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Good quiz bowl questions are designed to reward players with the most knowledge on a given topic.



This principle is most commonly achieved by pyramidal questions, which consist of several clues arranged from harder to easier.  An arrangement of clues from hard to easy gives more knowledgeable students a better chance to be the first to buzz after recognizing a challenging clue, though an easy “giveaway” at the end makes the question accessible to most competing teams.  Clues are specific, and the first clue exclusively points towards the correct answer.  Just as importantly, the question identifies what is being asked about, using phrases like “this author,” “this leader,” or “this theorem.”  This prevents players from being deliberately mislead by “trick” questions, or confused by questions that do not clarify what the question is asking for.


A good, specific pyramidal question might look like this:


This city is home to the cylindrically-shaped Hirshhorn Art Museum, just west of the National Museum of the American Indian on Independence Avenue. Robert Mills and Maya Lin designed memorials in this city, which lies on the junction of the (*) Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. Eleven of the Smithsonian Institution's museums are on the National Mall in this city, west of the Capitol Building. For 10 points, name this city, home of the White House.

ANSWER: Washington, D.C. (or District of Columbia)

Note -- question from 2013 SCOP Novice


This question opens with a difficult clue (“Hirshhorn Art Museum”) but gradually becomes easier until the “White House” clue at the end of the question.  It is clear the question is asking about a city, while the first clue is uniquely identifying and remaining clues are just as specific. While the question is longer, it is easy (pyramidal questions are no harder than any other type of question) and a team will almost certainly respond with a correct answer.


Poor quiz bowl tossups

There are many different features that make questions poor and inappropriate for meaningful competition.


Single-line questions: Questions with only one (or very few) clues are likely to result in a “buzzer race” where nearly every player is attempting to buzz and players are rewarded for speed rather than knowledge. For example, asking the question “What city is the site of the White House?” will lead to the fastest player, rather than the most knowledgeable player, buzzing in first and giving a correct answer.

Questions that are too hard: “What city is the site of the cylindrical Hirshhorn Art Museum?” is a poor question because neither team is likely to answer the question correctly.


Trivia: Clues about birthdays, alma maters, basic arithmetic, and other information that holds no academic significance are not appropriate because they do not test meaningful knowledge about a subject.


“Hoses”: Queequeg, Ishmael, and Ahab are some of the characters hunting the title whale in a great American novel.  Who wrote Moby Dick?


In this question, a student is likely to buzz in with “Moby Dick” after hearing “title whale” and be ruled incorrect even though the question is uniquely identifying “Moby Dick” in its first line. This question is an example of a “hose”; hoses penalize, rather than reward, more knowledgeable players by offering misleading information.


Factually Incorrect Questions:


The Mon and Dvaravati people developed their cultures in this country’s Khorat plateau and eventually became Mahayana Buddhists. Students from Thammasat University in this country overthrew a dictator in 1973. Taksin the Great of this country was overthrown by Chao Phraya who started its Chakri dynasty as Rama I. Ramesuan I united the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms under a personal union in what would become this nation. Suryavarman II built a temple complex called Angkor Wat in this country. For 10 points, name this country once ruled by the Khmer Empire with a capital at Bangkok.

ANSWER: Kingdom of Thailand


This question misidentifies Angkor Wat as being in Thailand (it is in Cambodia).  Incorrect information is likely to confuse players or cause them to buzz in with the wrong response.




Good bonus questions also distinguish the teams with the deepest and broadest knowledge on a topic. They are read after a team correctly answers a tossup, and give teams the chance to work together to figure out the answer.


Similarly to tossups, good bonus questions use specific clues, identify what the question is about, and have difficulty appropriate answerlines. Unlike tossups, bonuses consist of three parts- one easy, one medium, and one hard (though not necessarily in that order, as all three parts are always read). All, or nearly all, teams at the question set’s difficulty level should be able to answer the easy part, while few should be able to answer the hard. Thus, bonuses are a test of a whole team’s depth of knowledge on a subject (a reason why points per bonus across several matches is a popular measure of a team’s strength).


A good bonus question may look like this:


In a novel by this author, Martians inject the blood of Earth creatures into their bodies as nourishment, but die out when they are unable to defend themselves against Earth diseases. For ten points each,

A. Name this early science fiction author of The War of the Worlds, who wrote about Dr Kemp witnessing the beating death of his former schoolmate, Griffin, in The Invisible Man.

ANSWER: H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells

B. In this HG Wells novel, an unnamed scientist appears suddenly at a dinner party and tells about his travels among the dainty Eloi and the brutish, subterranean Morlocks, theorizing that they are descended from his contemporary upper and lower classes, respectively.

ANSWER: The Time Machine

C. In this Wells novel, Edward Prendick is rescued after a shipwreck and taken to a barbaric laboratory, in which the title scientist vivisects animals to create bizarre half-human creatures.

ANSWER: The Island of Doctor Moreau

Note-- question from SCOP Novice 2016


The bonus has three parts, and each part clearly increases in difficulty (with Wells being the easy part). Each answerline is relevant- HG Wells is a significant science fiction author, and The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau are two of his important works. The clues selected are specific to each work as well as interesting, and the hard part, The Island of Doctor Moreau, is not overly difficult. Each part also uniquely identifies a subject- specifying “this author” or “this Wells novel.”


The Wells bonus is clearly centered around one subject- HG Wells. However, bonuses may also be written centered around a common theme. These are called “common link” bonuses. For example:


For ten points each, name the following important ships in early American history.

A. The first Pilgrims, including William Bradford, arrived in Cape Cod in 1620 aboard this ship. ANSWER: Mayflower

B. In 1839, slaves aboard this ship overthrew the crew and ordered the ship sailed back to Africa; instead, the crew sailed to New York, leading to an 1841 Supreme Court case in which the slaves were freed.

ANSWER: La Amistad

C. In June 1772, this British anti-smuggler boat ran aground off the coast of Rhode Island and was controversially burned by angry colonists.

ANSWER: HMS Gaspee ([gas-pay], but be lenient)

Note-- question is from SCOP Novice 2016


The question identifies the “common link” in the lead in- “important ships in early American history.” The link is specific and interesting- there is a clear, logical connection between each part.


Bonuses which are poorly written often have unbalanced difficulty, which include bonuses with answerlines that are too similar in difficulty, a hard part that is too hard, or too many easy parts. For example, a bonus on Victor Hugo/Les Miserables/The Hunchback of Notre Dame may be too easy, as Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are two of Hugo’s most famous works. However, a bonus on Tchaikovsky/1812 Overture/Symphony no. 4 is not appropriate, as Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony is too difficult to be asked about at this level.


Other poorly written bonuses may include bonuses which do not clearly identify the subject it is asking about, or use a common link that is too disjointed to be logical.

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