you sooner…”
What was your proudest moment so far?
When students started reporting that they didn’t even feel the time flying, that they felt that the concepts they were always afraid of suddenly became clear to them, that they didn’t feel like giving up on certain topics they usually would because they always know what should be done differently.
Where do you hope to take the concept in the future?
The future of education is online. Most people agree on that. We want to make all online learning as effective and fun and possible.