“Pyramidal” Questions in Quizbowl

A trait that distinguishes good quizbowl from many other similar buzzer-based competitions is the use of “pyramidal” questions. These questions are designed to be fair to all players by uniquely specifying what’s being asked for upfront (i.e. “this author,” “this phenomenon,” “this element”), reward greater knowledge by allowing players with more knowledge to buzz-in first, and encourage players to acquire knowledge through in-depth understanding rather than rote memorization. They are called “pyramidal” questions because, as the question is read, the number of players who should be able to buzz in on a clue increases as the clues go from harder to easier (the “tip” of a pyramid down to a wider base).

This history question from the 2010 Fall Novice Tournament (click here for more novice tournament questions) gives a specific example of how pyramidal questions work:

(Round 1 – Fall Novice Tournament 2010)
A ship named for this man sank the HMS Hood and was hunted by the British Navy. Succeeded by Leo von Caprivi, this man proposed the Three Emperors’ League, declared war on Denmark over the province of Schleswig-Holstein, eliminated Catholic influence during the Kulturkampf, and edited a telegram to provoke the Franco-Prussian War. Serving during the rule of Wilhelm I was, for 10 points, what “Iron Chancellor” who led Prussia through the unification of Germany?

ANSWER: Otto von Bismarck


Note how the question begins with an interesting, specific clue that rewards students who know a lot about WWII naval battles (sink the Bismarck!). The question makes clear from the start what it’s looking for by using the phrase “this man”–there’s no guessing about what the question is going to ask. The question then describes some of the things Bismarck did, going from more obscure (the Three Emperor’s League) to more well-known (Franco-Prussian War) to a “giveaway” with his nickname and finally the mention of Germany.

Compare that pyramidal question to this simple one-line question.

What German Chancellor was leader of Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War?

ANSWER: Otto von Bismarck

Note the difference: The pyramidal question rewards students who know the historical importance of Otto von Bismarck. The other question does not. In fact, it baits players to buzz on “Chancellor” because “there’s only one German Chancellor, of course” (even though the pyramidal question, in fact, reveals that there were other men who held the Chancellorship!). A player who knew more than one German chancellor would logically wait for more revealing information, thus losing the buzzer race to a player who knew less information.

Are pyramidal questions harder than other types of questions?

Not at all. In fact, they allow a wide variety of teams to enjoy the same question set, with the top teams buzzing in on earlier clues and the bottom teams still able to get the question at the end off the easier clues. Pyramidal questions often have very high conversation rates compared to non-pyramidal questions because the latter are more limited in terms of what clues they can offer and can be quite hard as well.

There is a decent amount of variation between different types of pyramidal question sets, though all use the same principles of constructing fair, clue-dense questions. National championships like the PACE-NSC and harder regular-season tournaments like the Harvard Fall Tournament usually have more difficult answerlines and clues than introductory-level tournaments like SCOP or NAQT IS-A sets, but all of them practice the same principles.

You should check with the tournament host before you play a tournament to find out what question set the host is using to help prepare for the target difficulty of the questions. We also have a podcast on question difficulty that might be useful.

More Pyramidal Question Guides and Explanations

These links provide good arguments for and examples of pyramidal questions.


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