Saturday, November 27, 2010

Q&A with Brian Galvin - Part 3 (GMAT Essentials)

Moving on to the crux of the matter: the new GMAT Essentials course, which has been quite a hit. How did this come about? Was it something that you have been planning for quite a while now?

I thought you’d never ask!  Like I said, the evolution of our curriculum has  been on the table and really ongoing since I first interviewed for my current job, so many of the strategies that we cover have been in development or already in our program for a while.  This course, specifically, came up as a challenge based on what’s happening in the marketplace; there are a lot of options for the GMAT student these days, and many of them advertise shorter classes, more convenient schedules, and lower prices, and we wanted to compete in that market.  Now, we’ve always felt that one of our program’s strengths was how comprehensive it is – our standard offering is 42 hours over 7  weeks and covers everything from fundamental skills to higher-order strategies.  I’m still convinced that it’s the best way for most people to study for the GMAT and I can’t imagine us ever  tinkering too much with the format, other than making necessary adjustments to content coverage to stay in step with changes or trends in the actual GMAT.

However, when the challenge came out for us to create a course that could appeal to those in the market who just don’t have (or won’t commit to) seven weeks to take a Full Course, or who want to try to cut some costs by taking something a little smaller in scope, I wanted to take on that challenge.  Quite frankly, I think there are a lot of programs out there that just aren’t completely responsible in the way that they fit their GMAT curriculum into 20-25 hours, either trying to fit two unrelated topics into the same evening’s lesson (e.g. geometry and grammar on the same night) or sugarcoating content to allow people to perceive mastery in a short period when they’ve really just scratched the surface.  When we decided that we wanted to compete in the fewer-hours, shorter-term study market, I wanted to make sure that we could do so responsibly and in a way that would allow all of us who teach to feel that sense of pride and accomplishment when we leave the final lesson that we’ve set our students up for success.

So it was up to me to design a curriculum that I thought would fit responsibly in one weekend, and taking a lesson from what I’ve seen and disliked in the market, I decided along with a handful of top instructors that we couldn’t’ attempt to  teach ‘everything’ in that time so we’d better not try.  Instead, we looked at it this way – where do Veritas Prep instructors add the most value?  If you’re paying for a Veritas Prep instructor’s help, where do you need it most?  And that’s where the idea behind the Essentials Course really came from.  I’ll say this – I’m pretty good at teaching basic algebra and geometry, but I don’t feel quite comfortable allowing my one-on-one students to pay as much as they have to for my time if that’s what we’re covering.  So much of that, you could teach yourself or find community education resources to teach you for pennies (or free).  Where I think I’m really worth the investment, though, is in the fact that I’ve been studying for the GMAT for over seven years – those of us who teach it at our level have a degree of expertise with this test that you really can’t develop on your own.  I’ve seen hundreds of students make the same mistake and I know why they make it; I’ve had to write questions that would trick people in the same way as the GMAT does, and I’ve employed those same devices.  I’ve even talked with representatives from GMAC about trends I’ve seen in the test and how I’ve used them to predict what they’ll do next and they’ve agreed with me.  So that’s where I think the hard-to-find value comes from in our classes – we add the value of “convenience” to some of  the content-based items in that we teach you GMAT content in context with GMAT question types.  But the upper-level strategy is where we give the highest ROI, and if you’re asking us for a shorter class that’s where I want to spend the bulk of the time.

Now, again I thought about a lot of this from the perspective of “responsibility”, and I certainly can’t justify a class that doesn’t teach the content of the test as “responsible”, so we needed to include that component, too.  Everyone who takes and Essentials Course has access to all of the Veritas Prep books and video On Demand lessons so that you have plenty of resources for the fundamental skills behind the test.  But in class, we’re going to focus on high-level strategy taught primarily from 650+ level questions, because that’s where the value is added.

So that’s what you get – plenty of resources for all of the fundamental skills behind the exam, and 15 hours of pure strategy from the experts in the best position to give it to you.

What is the structure of the GMAT Essentials course?

The way we’ve conceptualized the GMAT, you can really break it down into three elements sort of in a pyramid structure.  There are skills – the “what” behind the test, things you have to know like verb tense conjugations and exponent rules; there are concepts, which are big-picture content items like “solving equations” or “finding Critical Reasoning conclusions”; and there are strategies, such as looking out for trap answers on Data Sufficiency questions.  The Essentials Course is going to cover the most important concepts and all of our strategies, and we’ll give you some self-study strategies (and all of our full-length resources) to work on  the skills and on solidifying the concepts.

We go for two days over a weekend.  On Saturday morning, we cover Essential Math Concepts – the big-picture math “knowledge” that we know they test frequently, and that section is designed on making sure you not only get the concepts but you also see how and why they like to test them.   This one frustrates me – I remember in high school being taught the “what” all the time, memorizing formulas and steps but never really knowing “why” I did them.  Which was fine – it got me As on the unit tests and served me well enough to do well on the final exams – but it’s a cursory level of real knowledge.  In this section we want to emphasize why these concepts are important and show you how they’ll be tested, and we do that by  featuring difficult problems and breaking them down into their core concepts.

So as not to overwhelm people with too much math all at once, we do a Critical Reasoning lesson next, and the focus of that lesson is on systematically breaking down GMAT logic.  We do that by showing how they create traps in difficult problems and by noting how following the same procedure will keep you within the narrow scope of “correct” and help you to avoid those traps.  Our logical discussion in that lesson segues nicely into Data Sufficiency, the last lesson of the first day, which is a great opportunity to cover the fact that Data Sufficiency questions are much more “logic questions that involve math” than they are “math questions that feature logic”.  I’ve always loved the blend between those question types and relish the opportunity to teach them together.  Here, we also focus on higher-level strategies…one of my favorites is showing people first to be wary of “easy” answers and second how to test for the “harder” answers once you’ve identified that you’re probably being trapped.

On Sunday, we start with Reading Comprehension and move on to Sentence Correction; our goals for both lessons are to demonstrate that both question types are much more about “big-picture” understanding than “minor detail” things.  In Reading Comprehension, we show you how to read passages with an objective – answering their questions – in mind so that you read at the proper level and take inventory of the most important concepts.  For Sentence Correction, I’ve long been a believer that “it’s not about the grammar”, or at least not as much as many think that it is.  We break down Sentence Correction from a logical perspective to show you the major error categories and demonstrate how to check for them without diving too deeply into the nitty-gritty of grammar.  This has been one of my passions for a while now – I had a student named Will who just couldn’t crack Sentence Correction but would talk circles around me with grammatical terminology.  He knew so many subtle nuances that he had memorized, but in the end he knew too much and just couldn’t stay out of his own way; we stripped it down to just the logical framework and he finally bumped up to 700 based on strategy and methodology (which we also cover in this lesson) and logic; he just graduated from Wharton.

Sunday afternoon we finish with more math – problem solving strategies and a lesson I call “Playing Chess, Not Checkers” which demonstrates how to outwit the authors of the GMAT by using high-level strategy.  Much like the emphasis on gamesmanship in the Data Sufficiency lesson, we talk about how to use the GMAT’s tendencies against it and how to recognize trap answer choices, all the while emphasizing those core concepts as guiding principles.

What is the target audience for the GMAT Essentials course? Beginners/ Intermediates/ Pros/ All of the above?

That’s a really good question, Tray, and honestly it’s still a little bit of a work in progress.  Like I said, we tried to create it from a perspective of “how can we best add value” with this course and not to label it specifically “beginner” or “advanced” but rather focus on what we can give students that we don’t think they can really get anywhere else.

I think it’s a perfect course for advanced students – so many of our instructors have commented upon glancing at the syllabus that “this is the class that I would have taken”  - because the goal is to spend time on strategy and not as much (or really at all) on basic skills and fundamentals.  We’ll teach from challenge-level problems and focus more on big-picture takeaways than on smaller problem-centric details, just to make best use of the time.  If you’re already pretty up to speed on the fundamental skills behind the test, or if you just trust yourself to be able to pick that up as you go, this class is a terrific use of your time and probably a perfect option for you.

But I don’t think that it means that the Essentials Course is not a good choice for intermediate or even beginner students, and here’s why – I think that most people study inefficiently, focusing too much on the “what” and not the “why”.  Even if you’re just getting started or you know that you’ll need some work and repetition afterward, this class will set you up with the strategic framework for approaching the test, and also provide you with all of the study resources that you’ll need afterward.  Again, our goal with this class is to give you the strategic insights that we just don’t think are available elsewhere; when we cover concepts in this class we refer to them as “guiding principles” – even if you need to further develop certain skills and concepts, if you do so with those guiding principles in mind you’ll be more efficient.

What I think is important for people to recognize – and a reason that I’m really thankful that you’re giving me the space to talk about this, Tray – is that this course is designed to cover the “Essentials” but not in that one weekend itself to be fully comprehensive, as that’s just not possible.  For that, everyone is going to receive all 15 of our full-length lesson books and the companion video lessons online; they’ll get all of our practice tests and midterm diagnostic quizzes; they’ll have access to our homework help resources; and all of our students are welcome to join a second class for free, so if you did realize afterward that you have a lot of work to do and would benefit more from some of those strategies once the skills are in place, you can go back to study more and then rejoin the class later.  So, theoretically, if you’re a beginning student you can use this class as “bookends” to your study – a jump-start to thinking the right way, then a collection of resources to study, then a capstone refresher and reframing of big-picture strategies before the test.

The course is quite intense. Personally, I had a blast. What has been the general opinion of the course? Were there any who gave it a negative rating?

Glad you enjoyed it – as an instructor I loved the whole experience, too.  We’ve been thrilled with the feedback – we’ve seen a few public reviews on Beat the GMAT and other sites in addition to your review on this site, and they’ve all been really positive.  More informally, we’ve received even more positive feedback from students and from our instructors who have reviewed the recordings and the books, so the general consensus is that the course is doing exactly what we designed it to do.  The few pieces of constructive feedback that we’ve received are all very much in line with what we expected, too – one review mentioned that the student wished he had been more  brushed up on the fundamental skills before taking the class, and we know that people will often feel that way, which is why we offer the full complement of resources along with the class.  The biggest positives to me were this – no one felt that the class was too easy at any point, yet no one reported feeling overwhelmed by anything even if they did recognize certain areas that they needed to study more.  Our goal was to challenge people – if you only have a limited amount of time you definitely don’t want anyone to be bored or feel that time was wasted, but obviously you need to make sure that people can see tangible progress and bring home important takeaways.  My main goal every time I teach is to make the difficult look manageable, and that’s the main goal of the question selection that we made for this course; the fact that people could overwhelmingly report that we accomplished that was very satisfying.

Managing to retain the participants’ attention in an online setting for 8 consecutive hours is quite a feat. How do you think you managed it?

I think a lot of this goes back to the design of the course, which is to keep things challenging enough that everyone is interested but to provide enough strategy and explanation that people can work through it.  If I could graph the “intensity level” of the class, or at least how we designed it to be, it would be a series of peaks followed by gradual declines leading to another peak (ugh, I’m such math teacher that I describe emotions in graph form).  Those peaks are the questions themselves – I want everyone to look at most questions and think “wow, that’s tough”…the questions should be attention grabbers.  But then I want everyone to feel that can-do spirit of “that’s tough, but like the instructor said we can at least get started by ______”.  If we’re doing that routinely, people will begin each question interested by what they don’t know, but then quickly fall into a problem-solving routine of identifying what they do know and working from that.  Challenging problems with clear, manageable explanations that lead to student confidence and understanding– to me that’s the key to good curriculum design.

As far as the intangibles of keeping attention…I’ve been really lucky to have some amazing teachers in my life.  One of my proudest moments was going back to show my middle school teacher, Mrs. Franklin, my NBA championship ring – I was obsessed with sports as a kid and she would always find a way to use my interests to help me learn whatever it was she was teaching at the time.  It was great to get to go back and show her that I had taken what she taught me and turned it right back into a way to capitalize on my interests.  So in teaching any class, and particularly one that runs for an extended time or one that meets in a seemingly less-personal venue like online, I think it’s important to keep people entertained and engaged by using what’s on their minds to present analogies or background support for what we’re learning.  I’ve always thought that you teach people, you don’t teach algebra, or history, or whatever the subject is.  So one goal is always to keep things entertaining while also keeping them productive; the other is to draw knowledge out of people rather than throwing it at them.  If we’re asking short questions about intermediate steps for problem solving, we can demonstrate to people that they know more than they think they do…that we’re providing the framework via which to apply their own skills and abilities.  When people are active participants in the learning process they’re much more engaged and it’s much more productive.  One of my favorite teachers of all time is a professor I had in grad school, Jeff Stanzler; he was the best active listener I’ve ever seen – when you were talking in class he was zoned in and focused on you, and regardless of what you’d say he’d find a way to link it to something ten times more articulate and valuable.  He’d say, “what I hear you saying is…” and then restate what you actually said, then use it as a springboard to a larger point.  And I’ve never forgotten that – even on the path to a wrong answer people are using proper and productive thought processes, and as a teacher it’s your job first to encourage them to think, and then second to direct that thought process to be more efficient and effective.  To teach effectively you have to encourage and reward participation, and everyone benefits that way.

When’s the next GMAT Essentials course? Any plans to tweak the format?

We’re going to run a full series of them – in most of our major cities in-person and also a Live Online version, which I’ll be teaching – the weekend of December 4-5, and then we’ll do another set in mid-February.  We’ll continue to make minor tweaks – I’ve replaced 1-2 problems of the around 100 in the course with examples that I think better fit exactly what we want to cover – but the reception to the initial round has been so positive that I don’t want to fix what’s not broken!  It’s been really amazing – the more that instructors see the course books and view the recordings of the actual sessions, the more on-board everyone gets.  We’re all chomping at the bit to teach these, so we’ll obviously welcome our instructors’ comments and suggestions, but I don’t think we’ll tweak much more than 5% or so of what we have anytime soon.  The main adjustments will probably be the swapping out of a few questions here or there.

Part 4 of our Q&A with Brian Galvin coming up tomorrow. Stay tuned!


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