Introduction to academic buzzer quiz

The following is a very quick introduction to the game of quizbowl — a type of buzzer quiz focusing on academic knowledge.

The basics

Quizbowl is a quiz format played between two four-player teams using an electronic buzzer system and is often described as being “like University Challenge”. Those who have watched University Challenge will be familiar with the format of starter questions for 10 points, which are played on the buzzer, and conferring between team members is forbidden. Bonus questions on University Challenge take the form of a set of three questions all themed around a central topic, which are each worth 5 points. Quizbowl adapts this format and changes the rules slightly.

Starter questions (or, colloquially, tossups) are still worth 10 points for a correct answer, with a penalty of 5 points being imposed for buzzing in prior to the end of the question and answering incorrectly (informally termed a “neg”). Incorrect answers given when the player has buzzed in after the end of the question incur no penalty. Tossups in quizbowl are usually longer than starters on University Challenge, with up to five or six lines of text as opposed to one or two lines.

A feature of some quizbowl tournaments is the “power”, which aims to reward more knowledge of a subject. Players who buzz in with a correct answer before a certain point in the question (a mark in the text visible to the question reader but not to the players) will earn 15 points rather than 10. The idea is that more knowledge about a given answer is required to be able to get a power, so in turn more points are awarded.

Bonus questions in quizbowl are very similar to those in University Challenge, with the main difference being that each of the three bonus parts is worth 10 points, rather than 5. Conferring between team members is allowed, in contrast to tossups. Bonuses in quizbowl are themed around a different topic (and usually a different category altogether) than the preceding tossup question, which isn’t always the case on University Challenge.

Quizbowl and University Challenge

For a deeper look into quizbowl history in the UK, see this page.

Quizbowl is a sibling of University Challenge: they both developed from an American radio and TV show called College Bowl, which began in the 1950s. University Challenge is focused on being an entertaining TV show, while quizbowl aims to produce the fairest possible competition between teams. Nevertheless, quizbowl players have an outstanding record of success on the show in recent years.

Topic distribution

Quizbowl matches consist of either 20 or 24 cycles of a tossup followed by a bonus set. The categories of the questions in each round, usually referred to as the “packet”, follow a pre-arranged distribution. For a 20 question set, the tossups and bonuses would each follow a set of categories something like this:

  • 4: Literature (usually 1 British, 1 American, 1 European, 1 Rest of World/Other – covering different genres as well: novels, poetry, short stories etc.);

  • 4: History (usually 1 British, 1 American, 1 European, 1 Rest of World/Other – within these archaeology, historiography, political, social, economic and other histories can come up);

  • 4: Science (usually 1 Biology, 1 Chemistry, 1 Physics, 1 Other — including maths, computer science, geology, astrophysics, science history);

  • 2: Fine Arts (1 Visual, 1 Auditory — visual includes painting, sculpture, photography etc; auditory covers classical music, opera, jazz etc. Media with elements of both, e.g. ballet, could appear in either category);

  • 1: Religion;

  • 1: Mythology;

  • 1: Philosophy;

  • 1: Social Science (encompasses psychology, anthropology, economics, linguistics, sociology and law among others);

  • 1: Popular Culture;

  • 1: Miscellaneous (any more of the above, or questions which cross between categories).

The above list is not fixed: some tournaments reduce the amount of “academic” content in favour of more popular culture, some will have categories such as Geography or Current Events, and some smaller tournaments (known as side events, usually played after a main academic tournament) focus on a single subject. Recent side events played in the UK include a music tournament written using snippets of audio rather than written questions, a tournament all about food (both gourmet and fast food) and a tournament all about geography.

Sample questions

All the above is best illustrated with some examples, so here is a tossup and bonus set from a tournament held in 2017 that was designed to be accessible to new players.


At the Council of Reims, Leo IX opposed this leader’s intended marriage. According to tradition, this leader’s mother was the daughter of a tanner from Falaise [fah-LEZ]. This king’s archbishop Lanfranc eventually gained dispensation for his marriage to Matilda of Flanders. He defeated the supporters of (*) Edgar the Atheling, who opposed his succession to Edward the Confessor. For 10 points, name this Duke of Normandy who won the Battle of Hastings.

ANSWER: William the Conqueror (or William I of England or William the Bastard or William II of Normandy; prompt on "William"; do not accept or prompt on "William II")

The above example shows how quizbowl tossups are essentially a collection of facts about the “answerline”, which ideally are arranged from most obscure to easiest. This arrangement of clues is “pyramidality”, which aims to reward deeper knowledge with an earlier buzz. The mark (*) is known as the powermark — i.e., buzzing in before the reader has begun the word “Edgar” with the correct answer will earn you 15 points rather than 10. There are also quite a few acceptable answers, since William the Conqueror was known by a lot of names.

An answer of “William II” alone would not be acceptable, since it would implicitly refer to William II of England, his son, — however, William the Conqueror was also William II of Normandy, hence the full title is acceptable.

Additionally, an answer of “William” is not specific enough, since there have so far been four King Williams of England, so the question reader is instructed to “prompt” the player answering to be more specific, upon which they could answer with any of the four underlined alternatives to be ruled correct.


The Taniyama-Shimura conjecture was cited in the proof of this theorem as a link between elliptic curves and modular forms. For 10 point each:

[10] Name this theorem proved by Andrew Wiles. It states that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation "a-to-the-n plus b-to-the-n equals c-to-the-n" for integer values of n greater than two.
ANSWER: Fermat's last theorem [prompt on "Fermat's conjecture"; prompt on partial answer]

[10] Fermat is the namesake of a type of these numbers, whose representatives take the form "two-to-the-two-to-the-n plus one." These are numbers whose only integer divisors are themselves and one.
ANSWER: primes [or prime numbers]

[10] These numbers can be generated by first selecting a seed between one and one less than a Fermat prime P, and multiplying that seed by a number that is a primitive root modulo P.
ANSWER: pseudorandom numbers

A correct answer on the William the Conqueror tossup, then, would reward a team with this set of three bonus questions. In addition to a “lead-in” with some additional information about the topic, a bonus set aims to contain an easy part, a medium part and a hard part (but not necessarily in that order). Here, the easy part is intended to be primes (something everyone has heard of); the medium part Fermat’s Last Theorem (its harder than primes, but certainly something someone without expertise in the area might expect to know); and the hard part is the pseudorandom numbers (something which many maths and computer science students would have heard of, but not many without a decent knowledge of these subjects might have). The aim of this bonus is, in effect, to test how in-depth one’s knowledge of the subject is, and to reward teams with more knowledge with more points. 1

Thousands of sample questions of varying difficulties are available on the Quizbowl Packet Archive. Higher level questions are available in the Collegiate section, but for beginners it’s usually best to try some in the High School section and move up a notch if preferred. Some packets especially designed for new players can be found here.


For more on the jargon which Quizbowl has built up, see this glossary of terms.

  1. The tossup and the bonus in this example have been adapted from, respectively, 2017 Ladue Invitational Spring Tournament and 2014 BELLOCO