Shmoop Uses Humor to Make Learning, Test-Prep Fun

Website Shmoop uses humor to help kids with studying, test-prep.

Feb. 24, 2014 -- There's a reason why nearly 10 million kids a month come to Shmoop to get help with test-prep and studying: The site is funny -- funny in an adolescent way -- their way.

Why the yuks? Because Shmoop surveyed students and found that what they disliked most about conventional test-prep and online learning was that it's boring. So, Shmoop adds jokes, word-play, sarcasm and whimsy. Its philosophy is best summed up by a quip from its introduction to SAT-prep: "Why learn about geometry without ninjas when you can learn about it with ninjas?"

The company is on track to offer some 2,200 educational videos by year's end on topics ranging from Victorian fiction to the periodic table of elements. Its learning guides cover math, science, social science, literature, the arts and music. It offers test prep for the ACT, the SAT, AP exams and more. The one thing tying together this multiplicity of offerings is Shmoop's irreverent, sophomoric sensibility. Who's the source?

Its founder, David Siminoff, supplies it personally. "It's my sense of humor," he told ABC News. "I basically stopped maturing before my bar mitzvah."

Shmoop (the name is a Yiddishism for "move something forward a little") isn't for everyone, he concedes. Some teachers, he said, have reacted negatively to Shmoop's lightheartedness, saying, in effect, that they believe learning ought to be hard and dour: that it ought to hurt to learn. "We've actually had a few teachers tell us students don't want to be entertained -- that we're inappropriate," Siminoff said.

Shmoop uses 400 writers -- most of them graduates of Ph.D. and master's programs at Stanford, Harvard and others of what Siminoff calls long-hair universities. Many of them have taught in high school, and thus have an intimate familiarity with what makes students laugh and/or puts them to sleep. "I read all their stuff," Siminoff said of his writers' output. "If it doesn't make me laugh, I send it back. I'm the canary in the coal mine. Most of us here grew up on 'The Simpsons.' The writers we hire are all pretty socially immature, like me. We ask them, when they interview with us, to name the ten funniest TV series. If they don't say 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman,' they don't get a second interview."

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The company hires kids, too. During the school year, it keeps six or seven high school students on staff to write and edit. In the summer, that number balloons to 30 or 40.

If all that Shmoop was delivering was laughs, it would not have earned the loyalty of its many millions of customers, Siminoff said. But in addition to laughs, it delivers results, he said.

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The company points to case studies in which students using Shmoop content dramatically improved their performance: At Indio High School in Indio, Calif., average SAT scores jumped 119.6 points after students were given Shmoop test-prep. At Tustin High School in Tustin, Calif., the AP test pass rate doubled from 40 percent to 80 percent in one year for all enrolled students, after the school added Shmoop AP coaching.

Shmoop makes money three ways. It sells advertising on its site; it sells courses and coaching programs directly to customers; and it licenses its content to schools, Siminoff said.

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Pricing is deliberately kept low. "Rich kids have always had test-prep," Siminoff said. "We wanted to offer courses priced at $5 or $10 a unit, so that students and parents would see it as totally a good deal. Testing is here to stay. In the next 10 years, there will only be more of it, not less. Preparation is the key. If you don't have prep, you're going to be left behind."