Tag Archives: Lower Division

Getting Questions for Your Tournament

Author: Dwight Wynne

Level: Intermediate

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


One of the biggest problems that people encounter when trying to run tournaments is finding a set of questions on which to run their tournament. However, getting questions is not hard if you know where to look. This article will explore:

  • Benefits and drawbacks of ordering from a major national provider (NAQT or HSAPQ)
  • Benefits and drawbacks of “mirroring” (running a tournament using the same questions as) an independent tournament
  • Benefits and drawbacks of writing your own set of questions
  • Some examples of factors you should consider when deciding how to obtain questions

Ordering Questions from NAQT and HSAPQ

Ordering questions from a national question provider has a number of advantages. First, you know what you will get when you order the questions: both NAQT and HSAPQ provide high-quality questions for a little over $15 per participating team (HSAPQ is slightly less expensive for small tournaments and slightly more expensive for large tournaments). Second, ordering questions from these companies is as simple as sending an e-mail to the correct e-mail address; both companies are prompt with their responses and you will know less than 24 hours after sending that e-mail whether or not they have a packet set for you to use. Third, both NAQT and HSAPQ are ready and eager to answer any questions newer teams have about running a tournament; if you have any question about what to do, chances are someone at your chosen question provider will be able to walk you through it. Finally, NAQT does an excellent job of publicizing your tournament through its website (HSAPQ less so), and both companies are devoted to outreach. These companies will help you find teams for your tournament.

However, there are some drawbacks to ordering questions from a national provider. The major one is that each company produces a limited number of sets each year, and each set can be used only once in a general area, so if you are in an area that hosts many tournaments during the year, every set from your chosen provider may have already been ordered by another team in your area. In addition, many sets from these national providers are completed only shortly before the set’s first use, so if you would be the first use of a tournament set, you may have to make it exactly clear weeks in advance the absolute latest you would be able to receive the set.

Mirroring an Independent Tournament

Independent tournaments are written by a group that comes together one time to write one set of questions for use at their own tournament. Well-written independent tournaments have many of the same advantages of the major national question providers: you will get high-quality questions for a reasonable per-team fee, and you will likely be able to talk to one or more members of the writing team if you have problems with your tournament. Because many independent tournaments are written by high school players and coaches, some people think that independent tournaments may more accurately test what high school players know.

However, there are some drawbacks to mirroring an independent tournament. First is the potential difficulty in publicizing your tournament and attracting teams. NAQT and to a lesser extent HSAPQ are “name brands” that most teams recognize; whatever independent tournament you are mirroring probably isn’t. You also will not have anyone stumble upon a mention of your tournament. What this means is that you will have to do all the team recruitment yourselves. Second, independent tournaments are of highly variable length, difficulty, distribution, and quality. You know what you will be getting with every NAQT or HSAPQ set you order; if you want to mirror an independent tournament, you will have to find one that closely matches how you want the questions to look.

Writing Your Own Tournament

You can run your own independent tournament by writing your own questions. Doing this means that you get to set your own guidelines for distribution, length, and format. It also means that you are in charge of what answers are selected and what clues are given for those answers. Writing your own tournament is also one of the best ways to get better at learning the clues and answers that regularly show up at the high school level.

However, writing a tournament can be a daunting task. You need to have one person in charge of making sure that everyone on your writing team meets the deadlines you set. You need to have one person in charge of making sure that there are no repeat questions, and one or more people in charge of editing every question to the length and difficulty you want. Finally, you need to start writing and editing the moment that you decide to write your tournament and not stop until the time that you need to print out the questions or send them to mirror sites. Writing a tournament requires a major investment of time and effort on the part of everyone involved.

What Not to Do: The “It’s Not That Hard” Fallacy

Writing a tournament, especially a good tournament, is harder than it looks. It takes longer to write and edit a question than you think it will. It takes longer to compile packets than you think it will. People will flake out on you and not write their questions, or will procrastinate and get their questions to you late. If you commit to writing a tournament, you need to plan for it being harder than you think it will be. Thinking “it’s not that hard” will result in a packet set that looks and feels rushed, if you finish it at all. Set small deadlines for when specific little pieces of the tournament should be done, and stick to those deadlines. If you find yourself missing deadlines, ask other people (other team members, other high schoolers in other parts of the country, college players) to help you out, and ask early.

Weighing Your Options

I’m going to assume that you’ve decided that you don’t have the time or experience that you would like to explore the option of writing your own questions, and that you are looking to order questions from somewhere else. Here are some variables that you should consider:

Field Strength

What kind of teams are you trying to attract to your tournament? If your area has a lot of new teams, you may want to try to find a “novice” tournament. Novice tournaments are typically run on NAQT A-sets or an independent tournament specifically catering to novices (e.g. Fall Novice, HAVOC). Most tournaments want to attract everyone from nationally competitive teams to freshman C teams, and will go with a “regular high school difficulty” tournament. NAQT IS-sets and most HSAPQ Tournament Sets are advertised at this “regular difficulty” level; most independent tournaments are also written at this level. If you expect a field with many nationally competitive teams, you may want to consider using an independent set that is traditionally regarded as skirting the upper edge of “regular difficulty” (e.g. Harvard Fall), or a set marketed to college novices (e.g. NAQT Sectionals Division II, Minnesota Undergraduate).


Most independent tournaments and national providers use a variant of the tossup-bonus format. HSAPQ also offers a couple of tournaments a year in the four-quarter format (ten tossups, ten tossups with bonuses, directed round of ten questions to each team, ten tossups). If you want questions in a league-mandated format that is not one of these formats, you may want to see if there are independent tournaments using a similar format. You may also want to ask NAQT or HSAPQ if they would be able to adapt one of their pre-existing sets to your specifications; both companies are usually open to minor modifications of their sets, but would have trouble fulfilling your request if it is too different from their standard fare.

Distribution and Length

NAQT has significantly more questions in the areas of popular culture and current events than HSAPQ; HSAPQ has more questions in fine arts and religion/mythology/philosophy than NAQT. Independent tournaments will often advertise their distribution. HSAPQ and most independent tournaments do not write computational math tossups; NAQT gives hosts the option to include or exclude them.

Another consideration is the length of tossups. NAQT institutes a strict 425-character cap on the length of their IS-set tossups; HSAPQ’s questions are longer but do not exceed six lines of text. Independent tournaments can have tossups range in length from one line to seven lines depending on the tournament.

What Not to Do: Buying Blind

The single biggest mistake people make when finding questions for their tournament is buying questions with only limited information about the questions themselves. Simply put, if you don’t know what you’re getting into when you order a packet set, don’t order it. Some basic rules of thumb are: know the distribution of the set you’re getting, and know how likely the question provider is to skirt around that distribution by doing things like listing Dude, Where’s My Car? in the Fine Arts distribution; know not only how long the questions are but how many buzzable clues are contained in that length (ask to see a sample packet if you’re not sure); know the target difficulty of the tournament and how likely the writers are to hit that difficulty; know how much you’re supposed to pay for using the questions; know when you’re likely to get the questions and how much work you’re likely to need to do to make them “acceptable” for the teams at your tournament.

Asking For Help

There is nothing wrong with asking for help if you’re not sure how to get questions for your tournament. If you have a good idea of what specifically you want, you can ask trustworthy, experienced tournament directors in your area for recommendations, or you can post your question in the Theory/Newbie Help section of the hsquizbowl.org forums and get answers from a nationwide group of players, coaches, and tournament directors. It may also be a good idea to monitor the “National and Regional Comparisons and Discussion” section of the forums to see what independent tournaments are offering their questions for mirrors, and contact the people in charge of those tournaments if you see a set description that strikes your fancy. Finally, if you’re completely at a loss for what to do, you can rarely go wrong by looking at NAQT’s and HSAPQ’s sample sets and ordering a set of the type that you like best.


  • NAQT and HSAPQ are the major national providers of high-quality pyramidal questions; their help in running a tournament and attracting teams make them a good choice for first-time tournament directors, but their sets may sell out early in your area.
  • Independent tournaments are quite variable; many of the best ones offer benefits similar to those of NAQT or HSAPQ without those of a nationally-recognized company name, while the worst ones have major problems that you should stay away from.
  • Writing your own set of questions can be a valuable and rewarding experience, and gives you complete control over how your tournament looks; however, it is much more time and labor-intensive than it initially seems.
  • When considering where to order questions from, you should consider your target field strength, the format of the set, and distribution and tossup length, among other things. Don’t commit to buying questions unless you know what you’re getting.
  • It’s allowed and encouraged to ask for help in choosing a question provider for your tournament, but you should have some idea of what you want your tournament to be before asking. If you really have no idea, it is hard to go wrong looking through the NAQT and HSAPQ samples to find something you like.

About the Author: Dwight Wynne has directed tournaments in Southern California since 2003.

Focus on Statistics: Using SQBS

Authors: Donald Taylor and Dwight Wynne

Level: Intermediate

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

The second part of this special Focus on Statistics double feature contains a downloadable guide to using the popular statistics program SQBS. The first part, which can be viewed here, focuses on the many duties a statperson can perform in addition to just keeping statistics.


Donald Taylor and Dwight Wynne co-authored a guide to using SQBS for the Fall Novice Tournament. Freelance Quizbowl University is now proud to offer the guide as a downloadable Microsoft Word file.

Click this link to download the SQBS Guide

Audio Quizbowl Studying

Author: Mike Bentley

Level: Beginner

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


There are many ways to study and improve at quizbowl. One of the most effective tools I’ve found for getting extra study time out of my day is through listening to audio resources such as audiobooks, audio lectures, podcasts, and more. I’ve been able to “read” a lot more in the past few years than I used to by listening to audiobooks while walking to classes, while driving, at the gym, at work, etc.

This guide will give an overview of:

  • where to find audio resources
  • how to put them on to the device of your choosing
  • how to best employ them for quizbowl

Listening Devices

The most basic tool required in using audio material to study for quizbowl is having a device to play these audio resources on.

CD Player

The simplest way to do this is with a CD player. Any CD player, including the one in your car, should do the job adequately. Ideally you’ll want to obtain a CD player that has decent support for resuming where you last left off. Most cars do this automatically. There are also a small number of audiobooks available as MP3 CDs (these are CDs that are filled with compressed MP3 files to hold more information than a regular CD), so it might be worthwhile to find a CD player that can play these.

MP3 Player

An MP3 player like an iPod can also be used to great effect, although it usually takes a bit more effort. Unless you’re downloading material online, you’ll probably need to rip the CD or DVD to a format your MP3 player can read (specifics on how to do this are covered in a later section). One thing to keep in mind when choosing an MP3 player for listening to audio studying material is that you’ll want to pick a player that has a good “pick up where you left off” feature. For instance, if you’re switching between books and music, is it easy to get back to where you last left off in the book?

Tip for using iPods

If you’re using an iPod, chances are you’ll lose your place if the plug the iPod into the computer or switch what you’re listening to. In order to figure out what you last listened to, plug the iPod into your computer and in iTunes look at the “play count” field for the playlist you’re listening to. The last track you completely listened to should have a “1” next to it. Annoyingly, there’s no way to get this information from the iPod itself.

Tape Player

While the cassette tape hasn’t been a viable medium for commercially released music in well over a decade, many audiobooks are still released on cassette and chances are your local library will only have some of the material you want in this format. There’s also not a very good way of putting the contents of a cassette onto an MP3 player like there is with a CD or DVD. Thus, I suggest trying to find an old Walkman or a stereo system that still plays cassettes. In some ways cassettes are more convenient than CDs or even MP3s, as you’ll always be able to stop and pick up at the exact point you left off later.

DVD Player

Finally, a DVD player can be useful for watching things like the Art Lectures provided by the Teaching Company on DVD. To get the most out of these courses, I find it helpful to take notes like I would if I was in an actual class.

Getting Resources on Your Listening Device

If you’re just using a CD player, then this section is pretty straightforward: just put the CDs in the device! However, if you’re listening with an MP3 player, or want to listen to resources that aren’t available on CD, this is a little more complicated.

Ripping CDs to an MP3 Player

There are lots of programs available that can do this for you. Pretty much any music player (Windows Media Player, iTunes, etc.) has the ability to do this for you. My favorite ripping software is a tool call dBpoweramp, although you have to pay for it. This software lets you burn to MP3s (many other programs only let you burn to proprietary formats), is really fast, and if you also rip a lot of music it has good resources for looking up track information. However, I believe it’s only available on PCs.

What not to do: Automatic Tagging

One thing to take note of when ripping CDs is that it’s quite common for the identifying information for the files you’re ripping to be inaccurate, inconsistent or non-existent. For example, say you’re ripping 20 discs of Moby Dick. It’s quite common for Disc 1 to format all of its tracks with the following title: “Moby Dick – Herman Melville”. Disc 2, meanwhile, might format the tracks like: “Moby Dick – Disc 2 – Track 001”. Disc 3 might have its tracks formatted like “Unknown Artist – Unknown Track”. Thus, if you use the suggested tag information, it will become very hard to find what you’re looking for later and may result in the tracks being played out of order. I suggest that, instead, you turn off all automatic tagging and manually name the files something like “Moby Dick – Disc 01”.

Once you’ve ripped the files to your computer, simply add them to your MP3 player and start listening.

Ripping DVD Audio or Video to an MP3 Player

In order to get this data from a DVD to your MP3 player, I suggest using tools provided by imToo Software (available on both PC and Mac). For around $30 you can purchase either their DVD -> MP3 ripping software or DVD -> iPod Video ripping software. It’s possible that there are some freeware solutions for doing this, but I haven’t personally tried them and can vouch that imToo works pretty well. Once you rip the files to either MP3 or video, simply add them to your MP3 player.

What not to do: Ripping Before Cataloging

The Teaching Company doesn’t do a very good job of labeling the sections of its DVD, and, unlike in the audio lectures, there’s no audio introduction of each lecture. This means you’ll need to do some annoying manual work to properly name the ripped MP3 files. I suggest that you use the imToo software to preview what each lecture number is before you rip it and write down what filename it corresponds to so you can rename the files later. This will help you avoid hearing lectures out of order.

Putting Podcasts on an MP3 Player

This should be very easy. Almost all software meant for connecting an MP3 Player to a computer (e.g. iTunes, Zune Media Center) will support doing this automatically. Just look for the option to “sync” the podcast to your MP3 player automatically.

Putting Computerized Readings of Packets on an MP3 Player

This is the most complicated operation in this section.

Tools Needed for This Operation
  1. A text-to-speech tool. I know this comes built on Macs and I believe you can now enable this on Windows. I’ve personally used the “Speak” feature available in the right-click menu of the Opera web browser to do this, but there should be multiple programs out there that accomplish this task.
  2. A tool to record the sound playing on your computer. Audacity, which is completely free, is a good tool to do this.
Steps to Record a Computer Reading a Quizbowl Match
  1. Download and install the tools listed above.
  2. Find a packet that you want to record the information for.
  3. Do a search and replace for the following lines of text
    1. Replace “ANSWER:” with “5. 4. 3. 2. 1. ANSWER.” This will give you time to think about the answer before it’s read.
    2. Replace any new lines without any text with “3. 2. 1. Next Question.” (you can do this in Word by searching for “^p^p” and replacing it with”^p3. 2. 1. Next Question.^p”). This will add a more natural pause in between questions.
  4. Copy the packet to a .txt file to get rid of all of the extra formatting that might mess up your text-to-speech program.
  5. Start Audacity and create a new recording. You’ll want to set it up to record for around 45 minutes.
  6. Follow this guide to configure setting up Audacity to record the sound coming from your computer.
  7. Start recording.
  8. Input all of your text into your text-to-speech program and start it speaking.
  9. Stop recording when the packet has finished being read.
  10. Save the file as an MP3 file (see http://audacity.sourceforge.net/help/faq?s=install&item=lame-mp3 for instructions on how to do this).
  11. Add this MP3 file to your MP3 player.

Source Material

Now that we’ve covered how to get resources on to your player of choice, let’s talk about the resources themselves.


Audiobooks are one of the key resources available for audio quizbowl studying. If you’ve never listened to an audiobook before, they consist of books read aloud, usually (but not always) by professional narrators. Audiobooks come in two forms – abridged and unabridged. For quizbowl purposes you’ll still get a pretty good summary of the work with an abridged edition.

In general, it takes about 4 hours for a narrator to read 100 pages of a book. Thus, some of the longer books in the quizbowl canon can take over a day of continual listening in order to complete.

How to get Audiobooks

I don’t suggest buying any audiobooks. They’re typically much more expensive than regular books, and you’re probably only going to listen to them once.

Instead, head to your local library (note: I’ve found that school libraries, which tend to be more research oriented, usually don’t have very good audiobook resources). Depending on the size and quality of your library, you should have hundreds to thousands of audiobooks readily available, although only a subset of these will be useful for quizbowl purposes. At first I suggest you just go to the library and search through the selection for books that you’re interested in or have heard come up before in quizbowl. You’ll probably have to sift through a lot of mystery audiobooks, but at first there should be enough new material to fill up your queue for several months. Eventually you’ll want to start viewing the card catalog for specific authors and using resources like holds and inter-library loans to get books not available at your own library. I also suggest you occasionally go to other libraries in your county to find a different selection of audiobooks.

Many libraries also have subscriptions to Overdrive Audiobooks. These are DRM protected audiobooks that you can download for a few weeks and listen to. They’ve recently added support for the iPod and also support “Plays for Sure” devices, so chances are your MP3 player will work with these files. It’s generally easier for search for quizbowl-friendly works on this site than on your library.

In addition to the library, you should check out http://www.librivox.org. This site offers free audiobooks for works in the public domain. One of the benefits of this site is that almost all of the books on here are useful for quizbowl purposes. Additionally, it tends to have a better non-fiction selection than any other resource. The downside here is that the people making the recordings are amateurs. The sound quality is always going to be worse on a LibriVox recording than a professional recording, sometimes to the point of making them unlistenable. Also, the narrators are usually worse than professional narrators, meaning they’ll stumble more, have more annoying ticks with their diction, etc.

If you are willing to pay for audiobooks, online options are probably your best bet. Sites like Audible and eMusic let you download one audiobook for around $10 a month. These sites will tend to have a better selection than your local library, and will also have the books categorized a lot better (for instance, it’ll be a lot easier to find “classics” on these sites than at your library). Another option is Simply Audiobooks, which is essentially Netflix meets Audiobooks. For around $15 a month you can get one audiobook at a time. This site probably has the best selection around, but is more expensive than the other options.

Studying a Specific Subject Using Audiobooks

The two subjects that are the easiest to study through audiobooks are literature and history. Specifically, you can easily find a host of audio recordings of classic novels, biographies of U.S. Presidents and so forth. It’s a little more difficult to find resources for poetry, drama and short stories, but especially famous examples of these genres are available (e.g. Shakespeare plays, Fitzgerald short stories, etc.).

Other subjects are a little more difficult to find good material for, but if you’re inventive you should be able to find some resources. Here are some starting places for particular subjects of quizbowl interest. Note that this list doesn’t mention Audio Course Lectures (described below), which are probably your best source for studying outside of history and literature.

  • Science
    • Stephen Hawking’s two major books are available in audiobook form.
    • Biographies of famous scientific figures like Einstein and Newton can be easily found.
    • Richard Feynman recorded a series of lectures that cover a broad array of physics topics.
    • Lots of “history of science” works are available.
  • Religion
    • All of the Bible is extensively available on audiobook.
    • You should probably also be able to find commentaries on Judeo-Christian texts.
    • There are several histories of early Islam available.
    • Richard Dawkins has most of his stuff on audiobooks, if you want to count that as religion.
  • Mythology
    • Greco-Roman myth is well covered with audio recordings of books like The Odyssey.
    • It’s also possible to find “fairy tales” that cross-reference things like Norse mythology.
    • You should able to find a lot of books that cover Arthurian myth.
    • You might be able to glean some information from the more academically based fantasy works that are often available on audiobook.
  • Philosophy
    • Many of the more famous Platonic Dialogues are available in audio form.
    • Some Nietzsche works (e.g. Thus Spoke Zarathustra) are available in audio form.
    • Librivox has a better selection than most places when it comes to philosophical works.
    • I personally find philosophy a bit hard to follow in audio form, but your mileage may vary.
  • Social Science
    • Some popular non-fiction (e.g. Guns, Germs and Steel) can be found in audiobook form.
    • Contemporary, popular economic texts are available in audiobook form.
  • Current Events
    • Lots of political works (e.g. The Secret History of the United States, most memoirs of politicians, attacks on either Democrats or Republicans) are available on audiobook.
    • Bob Woodward has several of his “modern history” works available on audio.
  • Geography
    • Works like “My Invented Country” by Isabel Allende (describing the culture of Chile) and “Death in the Afternoon” by Ernest Hemingway (describing the culture of Spain) are available in audio format.
    • It’s probable that travel guides are also available in audio format, but I haven’t looked specifically for these.
  • Arts
    • Biographies of famous figures like Da Vinci and Beethoven are readily available.
    • While they are not necessarily audiobooks, audio recordings of classical music, opera, and jazz can often be found in the same or a nearby section of the library.

Audio Course Lectures

Audio Course Lectures are an ideal way to study quizbowl. The two main sources for audio lectures are courses released by The Teaching Company and The Modern Scholar. In general, lectures from the Teaching Company tend to be more in-depth and they offer a wide range of courses, although there is some interesting stuff in the Modern Scholar. Both of these companies also offer course books which can be useful to review the material. They’re also decent sources to write questions from.

Like regular audiobooks, these courses are pretty expensive to buy. Your local library should already have a wide selection of these courses. See the audiobook section for more information on how to obtain materials like this.

There are also several recordings of courses online. I’m generally not a fan of these courses, as they usually weren’t designed to be presented to someone listening on their MP3 player, meaning that the production value is low, there’s extraneous overhead (“remember to study for the test next week”), and the professors are less engaging. If you do want to explore these, MIT offers several courses online, and browsing the “educational” podcasts in a place like the iTunes Podcast Directory are a good place to find them.

If I’m at a computer while listening to course lectures, I find it helpful to take notes. Writing down the details of a lecture can help you remember it more, and also provides you some useful information when writing questions.

The following are some good history courses I’ve listened to:

  1. Byzantine Empire – Modern Scholar
  2. History of the Crusades – The Teaching Company
  3. Famous Greeks – The Teaching Company
  4. Emperors of Rome – The Teaching Company
  5. American Civil War – The Teaching Company
  6. History of the Supreme Court – The Teaching Company
  7. The Supreme Court – Modern Scholar
  8. Americas in the Revolutionary Age – The Teaching Company
  9. From Yao to Mao – The Teaching Company
  10. History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts – The Teaching Company
  11. Victorian Britain – The Teaching Company

I’d suggest avoiding these history courses:

  1. Tocqueville and the American Experiment – The Teaching Company
  2. European History and European Lives – The Teaching Company
  3. Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights – The Teaching Company

Misc. Video Resources

Sometimes a particular source is only available in video format. For instance, most of the art lectures put out through the Teaching Company are only released on DVD. Also, some libraries will have a better selection of regular Teaching Company courses on DVD than on CD. Other resources sometimes only available on video include recordings of plays and operas.

In general, you won’t miss anything in most Teaching Company lectures by only listening to audio. The art lectures are the only ones I’ve found so far where having images is very important.

Podcasts of Quizbowl Games

There are two main sources for podcasts of quizbowl games. NAQT has podcasts of many of the recent HSNCTs and ICTs available at their website at http://www.naqt.com/podcasts/. You can also find a lot of recordings of various collegiate and some high school tournaments at http://www.qbwiki.com/wiki/Quizbowl_Cast.

These podcasts are often fun to listen to, but sometimes it’s difficult to hear things like answers to questions. Additionally, if you’re listening to matches between high level teams, you might not hear enough clues to really learn about a subject.

Computerized Readings of Quizbowl Packets

Having the computer read quizbowl matches can be a very effective way to practice on questions when you don’t have other people around to read them to you. For more details on how to do this, see the section on “Putting Computerized Readings of Packets on an MP3 Player” in the Getting Resources on Your Listening Device section.

These recordings have advantages and disadvantages over actual recordings of quizbowl matches. The main advantage is that you get to hear the entire question. Also, all words will be at a uniform volume. The disadvantage is that the computer isn’t very good at pronouncing some words, so you’ll sometimes miss important clues or won’t be able to decipher an answer.

Conceivably you could also record yourself reading a packet to no one and listen to that later. This would avoid the problem of not being able to figure out what the computer’s saying.

Misc. Audio Resources

Subscribing to various podcasts from NPR and other news organizations can help you stay abreast of current events.


  • Audio resources are an overlooked and underappreciated way to study for quizbowl, and can be used in many situations where other resources cannot.
  • Almost any listening device can be used to study for quizbowl. Resources in CD form are often the easiest to use, though with some effort it is also possible to use MP3 players, tape players, or DVD players.
  • Audio resources that can be used to study for quizbowl include computer-read packets, audiobooks, recordings of lectures, and recordings of quizbowl games.
  • Making and studying your own audio resources, such as recordings of packets or actual games, can provide great benefit for relatively little effort.

About the Author: Mike Bentley attended the University of Maryland where he got his degree in Computer Science and History. After leaving the Maryland Academic Quiz Team, Mike moved to Seattle where he now helps out with quizbowl teams at the University of Washington and Bellevue College. Mike frequently listens to audiobooks and also records the Quizbowl Cast, a podcast of Quizbowl matches.

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.).