Researching design principles of Magoosh test preparation portal from technical and social perspectives

Course: CCTP – 820: Leading by Design: Principles of Technical and Social Systems

Instructor: Prof. Irvine Martin

From: Galib Abbaszade

Fall 2016


Final Paper

Subject: Researching design principles of Magoosh test preparation portal from technical and social perspectives


Magoosh is the online test preparation portal, which helps students to pass required test exams (such as SAT, GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, etc.) and be admitted to undergraduate and graduate schools.  This research paper is an attempt to discover capacities of Magoosh test preparation portal from its designing principles viewpoints, which give to “every student access to effective, affordable and engaging test prep tools” and methods. Within this paper the teaching mechanisms provided by Magoosh are described from the angle of applying design thinking approach. To illustrate (to deblackbox) tutorial technics used by Magoosh’s instructors through the portal features, this research discusses such paradigms as the design principles, modularity of the site, abstraction methods, symbolic technologies, mathematical algorithms for assessing students learning progress, etc., applied in this portal. To demonstrate the accuracy of the research hypothesis within this paper, some evidences, such as supportive data and graphics, media and images, references and links are embedded into the text body.


In fact, to meet Universities admission requirements, students need to obtain certain scores of test exams, such as SAT, GRE, etc. Utilizing Internet power and capability, Bhavin Parikh, CEO of the Magoosh internet based company, and three his companions launched this on-line tutorial portal in 2009, which is focused on conducting preparation for test exams.

Considering tests designed based on English language proficiency, the whole test preparation process also built on English language base. It provides equality and even condition for everyone who use Magoosh preparation services from any country, with different language and cultural background.

From Persian language Magoosh means wise, highly-learned and generous one. This interactive portal is designed based on combinatorial modularity approach and cognitive abstraction principles to provide users with certain services by using both technological features and accumulated knowledge gathered from previous tests takers and tests organizers’ experience. In general, designers of this portal did not create something new, not any single part of the whole system. Rather they wisely used already existing hard and software modules to construct the whole portal “building” from the available construction blocks, such as searching engines, communication and computational devices, commonly accepted media symbols, photo and movie appliances, etc. Once the whole portal was constructed from these “blocks”, engineers of the portal “breathed” life to its functioning by uploading it with knowledge gained from previous cognitive experience of organizations or individuals were affiliated to the test taking process. Based on this knowledge they could design this portal as an interactive application which has ability to assess the level of a test taker knowledge and propose recommendations for further preparation period. Math algorithms used by Magoosh engineers make possible to complicate or simplify assignments momentarily reacting to accuracy rate of a test taker. Also, this progressive and regressive evaluation approach for accuracy of answers helps to provide test takers with the same condition which is supposed to be at the real exam.

To increase accessibility of customers and provide them with all options provided by Magoosh portal, company engineers designed the application for smart phones in 2014. Using modularity design principles, the portal designers could adopt the complicated test preparation process for mobile devices and give students a chance to save their time by memorizing words for verbal section or math formulas for analytical section of the chosen exam at any relevant time and place they are.

If the analytical sections of the test preparation process are mostly designed based on math rules and equations, the verbal sections of the exams are designed based on different types of semantic mechanisms and programs to evaluate the grammar accuracy of test takers. The portal engineers customize various symbols and signs to help test takers perform and train quick reaction to the questions which should be answered within short time frame, usually about 50 seconds per each. Considering that all testing exams are designed to be taken through Internet interactive programs, it gives Magoosh more chances to increase the number of its clients providing them with the same approach and mechanisms for tutorial reasons and creating identical condition similar to the real exam environment.

From social perspective, it brings more equity, equality, openness and fairness to the learning process. Everyone, with different cultural and professional background, being connected to internet from any place in the World can get the same access and opportunity to preparation tools of the portal, increase her/his ability and skills to obtain required test scores.

Analyzing Magoosh design principles and features

This section discusses the main elements employed in Magoosh portal to design architecture for the whole system, such as (a) modularity, abstraction and layers as core components for designing the complex systems of the Magoosh portal; (b) cognitive artifacts and symbolic technologies; (c) media features as symbolic cognition tools for the learning process; and (d) algorithmic modules for enhancing interactions between users and portal teaching technics. At the end of this section, possible social aspects originated from functioning of this portal are also reviewed.

(a) Modularity, abstraction and layers as core components for designing the complex systems of the Magoosh portal

Magoosh portal is the best sample of employing modularity design principles to construct multi-media online portal with multiple layers and architectural hierarchy. The main page of the site introduces the general information of the portal and the symbols of test exams, which could be activated as links to open the sub-systems for each test.

Apparently, assembling existing parts in new functional system considers using combinatorial design approach to build new technologies. In the sample of this portal we observe that Magoosh engineers could combine different sophisticated abstraction layers in one functioning subsystems to provide range tutorial services.


Evidently, the combinatorial design mechanism of the whole site is a principle approach for construction learning processes for each test preparation courses. (Further, for better visualization this paper discusses design principles based on Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test.)


GRE is remaining the most popular test exam after TOEFL for entering higher educational programs of Universities in the United States.

test-takers-by-major gender-distribution

To provide the complete version of tutorial GRE course, constructors of the site interconnected multiple modules (or subsystems) with numerous hidden components and functions. In fact, combinatorial approach and modular design requires that components and modules of the whole system connected properly through adjusted interfaces. In addition, working system depends on employing certain standards for interoperability functions of components. On the example of Magoosh portal it is proven that combining existing technologies is effective approach to create new technology. Combinatorial design generates further modularity combinations and increases benefits and efficiency for users within test preparation period. Each segment of the whole system may be employed separately or altogether with group of other modules which provides variety of options for learning process.

(b) Cognitive artifacts and symbolic technologies

Apparently, it would be reasonable to discover now interface design of the portal, as a piece of the cognitive artifact, or how it reveals to its users. Constructors of this portal could assemble two important combinatorial design principles – having used cognitive artifacts and simplifications for easing the whole teaching process to increase its efficiency. Realizing importance of this tutorial portal its architects could satisfy users’ expectations through the site features. They made test preparation mechanisms more affordable and friendly.


Constructors of the site could accumulate 100 million test questions and answer into one site and provide 2 million hours of video lessons. Avoiding other tutorial tactics of generalizing the learning process, Magoosh portal provides individual approach by tuning the whole education course to reflect to certain needs of each students.

screenshot-12 screenshot-13

Using a range capacities of media elements, such as symbolic technics, audio and video lessons, designers of the site make possible to get multimedia cognitive artifacts serving for tutorial needs of users. On other hand, students can take an advantage to get an individual feedback to be focused more on constraints and lack of the certain skills.


Through this approach each user of this site can obtain plenty of required information, various test samples, and her/his answers assessment results indicated in graphs and diagrams to analyze progress of the whole learning process. To ease the studying course for students, engineers of Magoosh portal apply minimalism approach and use flat design technics for portal applications, which indicates through pure-colored block and regular geometries. It helps students to focus their attention on the core required information or features and not be distracted by other characters on the site. In fact, the constructors of the site use graphics, images and other digital media tools to shape the test preparation process in more practical way. To make it more friendly, interactive and attractive, they created efficient interface and affordances tools.


(c) Media features as symbolic cognition tools for learning process

To boost efficiency in the learning process, designers of the site immensely use different type of cognitive technologies and media features, beginning from simple recognizable images and ending with the audio and video lessons. This fair approach makes the whole education process more understandable and place everyone in the same condition to be properly prepared for the real tests. Also, it helps symbolic thought represented in Magoosh learning and software technologies to be cumulative. In fact, the portal media features influence to enhancing cognitive capacities of users and serves to improve both important learning skills – understanding and memorizing. From the technological evolution perspective media features used in Magoosh portal may be marked as outstanding “symbolic species” within development process of human cognitive learning tools. The engineers of the portal used symbolic thought instruments – such as language, analytical and verbal assignments, images, abstract technics, technical mediation, etc. – to increase abstraction and rationality skills of students. In some degree, this portal converged various types of cognitive symbolic systems, such as semiotics, languages, images and combined them through technical modules and software capacity to produce new educational platform to use for efficient learning process. This combinatorial approach opens new horizons for using technological modules interconnected each other to develop learning abilities of students. In other words, symbol systems employed in the portal, their reflexivity (capacity to represent other symbols) increase knowledge comprehension and responsiveness skills of students. Considering the test questions are derived from various academic and social fields, the symbol systems used in Magoosh portal also have collective character.


In designing preparation test, Magoosh engineers used experience of their colleagues and partners working in the same field. In this transition, and in addition to other organizational conditions, the certain attributes of media and symbolic artefacts (such as “store and forward” capabilities) help the site constructors to present previously obtained practical knowledge to new students. Thus, the whole Magoosh portal itself emerged as a symbolic cognition system and combination of abstraction layers to boost the learning process itself. Presenting questions through conventional representations of symbolic thought (such as images and/or geometrical figures), the designers also save linkages between initial sources of previous exam data and contemporary testing systems.


However, tests requirements are improving and changing and test preparation tutorials also should be adjusted to these changing demands. Therefore, designers of the portal utilizing the reflexive nature of symbols, which makes possible to “re-encode one set of symbols to other ones” and create new combinatorial system, where one media system (or meta-media) serves to represent other media systems.

As an important part of GRE exam, designers of the portal also pay special attention to preparation courses focused on Issue and Argument Task Examples (essays) by providing audio and video lessons with rich explanation and step by step teaching writing technics.


(d) Algorithmic modules for enhancing interactions between users and portal teaching technics

Another important option of Magoosh portal is its ability to reflect to each individual needs for learning and preparation process. One of the main goals for Magoosh engineers is to make portal capacity and its attributes tuned properly to the specific preparation requirements of every student. To accomplish this task engineers vastly use various technology and media features, employ combinatorial modularity design principles for composing different abstraction layers and test levels. From technical perspective, the engineers of the site used special mathematical algorithms to reflect every students’ studying progress individually reacting to the accuracy rate of his/her answers to the preparation test questions. In fact, this approach is duplicating the same algorithms which are employed in conducting the real test, organized by Educational Testing Service (ETS) organization, official entity for assessing and grading test scores to be submitted to Universities.


Also, the portal provides students with other individual approaches, such as audio, video lessons divided based on the certain topics, and an option to get in touch with a mentor through e-mails and messengers to discuss the personal learning strategy, to get an advice to improve some certain skills, or understand recommended technics, which is important for achieving required scores.

After signing in, within the toolbars a student can choose “Custom practice” option under the “Practice” button, which opens menu for her/him with new choices to tune the learning process based on her/his personal needs. Among this menu s/he can select such options like “Section” (whether it math or verbal one, and with different types of extensions), “Difficulty” (the level of complication), “Number” and “Time” for test taking, “Mode” (whether to provide explanations for correct answers), and etc. This optional page in the Magoosh portal is a sample of a separate combinatorial modular section, or meta-media system with other multiple media sub-systems embodied in this page.


Upon completion of the probation test, student can choose “Review” option from the main toolbar and realize of her/his progress or regress within studying course. The site also provides charts and schematic images for visualization of analysis of the studying process.

Once student realized her/his weaknesses and areas to be improved s/he has a chance to return to the “Lessons” section and choose the appropriate field for additional tutorial classes and tests.

In addition to the general introduction, the “Lessons” section of the site is composed with consideration all requirements of the real test exam and indicate all possible themes and sub-sections, which may be appeared at the official test. For example, math section covers all possible variations of sub-sections such as General Math Strategies, Arithmetic and Fractions, Percentage and Rations, and etc. Right at the same page, a student can switch to Verbal lessons and sub-sections, such as multiple variation of Text Completion tests, Sentence Equivalence, Vocabulary, Reading Comprehension, and etc. In general, this page comprises all necessary tools, strategies, samples, and information, which requires to pass GRE official exam and get higher scores.

Designers of the site use different types of practical cases, games, and attributes (like flashcards for memorizing) to make the whole learning process more efficient and enjoyable.


To increase accessibility and make it more convenient, Magoosh engineers launched in 2014 the application of their portal for smart phone devices as well. This application replicate the most important features of the main portal and adds more options for using memorizing flashcards for both main section of the test – analytical and verbal.


Also, there is a rich source of practical information is hidden under the “Resources” button on the main toolbar. This section contains such important options as Study Plans (where a student can get plentiful recommendation of how to make the preparation strategy more efficient within the certain period), which sources are the best for defined targets, considering different level of every student, from beginner to advanced one. Also, this section has some additional tools for memorizing formulas and increase vocabular base. And, it also provides some other sources for enriching preparation course (such as Testimonials), to get acknowledged of other Magoosh students’ opinion regarding Magoosh services and opportunities, and to know more about other Magoosh products.

Social impact

From social implications points of view, this site brings more equality and equity to range of students with different backgrounds, financial opportunities, accesses to the source of knowledge. It also opens boarders for international students to compete each other, what leads to rising of the average intellectual (GPA and IQ) level of admitted students in each University. Being relatively cheap in comparing with intramural type of tutorial courses, it makes possible for enrollees with low income to get access to better international schools. Students with technical background using this tutorial site may improve their knowledge in English language grammar and those with social science background can upgrade their skills in math and fast calculation. Also, it is globalizing education process giving a chance for students from different continents and countries to interact and study at the same Universities, to know more of each other and keeping up international relations. In the certain degree, Magoosh through its professional and social activities is connecting people and preparing more educated future generations.


This site does a good job by giving stage to alumni of the preparation programs to share their ideas with new enrolled students. Social aspects of the site are implemented through such link like “press”, “blog”, and can be opened from other social networking portals. It tremendously increases reliability of new students who would like to know more about sites from independent sources. It would be fair to outline that openness at the portal and providing students with tribunes for socializing are implemented impressively. The blog page on the portal resembles all features of the site and performs as media sub-system in bigger meta-media system. The blog page is composed based on all options provided by the site itself to offers students easy access to wanted information.



On the bright sample of Magoosh portal, this research proves that combinatorial design principles bring together already existing technical and software modules to create new technology to be employed in different areas of public life. The number of internet users are growing daily and hourly. Having built on the internet based mechanisms and providing on-line tutorial courses, Magoosh became as a great global source for those who are eager to develop their education and career through education programs at Universities. Magoosh also can be viewed as a platform for social activities, which helps people around the world to connect and know each other.



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