36 University offers ACT assistance

photo ACT preparation materials for students attending the 36 University ACT Prep Class are seen at the Hamilton Family YMCA on Thursday.
photo Kendal Shipley works on test preparation with students during a 36 University ACT Prep Class at the Hamilton Family YMCA.

Nearly every student will take the ACT at some point in their educational odyssey.

Most fear the hated test, which measures college aptitude with a hard-nosed number grade that maxes out at 36. The math section alone requires students to complete 60 problems in 60 minutes. That doesn't leave much room for playing with Pythagorean theorems or scribbling out formulas.

Some parents shell out hard cash for their kids to study sessions designed to help them help beat the system. Those sessions can cost hundreds of dollars and last for hours and hours, soaking up valuable weekend time.

"Nobody wants to sit through a four-hour session," said Kendall Shipley, co-founder of 36 University.

Instead, Shipley and partner Chris Green plan to launch test preparation into the short-attention-span theater of the online universe without sacrificing the immediacy of a classroom setting. Shipley and Green have spent about $40,000 to launch a new website that translates the arduous process of test preparation for a generation that will grow up more comfortable with Twitter than Tennyson.

Flaunting convention, they're not launching the business out of a hip downtown incubator or exposed-brick creative space. Instead, they're founding it in Shipley's home in Ringgold, Ga., a town last made famous as the site of a furious tornado on April 27, 2011.

But the duo didn't just wake up one day and decide to challenge education giants like Kaplan, Inc. For a year, Shipley has tried out his formula using in-person prep classes with students throughout the Chattanooga region. On Thursday, he set up a classroom at the Hamilton Place YMCA, which brimmed with black light spin classes, swim lessons and basketball scrimmages as night fell.

Shipley travels light, with just a laptop, projector display and document camera to show his work to students. Wearing khakis, a button-down shirt and comfortable shoes, Shipley looks every bit the 13-year veteran of the public school system.

"What's wild about the SAT and ACT is that teachers like myself make these tests so that the numbers will turn out sort of clean," he explains to a trio of students sitting in a green cinder block room.

"You don't want to turn one problem into two complicated problems."

Prepping for the ACT is all about shortcuts. Nearly ever ACT test uses a so-called 3-4-5 triangle. If you know that one side of a triangle is three feet long and another is 4 feet long, you can bet that the third side will be five feet long without doing a bit of math.

If you can get away with not using a formula, go for it. Spend extra time studying the problems that occur more frequently. Take advantage of the calculator.

"I have no idea why these aren't banned," Shipley said, demonstrating an easy way to shave previous seconds off the math portion of a test.

The ACT loves to test subject-verb agreement by cramming as many words as possible between the two parts of the sentence. Typically, the correct answer in the English section will be the one with the least punctuation.

"I want you to start thinking like test writers think," Shipley told his class.

He's an inspiring, energetic speaker who breaks down complicated concepts quickly, rendering them simple. He gives sound advice that his students -- at first quiet and a bit disengaged -- began lapping up by the end of the first hour. The students seem like they're actually learning. One admits she hates punctuation, but within minutes begins to understand how to use the semicolon, which is not one of English's most forgiving punctuation marks.

The problem is that Shipley can only be in one place at a time. One man, one classroom. So he decided to try something different. He started by studying every ACT test he could get his hands on, approaching the questions like a scientist -- which, thanks to his Ph.D, he technically is -- and ranking problems by frequency. Then he began looking at how competitors taught the lessons.

"We looked at other companies and they're basically video teachers," he said. "They'll have some teacher like me up there and they'll put it up on a PowerPoint."

Students are less than enthusiastic about watching a live person, much less a video of a person, drone on and on. So Shipley began exploring ways to condense lessons down while retaining the interest. He settled on using motion graphics to convey complicated concepts quickly.

"We started looking at ways I can take the concepts and make them more engaging," he said.

Seated in a Burger King booth earlier in February, he pulled out his iPhone and tapped the screen. Instead of Shipley's enthusiastic visage, a cheery British narrator guides students through a brief lesson while shapes and numbers fly around the screen.

Out comes the 3-4-5 triangle, taught this time in animated form. To teach how ACT test makers disguise 3-4-5 triangles, an animated person pumps up the triangle to make it bigger, demonstrating something that Shipley has wanted to show students for years.

"For years in the classroom, I wished I could show somebody similar triangles by pumping up triangles. I can do that in 15 seconds now. I've wished I could show size and trig. Or redundancy. Now I can," he said. "We don't ask kids to sit down for two hours and take a practice test. You can log into our site and take a semicolon quiz, and from a test bank it's going to generate five items for you."

The price for parents is $50 per month for unlimited access to the 21 lessons and 1,000 practice problems. If students complete the quizzes and lessons and don't improve their ACT score, Shipley will refund their money, he said. All of it.

The market, potentially, could be huge. If his shtick works, as he claims it does, there are tens of thousands of potential customers in nearly every U.S. state.

"To give you an idea, on Tuesday, in the state of Tennessee there are going to be about 50,000 kids taking that test, so I'm not even scratching the surface," he said.

36University is already being piloted in Knoxville and Memphis in Tennessee, as well as several school districts in Mississippi and Arkansas, he said. Shipley hopes to begin bringing in revenue this month.

For most websites, a visit of one minute and 30 seconds is average. So far, 36University boasts an average visitor time of nine minutes -- exactly how long it takes to watch a single video and take a quiz.

Yet there are still challenges before the product turns a profit. Shipley is going up against big education behemoths for whom spending $40,000 is as consequential as buying a can of Coke.

He also has limited intellectual property protection for his method of teaching. While most test prep videos don't currently use animated infographics, that could change soon.

Plus, no one knows what type of marketing budget he'll need to generate to advertise to every student interested in taking the ACT.

"If I'm going to be in California, what kind of funds does that take? Will we eventually have capital to compete nationally? I don't know that," he said.

Finally, something he doesn't know.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

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