So You Want to Study Quizbowl

This is the holding pen for the best threads containing quiz bowl talk.

So You Want to Study Quizbowl

Postby Mewto55555 » Sun Feb 10, 2013 10:45 pm

Having seen and posted in a number of similar threads in the New Teams and Theory sections, I decided it was probably time to make another “So You Want To” mega-post, à la So You Want to Write a Housewrite. The idea of this one is simple -- I’m aiming for it to be a place to share all my thoughts on studying for and improving at quizbowl, and a place to attack many of the current problems I see with quizbowl as it is today.

This is not intended to be a “How to Study” thread, sorry! There is far from a guarantee that my or anyone else’s study strategies will work perfectly for you. I will, however, share my study techniques with you, and invite others to do the same. Also, note well that I am a high schooler and this is a high school forum -- while some of the things may be applicable to college quizbowl, I have no actual idea!

To start, I’ll discuss the “evolution of a quizbowler” through the stages of his lifestyle -- much as the child proceeds from sensorimotor all the way to the formal operational stage and beyond, so too can the quizbowl life cycle be divided into distinct parts. The difference, of course, is that many quizbowlers choose different places at which they “peak” -- a particular individual may quit after the first practice, or she may stop improving once she is a 50 ppg player, or perhaps she will continue play indefinitely, constantly improving throughout her quizbowl career.


Everyone in their quizbowl career begins, at some point, as a total neophyte. They walk into their first practice, a bit nervous, a bit unsure, and totally not comprehending what is going on. As time goes by, they begin to understand the flow of the game, basic strategy, and to realize that they do indeed have some knowledge (though after the first practice, they will all inevitably claim to be stupid -- if such occurs with a new member of the team, assure them that they are mistaken!). I assume most people reading this post are no longer in this “what is going on here” stage, but, if you are, to progress all you need to do is go to a tournament or two and show up to tons of practices! The best thing you can do here is enjoy yourself; you’ll get beaten by teams with lots of knowledge, but hey, quizbowl’s fun! One day you too can be the big smart scary team, but not if you quit here!

Now time has progressed; you sort of know what you’re doing. You’ve stopped buzzing when you know the answers to bonuses, and you’ve started to remember a few things coming up in practice. Maybe you’ve noticed that the same answer came up this week as did last week. Or maybe you saw your A team play in the finals of a tournament and are awed by their skill -- how did they learn all those things?!? It is at this “I sort of know a few things” stage of your career that you are beginning to grasp the fundamental concept of the "Canon". I’m sure there is a better explanation out there, but to put it succinctly: there is a finite number of things that can reasonably be asked about -- the goal of question writers, especially at regular difficulty and on tossups, is to ask things you have a way of knowing. In literature, you’re going to see lots of Shakespeare and Hemingway, in history, lots of World War II and Abraham Lincoln, etc. My general rule, back when I was in this stage, and even now, was: “If you hear it once, it might be a fluke. If you hear it twice, it’s worth knowing.” At this point, your best strategy is to just read through as many packets as you can, familiarizing yourself with what comes up -- don’t worry about specifically learning any clues, but it is worth at least reading through the questions; stuff will inevitably stick to you, if you’re focused. This is where Protobowl can be the most handy, but don’t go to the lobby: make your own room so the questions aren’t all getting buzzed on in the first line by some guy who has memorized them, and so you can go at your own pace, maybe looking up things you haven’t heard of. This isn’t a high-intensity step, and most people end up stopping here -- ultimately, at this stage, you’ll want to have heard of much of what comes up, and know maybe a tiny bit about each thing.

Moving into the next stage, you’re probably feeling pretty good about yourself -- you’re doing some damage at the local level thanks to your ability to get most things by the end, you’ve probably started actually doing dedicated study for quizbowl at this point. However, the top teams in your circuit still pound you regularly; while you’re at the cusp of making playoffs of every tournament you attend, there’s that team which will power everything and you’ll only be able to pick up off their negs. This is where most people get stuck on where to go forward from here -- it’s one thing to have heard of everything, it’s a whole lot more difficult to know lots of things about everything. At this point, I recommend trying to learn at least one thing for each new question -- reading tons of packets is still key. If I 10 a bonus, I look up the medium part, so I’ll 20 in the future. If I 20 a bonus, I look up the hard part. If I get a tossup in the second-line, I look up the first line, etc. At this point, you also need to be augmenting your study with acquiring “realer” knowledge -- in literature, read the source material, in art, look at pictures of the paintings, in science, read a textbook so you can figure out what all those formulas Actually Mean, and so forth. Here, a study strategy should start to coalesce -- for me, I’m a flashcard + repetition program, so I use Mnemosyne. Different things work for different people. At this point too is when you probably want to figure out what type of player you are. Are you a generalist? Do you have any particular specialties? Even if you are a generalist, find your specialties -- the best generalists are those who are killer in one of the Big Three and decent everywhere else.

You do this enough: boom, you’re a top scorer on a top team. Whatever you’ve been doing works, so keep doing it. Real knowledge becomes more important as you get better and better. Also, you’ll probably graduate soon -- take a young’un or two under your wing so your team lives on.

Alas for you, Reader, this post continues from here, because I have lots of things to say.


Do not misinterpret the heading of this section! Quizbowl should be fun; it is the most fun thing I do, or else I wouldn’t do it.

Unfortunately, many young quizbowlers are drawn astray from the path of success by new-fangled technology. When I was starting, it was those who only played scobowl, then it was the people who lived off QBDB and skypebowl (with Saturday night Chip!), now it’s Protobowl.

I would never want to discourage people from having fun with quizbowl, and if you are enjoying these activities, that is a wonderful thing. At the same time, you must recognize that your study time is best used actually learning stuff. If you spend 1 hour reading packets and 1 hour goofing off on facebook or reddit or the internet activity du jour, then you have clearly spent just 1 hour studying. If you spend 1 hour reading packets and 1 hour goofing off on Protobowl or Skype, and you don’t learn anything besides how to buzz on questions you’ve seen before, I would posit that you are still only spending 1 hour studying. The problem is not how you spend the hour of your “free time”, the problem is that so many people convince themselves that time spent on Protobowl, even if nothing new is learned, is being spent just as wisely as the time spent on packets or reading books, and in doing so end up spending less time on the more boring but more productive ways and more time on the less productive ones.

Briefly, time spent on studying is only productively spent if you learn new things.

Another problem with protobowl is the dearth of bonuses. I don’t know whether it doesn’t have bonus reading capabilities, or people don’t utilize it, but bonuses are half the game for a reason! As I recently alluded to in quite the morass of a thread, strategies that on occasion work for tossups screw you over on bonuses (if you know A is “associated with” B, C, and D, then which of those three do you say for a bonus???) In addition, because bonuses usually require knowledge of one simple fact, they provide good sources of clues you don’t know. Bonuses are key, people!


Recently there has been a trend of threads insisting that one can get good via “stock clues”: the one linked in the last section, this one, and this one about lit. Here’s the truth: if you memorize word associations and titles and all sorts of “stock” clues, you will be good. If you do it enough, you will be very good. This is, frankly, all you really need to do to get to that third stage -- take your team around the edge of the top 25 (for now, though with quizbowl’s growing popularity, that might be harder to do in a few years) and dominate much of the local circuit. However, if this is your shtick, people who are really good will in fact beat you regularly, and you will be terrible at answering bonuses. Also, your performance will drop precipitously at nationals and above-nationals levels, or on well-written sets.

More harmful, however, is you aren’t getting much of the real benefit from quizbowl -- I’m not talking about a boosted power count or PPB or anything like that, I’m talking about the actual benefits: exposure to cool new things, an incentive to seek more knowledge, etc. I’ve read dozens of books I’d have never dreamed of opening before I played quizbowl, and loved most of them (Jane Austen, you still suck!); don’t deprive yourself of similar opportunities.

Somewhat relatedly, people, stop calling everything “stock.” If something is an unimportant detail that keeps getting mentioned, then its stock. If a clue is legitimately important and is coming up past the power mark, it’s not stock, it’s just something you need to know!

If you are the captain/leader of your school’s team, and you insist to your young charges that the game can be won by memorizing “stock clues” and making “word associations,” you are doing an incredible disservice to the game. You aren’t just giving people incorrect information about how the best way to learn is and sabotaging their growth. You are, probably without realizing it, driving tons of people away from quizbowl -- countless students see quizbowl as a silly memorization exercise with no importance because the authority figures on the team portray it that way, and quit as a result. If you aren’t going to learn to play the game right for your sake, at least do it for other peoples’.

To dovetail into a brief discussion of myself, people are often surprised when I tell them that I flashcard, since they associate flashcards with list memorization and word associations.yes that was intentional
My flashcards are all complete-sentence questions of things I want to know (for example “What is the capital of Liechtenstein?” or “What country is Vaduz the capital of?”) I use my cards not as my main body of knowledge, but rather as a way to trigger my memory (so if I have the card “What novel is Raskolnikov the protagonist of?”, it reminds me of when I read Crime and Punishment and all the things that happen within. Knowing “Raskolnikov=Crime and Punishment” is not the objective, but knowing that Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment whose protagonist is Raskolnikov is the foundation for my C&P knowledge. My brain operates like a system of filing cabinets, and within the lit cabinet is a folder that says Dostoevsky and within the Dostoevsky folder is a Crime and Punishment sheet, the heading of which is a quick plot summary, and lower on the page more details). The flashcards are merely a skeleton outline, giving me a way to compartmentalize my deeper, “realer” knowledge. As I said earlier, do what works for you to help you remember stuff, but don’t expect anything which amounts entirely to learning things which can be expressed in simple sentences to be super-useful to you. There’s no magic bullet -- whatever tack you take is going to require work to get good (unless you have a deer antler supplier).


My favorite pet topic, since it is one of the biggest problems in quizbowl now: many of today’s housewritten questions aren’t great. They aren’t terrible; most are certainly a step up from agrammatical, apyramidal clusters of nonsense words of yesteryear. Sadly, Matt Weiner’s promised manifesto on this topic last summer never materialized, but his not-so-cryptic

My opinion is that the average HS-produced set is declining in quality due to the mistaken belief that "pyramidality" is the only thing that matters, and a consequent lack of regard for solid clue selection, rewarding of real knowledge, proper English, and difficulty control. Expect more in this summer's hottest manifesto.

post on the subject suggests basically everything that needs to be said. Most of this word association madness is mildly successful because question-writers, particularly high schools attempting to housewrite, are incredibly lazy, liberally borrowing clues from old packets and not bothering to do the work required to produce a good question set. When I write, I do not look at a single old question until my tossup is complete -- only then do I check the archives and move stuff around if I realize I have misjudged the knownness of a clue or two. Write your questions far enough ahead of time you can produce a quality product; jumbles of “stock clues” will hopefully be lambasted on the forums. If people start writing questions well, then bad studying practices will quickly become useless.


This is the last bit I wanted to touch on in this post. Many of you reading this post have reached one of the final two stages of your quizbowl development, where regular difficulty is indeed beginning to get rather easy -- I do not say too easy, since I have yet to see a person average 20 powers a game or 30 ppb, but very easy nonetheless. At this point, you should definitely consider preparing for and playing higher level stuff. Certainly, it is good practice for eliminating any bad habits you may have acquired (if you’re one of those “it’s always quartz or feldspar!” people, you’ll soon find out you’re mistaken), and it exposes you to lots more things which do indeed come up at the high school level.

Please don’t misread this heading and assume I’m saying high school sets should be harder!

Anyway, that’s sort of all. To sum up, stop calling things stock, put in the time required to get good in a legit way, and demand and produce quality questions (soon-to-be-college-aged students: I am under the impression HSAPQ and NAQT always want more quality writers! Help the community out! And if you're house-writing, do a good job of it!). I think I covered most of the bases -- please post your thoughts and any questions you may have!
formerly of Ladue, Chicago
User avatar
Forums Staff: Administrator
Posts: 709
Joined: Sat Mar 13, 2010 9:27 pm

Re: So You Want to Study Quizbowl

Postby vinteuil » Sun Feb 10, 2013 11:15 pm

This post is an excellent reason why the "Best of the Best" forum should be revived.
Jacob Reed
Yale '17, '19
East Chapel Hill '13
"...distant bayings from the area inhabited by the musicological mafia"―Denis Stevens
User avatar
Posts: 1115
Joined: Sun Oct 23, 2011 12:31 pm

Re: So You Want to Study Quizbowl

Postby Geriatric trauma » Sun Feb 10, 2013 11:31 pm

I fully endorse everything Max said in the above post. My experience in high school was pretty similar to his--yes I played tons of #scobowl and a fair amount of skypebowl, but the majority of what I learned came from reading books/packets/articles I looked up while reading a packet. I focused on studying bonuses, not tossups, because that's what interested me more, and I almost always contextualized associations within a sentence like "Stephen Kumalo is the main character of Cry, The Beloved Country, which is written by Alan Paton and set in South Africa". Not to toot my own horn, and I can't quite speak from Max's position of authority, but in just one full year of going to tournaments, my team went from 19 PPB on an IS set at a local tournament where we barely made the playoffs to 20 PPB at HSNCT, a mark only 11 teams reached, and tying for 21st.
Ryan Rosenberg
Taking classes at DePaul | North Carolina '16 | Ardsley '12
User avatar
Geriatric trauma
Posts: 1093
Joined: Thu May 05, 2011 5:48 pm
Location: Chicago, Illinois

Re: So You Want to Study Quizbowl

Postby AKKOLADE » Sun Feb 10, 2013 11:54 pm

perlnerd666 wrote:This post is an excellent reason why the "Best of the Best" forum should be revived.

No kidding. This is one of the best posts ever made on this forum.
Fred Morlan
PACE Vice President of Outreach, 2017-18
International Quiz Bowl Tournaments, co-owner
University of Kentucky CoP, 2017
hsqbrank manager, PACE member (former President and At Large member of Board), NAQT writer (former subject editor), HSAPQ freelance writer, former hsqb Administrator/Chief Administrator, 2012 NASAT Tournament Director
User avatar
Posts: 14879
Joined: Thu Apr 24, 2003 8:08 am

Re: So You Want to Study Quizbowl

Postby Auks Ran Ova » Mon Feb 11, 2013 2:36 am

Fantastic post--I've stickied it, since everyone should read it.
Rob Carson
University of Minnesota '11, MCTC '??
Member, ACF
Member, PACE
Writer and Editor, NAQT
User avatar
Auks Ran Ova
Forums Staff: Chief Administrator
Posts: 3922
Joined: Sun Apr 30, 2006 10:28 pm
Location: Minneapolis

Re: So You Want to Study Quizbowl

Postby i never see pigeons in wheeling » Mon Feb 11, 2013 3:15 am

I will additionally proffer that I endorse "intermediate" studying methods like reading Wikipedia articles, Sparknotes, or Encyclopedia Britannica, none of which (I believe) were mentioned in Max's post, not because they're any substitute to accessing material contained in a book but because they are the happy medium between the quiz bowl dilemma of allocating scarce time between breadth and depth for most material that is likely to be answered in a given match (because even the most committed exclusively lit player, for instance, does not have the time to read every work contained in the literature canon). Quiz bowl should act as a catalyst for reading books, however, and you will derive true benefits by actually reading about the material that comes up. I can attest to the fact that the best quiz bowl players I know also happen to be the most prolific readers I know (which is no coincidence).
Cal '16
Bellarmine College Preparatory '12
User avatar
i never see pigeons in wheeling
Posts: 340
Joined: Mon May 31, 2010 3:57 am

Re: So You Want to Study Quizbowl

Postby Adventure Temple Trail » Mon Feb 11, 2013 11:49 am

Mewto55555 wrote:Recently there has been a trend of threads insisting that one can get good via “stock clues”: the one linked in the last section, this one, and this one about lit. Here’s the truth: if you memorize word associations and titles and all sorts of “stock” clues, you will be good. If you do it enough, you will be very good...

Somewhat relatedly, people, stop calling everything “stock.” If something is an unimportant detail that keeps getting mentioned, then its stock. If a clue is legitimately important and is coming up past the power mark, it’s not stock, it’s just something you need to know!...

If you are the captain/leader of your school’s team, and you insist to your young charges that the game can be won by memorizing “stock clues” and making “word associations,” you are doing an incredible disservice to the game. ...

To sum up, stop calling things stock...

I'm going to take this one step further. I would like to humbly request that the term "stock clue" be retired entirely from the quizbowl lexicon. The term has been abused almost exclusively to mean "any clue that I, the utterer of the word, recognize from as few as one previous question(s)," and is almost never used to describe clues which are actually causing a problem for gameplay on a wider scale. People invariably do a really terrible job when they attempt to report which clues are "stock" - almost every example I've ever seen has been exaggerated by someone who happened to learn the clue and perceives a HUGE PROBLEM with the clue which isn't really there, due to confirmation bias. (I used to do this myself). It's gotten to the point where a small warning goes up in my mind whenever I hear someone use the term "stock" seriously, telling me that I should mistrust their judgment.

I can't think of a situation where another, less-loaded word or phrase doesn't describe the problem with a given clue better. If a clue is too hard or too trivial or too dumb to be used often and you know enough about the source material to make an informed judgment, say so. If a clue has been recycled a lot lately, say so (but it's probably not a huge problem outside the national top 50). If a clue is too early in a given question, say so. If lazy writers crib a given clue to fill out a question without reassessing its objective importance, they should stop. I find that the mere reuse of an objectively-important, power-worthy clue across questions multiple high school sets in the first, second, or third line is rarely a game-breaking problem, especially when the universe of knowledge is relatively constricted to start with, and I can't think of any way of changing that reality without making this game way more unforgivingly difficult for everyone.
Last edited by Adventure Temple Trail on Mon Feb 11, 2013 3:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Matt J.
ex-Georgetown Day HS, ex-Yale
member emeritus, ACF

Sailing away on my copper boat
Adventure Temple Trail
Posts: 2631
Joined: Tue Jul 15, 2008 9:52 pm

Re: So You Want to Study Quizbowl

Postby Important Bird Area » Mon Feb 11, 2013 2:59 pm

Fred wrote:
perlnerd666 wrote:This post is an excellent reason why the "Best of the Best" forum should be revived.

No kidding. This is one of the best posts ever made on this forum.

As chief admin, I endorse this message.
Jeff Hoppes
President, Northern California Quiz Bowl Alliance
former HSQB Chief Admin (2012-13)
VP for Communication and history subject editor, NAQT
Editor emeritus, ACF

"I wish to make some kind of joke about Jeff's love of birds, but I always fear he'll turn them on me Hitchcock-style." -Fred
User avatar
Important Bird Area
Forums Staff: Administrator
Posts: 5308
Joined: Thu Aug 28, 2003 3:33 pm
Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Return to Best of the Best

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest