The Build: Behind the Scenes Q&A


The Build: Behind the Scenes

What does it take to build three new test preparation products for a simultaneous launch? A lot of persistence, adaptability, and creative thinking! Below, Dawn Drisdale, Instructional Design Manager, and Jeni Daley, Technical Product Manager, give us a sneak peek into the vision and processes behind creating CollegeSpring’s new Digital SAT, ACT, and TSIA2 (Texas Success Initiative Assessment) products.

Please share a bit about yourself and your role at CollegeSpring.

D: As the Instructional Design Manager, I oversee product development, ensure quality assurance, design user experiences, and cultivate organizational expertise in all CS products and tests. Before this role, I was an educator and instructional specialist for 12 years. Throughout my career, I have consistently prioritized instructional technology, recognizing its potential to foster equitable learning experiences for adults and students. I continue to believe this and bring this practice to my work here at CollegeSpring.

J: I’m the Technical Product Manager who oversees the direction of the products we’re creating. I helped a lot with the design and build of the products. Prior to this role, I was a teacher for 8 years, so I try to bring that teacher perspective into every decision we make with our products.

What excites you about the products?

D: I am thrilled by the versatility of our products. Their streamlined design facilitates customizable implementation, providing endless possibilities for instructor-student interactions. While these products prioritize student-centered experiences, they are also remarkably teacher-friendly. With minimal planning required, our resources and guides seamlessly support teachers, even those less familiar with the content, in effectively executing product implementation.

J: I love that it empowers teachers without adding to their workload. We know the relationship between the teacher and the student is crucial to success, so the products that we created are the tools that seamlessly fit into that relationship. Since it’s intentionally built to be plug-and-play, teachers don’t have to spend a lot of time planning (everything is already created and 100% ready to go), nor do they have to spend time grading (almost everything is automatically graded and shows up in the gradebook). The frustrating thing about being a teacher is you never have enough time; we get that and prioritized it while building.

If you could tell people one thing about the products, what would it be?

D: The practice tests for every product provide a closely aligned experience to the exams that students take. Each practice test was designed with a meticulous dissection of the product’s test specifications to ensure alignment and provide students with the most accurate representation of what they will see on the actual exams. I think it’s amazing we are able to create these experiences for students because it will help them better prepare for high-stakes exams and reduce test-taking anxiety.

J: The Desmos calculator is embedded throughout our ACT and Digital SAT products. Although a lot of students and teachers have heard about this digital graphing calculator, few actually have experience with it. It’s a complicated tool! Even if students are familiar with a physical calculator, learning how to work with one digitally is a different beast. I’m super excited we’re able to provide them with tons of exposure to build that knowledge ahead of time.

Running three large projects at once with a small team can be tricky- what strategies did you use to keep it all straight? How long was the build for each?

D: Tricky doesn’t even begin to describe it! Our team, although small, showed up in a big way. We all had to wear many hats to get the job done. Although we used many resources like trackers and templates to build the content, human resources were the primary resource throughout the process. One major strategy we used was to leverage our team’s talents and expertise. For example, our ELAR specialist not only created content to be built but also proofread to ensure our products were of high quality. We could not have done it without each team member putting in immense work behind the scenes.

J: It was tricky! But we’re small and mighty, and everyone jumped in to create rhythms that helped us get through the tightest bottlenecks in our schedule. One of the major strategies we used was to track each detail of the build through elaborate project trackers, updating design scripts, and discussing the nuances on an almost daily basis. We kept this question at the forefront throughout our work: what is best for students and teachers? That meant that sometimes we backtracked to correct or change something, even if it meant more work, because making another tool that’s confusing and hard to use doesn’t help anyone. We wanted to have a real impact on our partners.

Were there any major obstacles during the build process? What kept you up at night?

D: One of the biggest challenges during the build process was the amount of change. There were changes in personnel, operations, and industry that all happened throughout the process. The build followed certain processes in the beginning, and then changes were made, which caused previous builds to be out of alignment with newly established parameters. Ensuring consistency and alignment for three significant products being built simultaneously through all the changes was a major obstacle we overcame. Our main focus was to ensure all products were high quality and would be highly effective tools in the classroom.

J: The AI boom introduced a strange tension during our build – it gave us new creativity and new challenges. It was good for us to stop and think, “Are we doing this the right, most efficient way?” And we found some tools to help increase that efficiency. But at the same time, there seemed to be this weird pressure to immediately dive into AI and build your whole product around it, even before understanding its ethical compass and implications. For example, AI tutors sounds amazing, and some products have move in that direction, but there are some really serious implications that could come of that, like cheating, incorrect knowledge being drilled into students’ heads, and even the lack of human connection that comes from a bot. It felt like we were (and still are) having these conversations frequently about how to make something great with incredible tools without losing the humanity of the students we serve.

How are these products innovative or better than what’s on the market?

D: Our products allow the teacher to be a facilitator of knowledge. Unlike other products, teachers are still very much an integral part of the process, and our product fosters that connection. The content is streamlined in its design to be implemented in many ways that best suit the classroom environment. Teachers have the ability to run small groups with tailored slide presentations that walk students through strategies and steps for solving problems, while another group of students can work independently or with partners to apply those strategies to practice questions and receive instant feedback on their progress. With this flexibility, teachers are able to create targeted experiences for students to help increase their Test Confidence and chances for success.

J: A lot of products try to eliminate the teacher, or they are only focused on content that’s on the exam, like math question examples. We try to break everything about the official exam down for the student – what the format looks like, how it’s scored, tips leading up to the exam, strategies for when you’re anxious and don’t know the answer, etc. The tests are nerve wracking, so we want to build their confidence just as much as their knowledge. I also think we serve teachers better than other options.

What happens if someone submits feedback? Do you actually read all of those surveys?

D: Absolutely! We genuinely value feedback and take it very seriously. Every submitted survey and comment is read, discussed, and becomes an essential part of our improvement process. We are always eager to listen and learn how we can further meet the needs of our partners and exceed their expectations.

J: Yes! We absolutely read them, discuss them, brainstorm ways to improve our products with the comments, and drive the future of what we provide based on the feedback we receive. Our students and teachers are priority number 1, and we’re all ears on how we can serve them better.

What happens now that these products are released? 

D: Once the products are released, this starts a whole new gear to turn in the overall product development cycle. As the product is being used, we collect feedback and data to help inform iterative refinements and adjustments to ensure the product meets its intended goals and objectives. We ultimately want to ensure that our products are equitable, accessible, and effective for all students to reach their full potential and have a chance to achieve their postsecondary goals.

J: We start enrolling students and teachers, and they begin using everything we’ve built! As we hand off from our internal development team to our partner success team, all of the hard work goes out into the world and begins addressing students’ needs. Our goal is to make college accessible to all, and we play our part by preparing students for high stakes exams.