Improving As A Player

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Quiz bowl is a very fun game even if you don't study at all, and just play based on what you know already or learn in class. However, even the smartest players won't win very much without putting in some time to study specifically for quiz bowl. The effect is only magnified as a team climbs the ladder and plays more and more difficult tournaments against more and more difficult opponents.

Let's say you went to your first tournament and lost- a lot. You're probably somewhat intimidated by the top teams and wonder how they can know the answers to all those questions. You barely buzzed in, and when you heard a familiar answer, the other team probably had already gotten it right. You wound up with hardly a win to your name, if any at all.

That experience happens to every last quiz bowl player at their first tournament. This includes all the people who run the AQBL and any other quiz bowl organization. The good news is that since everyone starts there, and you can (generally) only get better as time goes on, you can be a top player if you put in the effort.

To give an illustrative example, here is where the AQBL adminstrators started out...

Joe Feldman

16 PPG


Link to Stats

Nick Pruitt


Prison Bowl XI

Link to Stats

Arjun Panickssery

33.5 PPG

Bardbowl II

Link to Stats

...and this is where we ended up.

Joe Feldman

62.27 PPG
102.0 PPG



Nick Pruitt

91 PPG

Ithaca Fall 2020

Link to Stats

Arjun Panickssery

92.78 PPG

Bardbowl III

Link to Stats

So we're going to assume that you've played enough to pick up the basic gameplay and some of the lingo. We're also going to assume that you're motivated to get better and want to do so, and that you like and enjoy the game.

This guide is adapted from two sources: a guide written by AQBL President Joe Feldman for his old high school team in 2019, which was partially adapted from a presentation given by Matt Weiner, then of VCU, on how to study for college students.

Be sure to also view the other pages in the resource guide, as they're packed with tons of useful information.

Part I: The Categories of Quiz Bowl Questions

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First, you need to know what a distribution is and what a specialty is. These are two of the most important topics in quiz bowl. A distribution shows how many questions of each category are in a packet. Each subject is listed as the number of tossups and the number of bonuses per packet. This is shown as, for example, “4/4 History”, meaning each packet will have 4 history tossups and four history bonuses. I’ll use the 2019 edition of the Harvard Fall Tournament (HFT) as an example.

2019 HFT Distribution

  • 4/4 Literature
  • 4/4 Science
  • 4/4 History
  • 3/3 Fine Arts
  • 1/1 Social Science/Philosophy
  • 1/1 Religion
  • 1/1 Mythology
  • 1/1 Geography/Current Events
  • 1/1 Trash

You get the idea. Sometimes, a distribution might have a number below 1 for an item, like “.5/.5 Geography”. If this is the case, it means that it will, using the above example, appear in every other packet; .75 would mean three of every four packets; .33 one of every three; .67 two of every three; .25 one in every four, and so on and so forth.

Of course, some AQBL tournaments use no bonuses, so, when that is the case, our listed distributions will only have one number per category.

There are two types of player: generalist and specialist. A generalist has no particular subject concentration; a specialist does. Specialists choose a subject area or two and run with just those. A team with four specialists, one in each of the major subject areas, will win constantly, provided the players are good enough. A team with four generalists will make the playoffs, but not usually win tournaments. Similarly, a team with the country’s four best History specialists will lose to a team of a decent literature player, a decent science player, and a generalist to pick up the minor categories.

The only good way to choose a specialty is to choose the thing you enjoy, though picking up a minor for the team is not uncommon, even if it isn’t something you particularly enjoy. Try to avoid that, though. You can always switch later, by the way, if you change your mind, so don’t feel too pressured to pick “the right one”.

These categories are further broken into subcategories; we'll get to that a little later.

Major Subject Areas

Category Description
History The largest category and most common specialty. Generally is 4 of 20 questions in a packet, but bleeds into other categories regularly (i.e. science biography, religious history). Much higher at NAQT events. A History specialist commonly also specializes in Current Events, Geography, and/or Social Science.
Literature The second-largest category and second-most-common specialty. Generally is 4 of 20 questions in a packet. Does not bleed into other categories. A Literature specialist commonly also specializes in Mythology, and sometimes with Social Science, Religion, or Philosophy.
Science The third-largest category, but the least common major specialty. Any team with a science player starts with a significant advantage. Generally is 4 of 20 questions in a packet. Does not bleed into other categories. A Science specialist generally does not specialize in anything else.
Fine Arts The fourth largest category. Cleaves neatly into music and art. Generally taken as a secondary specialization by a musician/artist on the team, or split between two players on subcategory lines, but can easily be a major specialty. Generally is 3 of 20 questions in a packet. Does not bleed into other categories very often, though it occasionally eats into History as Art History. A Fine Arts specialist generally specializes in a few of the minor categories as well.

Minor Subject Areas

Category Description
Religion Very uncommon minor specialty. Does not come up often, though technically one question of 20 in each packet. The space for Religion questions is usually taken by another category, and the category itself is usually merged with Mythology and Philosophy in question distributions, denoted by the term “RMP”.
Mythology Third most common minor specialty. Generally is 1 of 20 questions in a packet. Usually merged with Religion and Philosophy in distributions, denoted by the term “RMP”.
Philosophy Uncommon minor specialty and uncommon overall at the high school level outside of the harder tournaments. Generally is merged with another category at the high school level, whether that is Religion and Mythology or Social Science.
Social Science Catch-all for economics, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Not common as a specialty, but not particularly hard to learn, as the number of topics that come up is limited and repetitive. Generally is 1 or 2 of 20 questions in a packet. Sometimes merged with Philosophy in distributions.
Geography Second-most common minor specialty. Easily combines with History, which is done regularly. Difficult to study per se. Generally is 1 of 20 questions in a packet, if that; far more at NAQT. Sometimes combined with Current Events in distributions.
Current Events Most common minor specialty. Read the news and you’ll do great in this category. Generally is 1 of 20 questions in a packet. Sometimes will not appear at all; other times, merged with Geography in distributions.

Other Subjects

Category Description
Trash Not a specialty. Trash refers to all pop culture topics, sports, movies, video games, popular music, and so on. Generally 1 of 20 questions in a packet.
Computational Math Not a specialty. Does not appear at a majority of tournaments, including all those run by the AQBL. Lots of local quiz shows and leagues very heavily use Computational Math.
Trades/Technical/General Knowledge Not a specialty. Impossible to study for. Does not appear at most AQBL events, but appears quite a lot in local leagues, and also appears at NAQT's tournaments on occasion.
Spelling/Grammar Not a specialty. We promise you'll never hear a Spelling tossup in an AQBL game. Grammar appears a lot in local leagues, but only very, very rarely here.

Part II: The Studying Techniques That Work

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It’s time for the good stuff you’ve been waiting for. Here’s how to get better at this game.

First, be sure to attend every practice and competition you can. That’s step one. quiz bowl is not just knowing things; there is some strategy to it that can only be learned by actually playing.

Next, remember that the goal of quiz bowl is for four players to get three tossups each consistently. If you do that, you got 12 of 20, and you win. That’s the point of building a team; it’s not for one guy to know everything. This sometimes comes up at the high school level and almost never at the college level. Those one-man teams (almost) never beat a good, balanced squad.

Finally, remember that you must find this enjoyable. If you don’t, forget it. Stop now and save yourself the grief.

Section 1: The Canon

The first thing to learn is the Canon. The Canon is "Everything that is likely to be an answer". Being that the AQBL runs High School-level events, you only care about the High School canon, which (thankfully!) is much smaller than the one for College.

Now, there are two ways to consider the Canon: the bucket and the tree. Visualize a five-gallon bucket full of golf balls, each with a fact written on it. Now, quite frankly, this is a terrible way of looking at it, but it's how most people new to quiz bowl do so. If you think of it like a bucket and study in that way, you will get overhwelmed, exhausted, and give up. This is because if you had a golf ball for every possible quiz bowl answerline, your bucket would be the size of the Washington Monument.

The problem with the bucket is that it's not how quiz bowl works. The bucket treats every little fact as if it stands alone and doesn't connect to anything. That's nonsense. All the facts connect in some way or another; or, there are contextual clues for you to look for. Once you find those contextual clues, you can learn a lot more in a lot less time.

For example, take Richard Nixon. You could learn all about Richard Nixon and his presidency. But one clue that you'll surely research in your course of study is the Saturday Night Massacre. Once you learn all about that, it connects a million different things: You now have a good early clue on Richard Nixon, a middle clue on Watergate, a middle clue on Robert Bork, a late clue on Attorney Generals, and a late clue on the Nixon tapes, as well as being able to get tossups on the "Massacre" itself.

Once you get those contextual clues, and you see how things connect, there's no longer a single fact per golf ball; there are, say, 20, so you'll now only need one twentieth of the Washington Monument, and split over four players, you'll need one eightieth of the Monument. You can handle that. That method is the "Tree" method, since each topic branches out into smaller and smaller ones, and they connect to each other in many different ways.

You can organize the tree however you like, but it's generally broken up by continually more specific categories: History --> American History --> Cold War Era --> Richard Nixon, for instance. You can then spend a day tackling a few branches of the tree. As you keep going, you'll claim larger and larger sections of the tree as your own, and you'll see fairly rapid improvement.

When you start out, though, you should keep it pretty small: first, you want to beat "New teams to questions on Islam in my local league", for instance, as a step to the goal of "Beating good teams to all questions on Religion at the ONCT". The expansion is pretty intuitive, and you can make noticeable progress along the way instead of waiting a long time for any payoff.

Section 2: What to Study

Now that you know the basics of the Canon, you need to know what to study or where to start. There are three ways of doing this.

The first is to read old packets, such as those on the Practice Questions page, that are suited to your skill level. Look up the things in your target category that come up, and branch out from there.

The second is to use's random question generator. Go to the site, set the difficulty level to the high school level, pick a category (and subcategory if you want), and click the random button.

The third is to use frequency lists and NAQT's You Gotta Know lists. Frequency lists can be found in a few places online and can also be purchased from NAQT; You Gotta Know lists are great, but be sure to be picky about which ones you study; the one on the Yankees won't help you very much.

Section 3: How to Study

The first method, if you are fairly new to the game or are missing most tossups at the giveaway, is to study old packets. Head over to the "Practice Questions" page and find packets suitable for your skill level (if you don't know or can't tell even with the guide on that page, then use "Novice" level questions and work your way up.

Look for recurring answerlines and clues in the category you want to study; see how they associate with each other, and write down what you learn. In this way, you can get a feel for the canon- you can see what commonly comes up year after year.

When you study packets, you want to be studying Pyramidal questions, or those that start out harder and get easier as they go along. Otherwise, you just won't be learning all that much. If you study Pyramidal questions, you'll get better at all academic competitions; if you study non-pyramidal questions, you'll only get better at non-pyramidal competitions (and probably not much).

The second method is the tree method as above: slowly branching out from what you already know and learning about connected topics.

But how do you learn about the topics once you find out about them?

Well, it's really whatever works best for you. But the general methods are wikipedia, encyclopedias, source works, and textbooks/reference works. If you take notes on topics as you read and learn, it can help retain information better, but it is not an absolute nessecity.

Something to remember is that you do not need to be an expert on a subject. A good quiz bowler can power a tossup on Andrew Jackson but (almost certainly) can't write an essay on his life and times from memory. Be sure not to get too bogged down in minute details; you do not need to know every troop movement at Vicksburg or Blenheim or Saratoga or Verdun. If you are studying Oscar Wilde, for instance, you should know the details of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but you don't need to know the details of Lady Windermere's Fan beyond a basic plot and main characters unless you're playing the ONCT or Collegiate quiz bowl.

Here are details on the ways of learning new things:

  1. Reading Source Material
  2. This is the best way to learn individual works of literature, philosophy, and religion, but it is incredibly slow. Don’t bother reading any single work that does not interest you or is over 250 pages (unless you want to read something for reading's sake and not for quiz bowl). Use plot summaries, Cliffsnotes, and so forth in lieu of reading long novels; however, things like plays, short stories, essays, and some poetry can be learned without investing an excessive amount of time.

  3. Reading Textbooks
  4. This is the best way to get information on any type of history, including Wikipedia, since Wikipedia can be like drinking from a firehose at times. But, for history at least, you need to pick good books. Some guidelines are:

    Guideline Explanation
    You want books with lots of information in them, but nothing excessively deep. Thus, avoid books that are 300 pages on a single person, conflict, president, or king.
    You want academic-style works. Thus, avoid any book of "Narrative History".
    You want books that are just the right depth for quiz bowl. Look for more general histories, such as one covering the History of the United States to 1876 rather than a book on the Gilded Age or Antebellum or the Civil War alone.
    You do not want anything too light. Any book that covers the three eras listed above in a page or two is not a good book.

    Textbooks work for Science as well; Campbell's Biology is the gold standard for that subject; for Chemistry, Earth Science, and Physics, ask a teacher of that subject. Textbooks are available for many minor subjects as well, such as Religion, Mythology, Philosophy and most Social Science.

    You can find source works and textbooks in many places: older works out of copyright can be generally found in PDF form online (use caution to keep your computer free of viruses); your local library will probably be well-stocked on classic literature, and if not, the one in the next town over might have what you're looking for. Your school library might also have works of value. If all else fails, try a bookseller, but since the bill can add up quickly, it could be problematic.

Section 4: Managing Your Time

First, an introductory note: when it comes to extracurriculars, if you don't enjoy it, don't do it. If you do too much you run the risk of burning out. This includes quiz bowl as well-- if you don't enjoy learning for the sake of learning, knowing for the sake of knowing, knowing more than some other guy knows, competing in knowledge competitions, cut your losses and quit now, or just play casually.

In order to manage time, ask yourself: what is the maximum improvement I can get in the X hours I want to study this week? It’s up to you to determine X. This entire guide is about optimizing whatever time you made for yourself.

Once you get going and have done some studying, don’t get bogged down on a topic. Learning about Keynes should take 15-30 minutes, 45 at most. Cut it off when you bleed past that and go to Galbraith or whoever.

Move through topics in a circle, gaining gradual improvement, or you will be bored and frustrated.

From there, study your notebook and see if you can write a tossup or bonus, even a terrible one, on the subject you were studying.

One other note is to, when you go back and look over your notebook to refresh your memory, randomize the order in order to avoid false associations. If you study Toccata and Fugue in D Minor right after Monteverdi every time, you might wind up thinking he wrote it!

Section 5: Writing Questions

Writing questions is a time-tested way to get better, but it's for more advanced players and outside the scope of this guide. We have a different guide on doing so here.

Part III: The Studying Techniques To Be Wary Of

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A. Flashcards

Flashcards are both the most common and, unless done very, very well, the most useless study method out there. The problem with flashcards is that they contain very little information: you usually put, say, a author on the front and a book title on the back, or a painting on the front and an artist on the back. This is good for getting tossups at the very end and not much else. Part of being a good team is being able to obtain answers from their descriptions; if you don't, you'll never, ever, beat a team who can.

Flashcards might, though, work somewhat well for your local competitions if they use very short questions (i.e. a complete question reads "Name the painter of Las Meninas" or something similar). However, studying by other methods works for both your local league and AQBL games, while studying by flashcards won't help you very much in AQBL games, and studying by other methods will always work better than flashcards, even for local leagues.

There are some players who have "carded" their way to the top, or close to it. This was very common before the 1990s, and became less and less common until the mid-2010s, when flashcards experienced a bit of a renaissance; now, there are some top-tier quiz bowlers who do use Flashcards to study. It can be a good companion when done right.

But, in spite of that, studying with flashcards is miserable drudgery. Studying other ways is far more fun and effective.

B. Protobowl

Protobowl is not a studying tool and should never be used as one. What Protobowl is good for, aside from being fun, is that it is an excellent way to check your progress. Make your own room and see how you do; you can test how well you recall the things you studied in a game-like setting.

You can also easily hold practices as a team, since you can all join the same room.

But to reiterate: It is not useful for studying, only for checking progress!

C. Osmosis

This is doing nothing and hoping you’ll get better by learning things in class, from the world around you, by hearing answerlines at practices, etc. This is the default study method. Most teams solely use this. If you use any other method you’ll pass them in six months. If you use solely this method, you’ll never get any better and will be at the bottom of the individual standings forever. It might be great for English or History class, but it doesn’t work for quiz bowl. Note that we all learn some things by osmosis, but it’s not a studying method.

D. Sitting in Practice

This is similar to Osmosis except in a practice room, and usually consists of writing down answerlines you miss and googling them on the ride home. While you'll learn a few things, it's not very targeted and only a few answerlines come up in any given practice, sharply limiting the amount you'll learn. Also, be honest: you spend half of practice cracking jokes with your teammates and bragging about how you're going to beat your rivals at the next tournament, as well you should. So either way, don't worry about writing down answerlines; just ask for a copy of the packet at the end of practice and study the tossups. Note that going to practice is very important, just for different reasons; it's just not a studying tool.

E. Cramming

Much as cramming for tests doesn't work, it also doesn't work for quiz bowl. Not only will it make you miserable, it will also not work at all, leaving you even more miserable when you can't remember anything at the next event. Adopt a slow-and-steady study plan and you're golden (Feel free to go wild over the Summer and on Christmas Break, though!)

Part IV: Final Notes

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Results don't lie. If you aren’t hitting your goals, reevaluate and ask for advice; try a different method. Don’t fall in love with a single clue and declare yourself an expert. Confront what you don’t know and be realistic. At the same time, don't be worried if you bomb a tournament. It's a small sample size; every quiz bowler has bombed one at some point. But if you bomb a whole bunch of tournaments, it's time to reevaluate.

Set measurable, attainable goals for improvement at each tournament. Bear in mind the difficulties of the sets.

Put in the work and you'll reap the rewards.

And, finally, if you absolutely love this game, much like we all did, try not to study in such excess that your grades drop more than a letter or you neglect other important things.

Of course, if you neglect unimportant things, that's just an added benefit, no?