Tag Archives: Freelance Quiz Bowl University

Introduction to the Pyramidal Question

Author: Dwight Wynne

Level: Beginner

This article was originally published through PACE’s now-defunct Freelance Quizbowl University program.


The pyramidal question is the tool of the good question writer. The pyramidal question consists of a series of clues, each pointing to the same answer, arranged in order from most difficult to least difficult. The pyramidal question can thus be viewed as a “pyramid” in one of two ways. The standard representation depicts the question as an inverted pyramid; as more clues are read, the set of answers a player could be considering contracts, until hopefully, only one – the right answer – is left. However, I think of the pyramidal question as more of an upright ziggurat; as more clues are read, the percentage of players who can correctly buzz increases. In this article, we will explore the following questions:

  • What makes a good tossup?
  • Why does the pyramidal question meet each of the requirements for a good tossup better than a short, speed-check question?

Good Tossups Should Be Answered More Often by Players with More Knowledge

Pyramidal tossup (Lily handout)

Tossups are called “pyramidal” because tossups start with hard clues and proceed to increasingly easier clues, allowing players with the deeper knowledge of the topic to buzz in first. Diagram courtesy of Lily Chen’s handout.

This requirement derives directly from the purpose of quizbowl as a knowledge-based competition. Quizbowl is a game in which players demonstrate knowledge. A player with more knowledge of the topic, then, must be more likely to answer the question than a player with less knowledge. Otherwise, there is little to no point in actually asking the questions; the game might as well consist of players pressing buttons as soon as a light goes on.

A good pyramidal question inherently satisfies this requirement. A pyramidal question can be considered a series of short questions, each pointing to the same answer. These short questions are organized in a way such that the hardest question is presented first, with the other questions arranged in order of descending difficulty until you get to the end, which is the easiest question. Thus, a player that can answer a harder question will almost always answer the pyramidal question before a player that can answer an easier question. Because the harder questions typically require greater knowledge to be answered, we can safely conclude that the pyramidal question rewards players with greater knowledge.

What not to do: The Lecture Question

The “lecture” question appears to be pyramidal, because it is as long as a pyramidal question, but it is not. The lecture question includes several lines related to the background behind the answer; in other words, this question reads much like a textbook or lecture with the name of the answer removed. The problem with the lecture question is that the “lecture” clues neither successively taper down the set of possible answer choices nor give additional information that the player may be able to uniquely associate with a particular answer. New question writers should take care to avoid descriptive or background-setting sentences that lack concrete facts; these sentences are useful in a lecture when everyone knows what is being described, but are generally useless in a tossup when everyone is trying to figure out what is being described.

Good Tossups Should Be Answerable by Most Teams

This requirement derives from the concept that quizbowl should be a fun game. No one finds enjoyment in a game in which less than half the tossups are answered. Thus, the question writer shoots for a high target conversion rate; for most tournaments, the benchmark is that the tossup should be answered in 80 to 85 percent of rooms. If a tossup is not answered at a rate comparable to the intended conversion rate, it is usually a poor tossup, regardless of whether or not it fits the other criteria.

The pyramidal question is not inherently an easy question. Like any other question, its difficulty is determined by both the answer and clues selected. However, a one-line question is never easier than a pyramidal question containing the same one line. A question will be answered by the union of the sets of students who recognize and buzz correctly from each clue contained in the question. Since the pyramidal question contains all clues already present in the one-line question, plus additional clues, it must follow that at least as many students can answer the pyramidal question as the one-line question.

It is interesting, then, that many proponents of one-line questions believe that pyramidal questions are “too hard.” There are two simple explanations for this. The first that longer questions and a lack of time limits allow players more time to build up negative impressions of an unanswered question, so players will perceive these questions as harder than the equivalently unanswered one-line question. The second is a corollary that arises from the need of one-line questions to be answered: although a team will always answer more questions in games with pyramidal questions, they will also recognize fewer clues; thus, teams that focus on how many clues they recognize (or nearly equivalently, how long it takes for them to answer the questions) will perceive these questions as harder, even though paradoxically they are answering more of them!

What not to do: The Obelisk Question

Many question writers, even experienced ones, often make the mistake of thinking that if they know the answer from a particular clue, then everyone else will buzz off of that clue. They also make the mistake of thinking that they absolutely must use clues that will stump even the best players. These assumptions lead them to write tossups that have several lines of clues that almost no one will get, followed by a giveaway that seems to be tacked-on as an afterthought. I call these questions “obelisk” questions, because the percentage of players that can buzz stays roughly constant until the end. One suggestion for avoiding this pitfall is to write “from the giveaway up;” that is, consider clues that many players know, then clues that slightly fewer players know, then clues that good players know, then clues that the best players are likely to know. Lead-ins that challenge the best players then get tacked on to the beginning if there is still room in the question.

Good Tossups Should Have the Potential to Educate Most Players

This requirement derives from the concept that quizbowl should both reinforce and stimulate learning. A good question should contain information that a player may not know now, but may find interesting enough to remember. It should also stimulate a player’s intellectual curiosity, such that a player may want to learn more about a specific clue or the answer choice itself.

Every clue in a well-written pyramidal question is designed to both reward the players who have knowledge of the clue and educate the players who do not. Because of the nature of the pyramidal question, only a small percentage of players will answer the question early; even at the end of the question, it is not expected that every player will know the answer. The “extra” lines, then, serve to give additional facts that hopefully both narrow down the possible answer space and pique the player’s interest in the tossup answer. Perhaps players will remember a specific clue that their opponent buzzed from; perhaps they will find an early clue highly memorable; perhaps they will hear the giveaway and remember that they should have remembered which answer went with this clue. In each case, learning is going on, whether a player is first being exposed to the topic, learning a new fact about the topic, or reinforcing a fact once forgotten.

By contrast, the short question provides the potential for education to fewer players. Players who know the one or two clues in the question have the opportunity to learn nothing; while the same can be said for the players who know the opening clue to a pyramidal question, far fewer players answer the opening clue of a pyramidal question than do the opening clue of an equivalent short question.


  • A good tossup satisfies three criteria: it allows players with more knowledge to score more points than players with fewer knowledge, it is answerable by most teams at an event, and it has the potential to educate players who either do not answer the question or use the question as practice.
  • The pyramidal tossup does a better job than the one-line tossup of discriminating among different knowledge levels, because it can be thought of as a series of one-line questions, each successively answerable by players with slightly less knowledge.
  • The pyramidal tossup is always answered at least as often as a one-line tossup containing the same clue.
  • The pyramidal tossup has a much higher potential to educate players than a one-line tossup.

About the Author: Dwight Wynne joined PACE in 2009. He currently writes high school questions for NAQT and HSAPQ.

Quizbowl 101: Jargon for the Everyday Quizbowler

This is a special preview article for Freelance Quiz Bowl University. New articles will debut every other Thursday starting January 28.

Level: Lower Division

Most courses at FQBU are going to use a lot of jargon. Because we’ve been involved for so long in quizbowl, we sometimes forget how confusing it may be for someone entirely new to the game to understand what we’re talking about. This article consists of a glossary that gives brief definitions of basic terms used in everyday discussion of quizbowl.

Bonus – a question or series of related questions on which all players on a single team can confer as to what they think their answer is. In most formats, bonuses consist of three 10-point questions on a single theme.

Bonus conversion – a statistic describing the average number of points a team earned on a bonus. A bonus conversion above 20 is considered very good.

Bracketed round-robin – a popular format for both preliminary rounds (q.v.), playoff rounds (q.v.), and consolation rounds (q.v.), in which teams are grouped into brackets and every team plays every other team in its bracket exactly once.

Buzz – as a verb, to buzz in (q.v.); as a noun, refers to the act of doing so.

Buzz in – to indicate that one thinks one knows the answer to the tossup (q.v.) by pressing the buzzer (q.v.).

Buzzer – can refer to an individual player’s signaling device (e.g. “My buzzer’s broken!”), or to the entire buzzer system (q.v.).

Buzzer check – a customary test run before a match is played, to ensure that all buzzers (q.v.) are working correctly. Often, teams will be asked to give player names for which player corresponds to which buzzer during a buzzer check.

Buzzer race – occurs when two or more players buzz in (q.v.) at almost exactly the same time.

Buzzer system – a system consisting of eight or more individual signaling devices, a console, and a reset button (q.v.). The buzzer system is the primary piece of equipment used in quizbowl matches. Also called a lockout system, after the act of “locking out” players who have buzzed in (q.v.) after the first player to do so.

Clue – any piece of information in a question that might allow a player to identify the answer.

Consolation rounds – matches offered at the same time as playoff rounds (q.v.) for teams that did not make the playoffs. In many areas, it is customary for teams to stay for the consolation rounds and play other teams of similar skill level. Some tournaments use consolation rounds to generate a final ranking of non-playoff teams.

Distribution – refers to the number of tossups (q.v.) and bonuses (q.v.) in each subject area that appear in a packet (q.v.) or packet set (q.v.). Distributions are often written as X/Y, where X indicates the number of tossups and Y indicates the number of bonuses.

For Ten Points – a phrase used at the end of tossups (q.v.) to indicate that the giveaway (q.v.) is about to be read. Alternatively spelled For 10 points or abbreviated FTP.

FTP – for ten points (q.v.).

Generalist – a player whose knowledge base covers most or all subject areas.

Giveaway – the last sentence or phrase of a tossup (q.v.), which in the pyramidal (q.v.) style contains the easiest clues (q.v.).

Hsquizbowl – the site hsquizbowl.org, which is home to the Quizbowl Resource Center. Sometimes also refers to the forums on that site.

Interrupt – neg (q.v.).

Lead-in – for a tossup (q.v.), the first sentence or phrase, which in the pyramidal (q.v.) style contains the most difficult clues (q.v.). For a bonus (q.v.), the sentence read before the first bonus part, which typically contains the words “for ten points each.”

Lockout system – buzzer system (q.v.).

Mod – moderator (q.v.).

Moderator – the chief official of any single match. He or she reads the questions, recognizes players that have buzzed in (q.v.) on tossups (q.v.), rules on the acceptability of answers, enforces all timing rules, and keeps the game moving. Sometimes abbreviated as “mod.”

Neg – to buzz in (q.v.) while a tossup is being read and give an incorrect answer. Negging typically results in a five point penalty for the team whose player gave the incorrect answer, and so the point deduction is sometimes also called a neg. Also called interrupt and Neg-5.

Neg-5 – neg (q.v.).

Packet – a set of questions used in every match that takes place during the same round.

Packet set – a set of packets (q.v.) that comprise the entirety of questions asked during the tournament (q.v.), though some contain more packets than are actually used at the tournament.

Playoff rounds – typically take place in the afternoon, and feature the best teams from the preliminary rounds (q.v.) playing each other to determine a champion.

Power – an exceptionally early correct buzz (q.v.) that earns an extra five or ten points, or the act of earning those extra points via a correct buzz.

PPG – stands for Points Per Game, a statistic computed by dividing a team or individual’s total points by the number of games played. In the standard tossup-bonus format (q.v.), very good teams typically average over 300 points per game.

Preliminary Rounds – typically take place in the morning, in which teams play a variety of teams of different skill levels. The most popular preliminary round formats are bracketed round-robin (q.v.) and Swiss pair (q.v.).

Prompt – to ask a player for additional information when the given answer is not specific enough to differentiate between a right answer and one or more plausible wrong answers. For instance, a player might be prompted upon answering “Bronte,” to differentiate among Emily, Charlotte, and Anne.

Protest – an argument that an answer that should have been accepted or prompted (q.v.) was not, or that an answer that should not have been accepted or prompted was. Protests are typically brought to the attention of the moderator (q.v.) at the end of the question on which the perceived error occurred, and ruled on at the end of the game if an upheld protest would potentially change the outcome of the game.

Pyramidal – an adjective describing tossups (q.v.) that begin with hard clues (q.v.) that few players are expected to know, and progressively give easier clues, such that players with more knowledge of the answer are likely to buzz in (q.v.) before players with less knowledge.

Quizbowl – a competition in which two teams of players answer questions on a variety of topics, often by buzzing in (q.v.) when they know the answer. Also called quiz bowl.

Quiz bowl – an alternate spelling of quizbowl (q.v.).

Scorekeeper – a game official that keeps the official score for the game. He or she keeps track of all individual and team points for both teams. Sometimes the moderator (q.v.) functions as a scorekeeper as well.

Specialist – a player with excellent knowledge in one or more subject areas.

Statkeeper – an official that collects scoresheets from every round of a tournament (q.v.) and enters their results into a statistics program, then makes team and individual statistics available to participating teams and the general public, typically by posting the statistics online.

Stats room – A room headed by the statkeeper (q.v.), where scoresheets are sent at the conclusion of every match. Sometimes also encompasses the functions of the war room (q.v.).

Swiss pair – a preliminary round (q.v.) format in which, every match, teams play other teams with identical or near-identical records.

Thirty – to earn the typical maximum of 30 points on a bonus. Similarly, “zero,” “ten,” and “twenty” are also used as verbs to describe how many points a team earned on a bonus.

Tossup – a question read to both teams, during which any play can buzz in (q.v.). The first player to buzz in and give the correct answer typically earns 10 points for his or her team.

Tossup-bonus format – a common match format for tournaments (q.v.). Each cycle begins with the reading of a tossup (q.v.). If either team correctly answers the tossup, that team earns a bonus (q.v.). Play ends either after 20 tossups have been read or after a format-dependent amount of time has passed.

Tournament – a weekend competition in which all teams play a series of matches one after another until a winner is been determined and all other teams ranked from second to last place.

Tournament director – an official in charge of all aspects of a tournament (q.v.). Sometimes abbreviated TD.

War room – a room headed by the tournament director (q.v.) in which paper copies of packets (q.v.) are stored, staff members congregate, and protests (q.v.) are resolved. Sometimes also encompasses the function of the stats room (q.v.).

PACE Introduces Freelance Quiz Bowl University

PACE believes that the true measure of good quizbowl players and coaches is not just how many points they have scored or tournaments they have won, but also how they have served the larger quizbowl community. Quizbowl as it is known today would not exist without the thousands of hours enthusiastic volunteers put in each year to write questions and run tournaments. PACE believes that one of the biggest obstacles to better questions, better tournaments, and better teams is that players and coaches often do not have a good reference for how to improve their questions, their tournaments, or their teams.

PACE has established Freelance Quiz Bowl University to teach others how to write good questions, run good tournaments, become a better player, or do any number of other things its members have learned to do through years of experience. Every other Thursday, Freelance Quiz Bowl University will debut a new set of “online lecture notes” on a topic important to quizbowl theory or practice.

Freelance Quiz Bowl University will divide its articles into three tiers: “lower division” articles will cover basics and are designed to help new players and coaches get into the game as soon as possible; “upper division” articles will cover more advanced topics or highlight a specific aspect of writing questions or running tournaments; “graduate division” articles will discuss finer points of quizbowl theory and are designed for the experienced player, coach, question writer, or tournament director looking to improve even more. Whether you’ve just been introduced to quizbowl or you’re part of a perennial national championship contender, PACE hopes to help you improve in all aspects of your quizbowl career.

If you have a suggestion for a Freelance Quiz Bowl University article topic, please contact Dwight Wynne at dpwynne@gmail.com.