Quizbowl Study Plans for All Levels

One of the most common questions that we at GPQB receive from students and coaches is how to start studying for quizbowl. Since pretty much anything that you ever learn will, at some point, show up in quizbowl, getting started with the studying can appear quite daunting. There are many resources and some guides for how to improve, but most are fairly vague and designed for either complete novices or very experienced players. Telling players to “read packets” is a good idea, of course, but which packets should one read and how should one read them? Using Protobowl might be appropriate for some players, but is it good for everyone?

This is a guide for players at different stages of their academic competition career. For each level, we offer both recommended study materials from old tournaments on the quizbowl packet archive and some strategies for how to study at each level. This guide is most certainly not the definitive word on this and I would be quite interested to hear from coaches and players in the comments on their own studying procedures. But I think as far as a basic guide for players trying to get to the next level, wherever you are, these are useful outlines.

Keep in mind for each of these that the relevant tournament sets can be found on the packet archive: Just use “find” or search for them that way.

Complete Novice
This is a player who has never played before, has never played any quizbowl questions at all, or has maybe played one local tournament but never anything more than that. If this describes you, then welcome to the world of quizbowl!

Study Materials:
– SCOP Tournaments
– Fall Novice Tournaments
– Collaborative MS tournaments (see under “middle school” on quizbowlpackets)
Quinterest searches for MS level subjects

Study Strategies:
– Just read questions! Start reading these novice level or Middle School (MS) level questions and get an idea of how pyramidal questions work and what topics tend to come up in quizbowl. If you look through a few tournaments (compare, say, 2014 to 2015 SCOP), you’ll see the same topics come up again and again (not the same questions verbatim, of course, but similar clues and answerlines).

At this point, focus the most on developing familiarity with how quizbowl works. If you come across an answer line that you’ve never heard of before, Google it to find out what it is. At the level of these questions, every answer line is probably something that you will see frequently in the future, so you need to know as much as possible about these topics. Practice slowly scrolling down on the packet archives or letting Quinterest “read” questions to you to start thinking like a quizbowl player.

Advanced Novice
This is a player who has played a few tournaments but is still in 9th/10th grade or is playing as an 11th/12th grader and finished the complete novice guide. These are players who know how pyramidal questions work, but still haven’t quite mastered the quizbowl canon for high school and might be more interested in improving their points-per game beyond 10 or 20.

Study Materials:
– NAQT Frequency Lists
– NAQT “You Gotta Know” Guides
– Textbooks
– HSAPQ District and Regionals
– History Bowl C Sets

Study Strategies:
At this point, the goal is to start to master the “canon.” Get a solid understanding of all the question topics that might come up in the quizbowl categories that you are interested in and develop the ability to buzz-in on the “stock clues” for these categories. Protobowl and reading full packets is useful for this, but so are going over things like the top 10 items on the NAQT frequency list and making sure you can guess them on bonuses or tossups. You also want to be looking over the NAQT “You Gotta Know” Guides and start to think about picking up a textbook or two (ones you have at your school and use in-class are fine) in some categories. Start keeping a notebook that you bring to practice and tournaments, writing down any answerlines that strike you as interesting and/or clues that you want to look up some more. Start to look up clues from practice every time–a good rule of thumb is to look up the clue just before the one that you buzz on to learn a little bit more each time.

Play Protobowl in a private room (just add a /yourroomname to the regular address) and start working on getting comfortable guessing a bit earlier in the question that you normally might. And make sure to attend practices! You’ll need to be as comfortable as possible on the buzzer at this point. It’s okay to rack up a few negs so long as you start to make sure you’re buzzing before your opponents and giving your team a chance.

Experienced Player 
This is a player who’s been to several pyramidal quizbowl tournaments and maybe played a year or two already. At this point, you know what you know and what you don’t know and want to try to get both your power rate and your TU/N rate as high as possible. You’re starting to narrow in on a few specialty areas and you want to make your team competitive for the playoff cutoffs at tournaments.

Study Materials
– Protobowl
– Flashcards (make them yourself)

– HSAPQ ACF-Style Sets
– HSAPQ VHSL Regionals and State sets
– MSU/UD Housewrite
– History Bowl B Sets

Study Strategies
This is where you need to start picking a few categories to “lock-down.” You want to focus now on depth rather than breadth to make sure that when you learn a potential answerline, you can beat your major local rivals to that question.

Start reading further down the frequency lists and make sure that you’re never surprised by an answer line. Flashcarding can be an excellent way to make sure that you cover; applications like Anki could be useful here, but you could also use Quizlet or other apps (or even actual paper cards!).
Try to practice these as much as possible here–on the way to school, during downtime in class, etc. Enlist the help of others–get your friends, parents, grandparents, etc. to read to you.

Veteran/Role Player
This is a player who’s played pyramidal quizbowl for a year or so and ideally has begun to develop a specialty in a few categories. You may put up 20-30 PPG consistently or be more of a generalist racking up 40-50 points at a time at this point and want to put your team in contention for the top 3 trophies every tournament.

Study Material:
-Prison Bowl
-Flashcards, outlines, and other self-directed studying

Study Strategies:
The goal at this point should be to develop deep knowledge to nab 2nd-line powers and 3rd or 4th line (definitely before “FTP”) buzzes in your specialty categories. Continue to keep a notebook, do flashcards, and study old packets. Go talk to people specifically about quizbowl. Talk to your English teacher about their favorite novels for instance or go to local orchestral concerts or art galleries and just start to go for depth over breadth. You want to start branching out well beyond the curriculum at this point and maybe think about reading college quizbowl packets or attending a college tournament to start to branch out into new areas. Time spent in a library here reading specifically for your categories will be well spent, especially if you look at textbooks (science especially) or other solid overviews.

State Competitor/Nationals Playoffs Contender
This is a player on a top 5-6 state team who’s also attending nationals and wants to try to make the playoffs at HSNCT. You can consistently power at least one or two questions per match in your specialty area and your team is usually in contention to win local tournaments.

Study Material:
– ACF Fall
-Previous HSNCTs and/or DII ICT and DI SCT

Study Strategies:
You need to start to become the best in your state at various categories. This is where taking a bit of a break from packet reading might pay off as you instead focus on reading and writing your own questions. Start reading books on these topics–things like “Czars of Russia” or a compendium of summaries of Faulkner’s novels and literary critiques could be useful. You’ll need to also get ahead of the curve here as far as what college players are writing on and thinking about (answerlines often “filter down” from college sets to high school sets over the years as writers are exposed to new question topics and clues and then continue to write on them for different audiences), so this is where ACF Fall and any undergrad-targeted tournament like MUT is great. Your goal should be to power as much as possible in your specialty areas here and to also contribute and back-up your teammates on bonuses. You need to crank up the seriousness level here and be devoting at least some time each day to quizbowl, even if it’s just reviewing 20 flashcards or writing 1 question.

Nationally Ranked Player
This is a highly elite group of players. Most have devoted a considerable part of their lives to quizbowl, but it’s also quite possible to ascend to this group in a relatively short period of time through concentrated studying. There are a number of examples of solid players who became nationally elite over the course of a few months, but it will take lots of hard studying to happen.

Study Materials:
– ACF Regionals from the previous year
– Other Regular-Season College Sets (like MAGNI or MOO)
– HSNCT and/or DII ICT and DI SCT

Study Strategies:
Read books, dip your toes into the academic literature on your topic (art criticism, recent major science studies, etc.), and WRITE QUESTIONS. At this level, you want to note only be an excellent specialist at your categories, but also a savvy player; it’s somewhat remarkable how many times matches at nationals come down to players who have seen questions on topic X before and buzz on how it feels rather than knowing the exact clue.
Every chance you can get, play against high-level competition both at the high school level and college level. The top high school teams in the country play against college teams more often than not and several other schools have had great success just getting some experience playing at the college level. This is where you’ll learn the first-line clues and 3rd bonus parts that might prove critical deep in the playoffs at HSNCT or NSC. You must consistently be powering in your categories and get at least a few outside of your main categories through heavy exposure to playing and to help shore up your weaknesses.

This is just a starting point for each of these levels (and of course you can feel free to use the strategies for more advanced levels as you see fit), but I hope that it proves useful. The most awesome thing about quizbowl to me is that anyone can become a world-class player; all you need is a work ethic and the willingness to learn. The best players, of course, tend to also have a deep love for many of these subject areas, but you can become a very good player in any category with just hard work and determination. Good luck to all–and don’t forget your notebooks at tournaments!


How to Get the Most out of Practices and Tournaments: Get a Notebook

Every moment that you have a buzzer in your hand while playing quizbowl, you should also have a notebook open next to you ready to take notes in. Here’s a page from mine:


I really should’ve gotten that Turenne TU. Also, it’s apparently “Siqueiros,” not my more Greek spelling here.

This notebook has been with me since 2006 at my very first national championship tournament. I tried to make sure to put at least one clue that was associated with each answerline down so that I could remember and, ideally, not miss it again. I also wrote down answerlines that sounded interesting or things that I wanted to look up later.

Why bring such a low-tech thing as a notebook to practices and tournaments and not some fancy flashcard program like Anki or an app like QuizBug on Quinterest? First, actually writing things down can help you remember them more effectively than typing them on a computer. Something about the process of writing by hand just seems to stick better.

Second, a notebook is much more portable and useful for a quick glance during downtime en route to tournaments and at practices and tournaments. In between rounds and waiting for the next one to start? Take a quick glance at your notebook. Stuck on a long bus ride up to the next tournament? Peruse your notebook.

Third, with a notebook you have something to do during other teams’ bonuses and tossups on things you definitely have no shot of getting. Too many players just zone out; having a notebook open and ready to write or circle things can be useful to keep your attention on the match. Open it to a blank page for each match and you can even keep score with it too or keep track of the categories for each question (very useful in tournaments with a fixed question distribution so that you can figure out which categories have yet to come up).

And fourth, when you return from a tournament or practice, you can refer to your notebook as a way to review what you learned and figure out where you could improve, especially if you start noticing patterns of what you missed. If you again mixed up Manet and Monet, get them straight by making separate powerpoints of their work. If you mispronounced a play title, this is your chance to learn it now and forever. But if you don’t keep a notebook, you won’t necessarily remember what you need to work on.

A caveat: you shouldn’t write write down everything that you hear in a match in a notebook. Just focus on clues and answerlines in your areas of knowledge or things that sounded interesting. Make sure that you go up and look at those later–you can then incorporate things that you missed into those other study technologies.

You can also write down lists of related things that you want to review during and before tournaments in the same notebook so that you can quickly flip through to study those. For instance, here were some wars I decided to write down while jumping through an old all-history tournament packets:


Remember, this was for college nationals. Don’t feel like you need to know these wars for your average HS tournament!

This is all part of a larger quest to help maximize your study time in quizbowl. Every practice you should leave having learned new things. Every tournament you should leave having learned new things. Spinning your wheels and expecting to learn by osmosis will not work out very well. Zoning out during questions in practice and repeatedly missing the same clues won’t work very well. But maximizing your time spent in a chair holding a buzzer will make your quizbowl experience more enjoyable and rewarding. Remember, if something comes up at one quizbowl tournament, there’s an excellent chance it will come up in some form at another quizbowl tournament later.

This is the beauty of a notebook–it gives you something to do and read at all times that will help you get better at quizbowl. Get one and use it well.