Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How to Write Questions for Quiz Bowl, Academic Team, and Scholastic Bowl Competitions

In scholastic quiz bowl competitions, the questions are as important than the answers, because a player can't answer a muddled question. Good questions equal good games.

Nothing frustrates quiz bowl players as much as a confusing question. Players look at their coaches, wondering if they should risk an answer on a poorly worded question. Coaches frown at each other, wondering if the poor word choice is worth tossing the question. Soon someone buzzes in and gives a possible answer, only to find that the question was misleading. The question is tossed, time is wasted, and everyone wonders, "Who wrote these questions?".

Even though any question that has limited answers is technically a closed question, in the world of quiz bowl, a closed question has two answers, such as yes/no or true/false. These questions should be avoided because if one team answers incorrectly, the other team will automatically get it correct. This is frustrating because it amounts to gaining an unearned point.

In a classroom quiz bowl competition, teachers have more flexibility with questions. It is good practice for students to follow standardized rules so they are not confused during official play on an scholastic quiz bowl team.

Questions need to be short and pointed. Long questions or questions that include unnecessary detail are harder to understand. An example of differences in phrasing can be found in these two questions: "George Washington is famous for having wooden teeth. However, his false teeth were not actually made of wood. What were his teeth actually made from?" and "What were George Washington's false teeth made of?".

Players might buzz in with the incorrect answer of "wood", but they also might buzz in with the correct answer of "bone". Quiz bowls are competitions of knowledge, not competitions of focus.
Questions Should Require One Answer

Embedding questions is akin to asking trick questions. Consider the above question regarding George Washington. If the question was, "What were America's First President's false teeth made of?", it is short, but actually requires players to answer two questions: "Who was America's first president", and "What were the false teeth made of?".

In the case of America's first president, the answer is obvious and looks like it is enlivening the game, but it is hard to draw the line on what is obvious in embedded questions. It is best to stick with one question per question.

Competitions can go more quickly if the players are able to predict the line of questioning. Having questions on specific themes, like "American Presidents" and "Rivers", helps players focus and feel more confident about their question-attack strategies.

Themes can be playful, such as "Words Starting With M" or "Places on The Globe That Are Not America". If there must be a general knowledge category, warn players with a theme name such as "Anything Goes" or "Potpourri". With enough well-written questions, it is possible to avoid catch-all categories.

Once a teacher develops a library of good questions, it is easy to recycle them every few years. Other teachers, coaches, even teams are excellent sources for questions that are written with quiz bowl games in mind. Questions help set the tone of the game. Easy questions make for an easy games, challenging questions make for challenging games, and a well-done questions make for well-done games.

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