Question Style

Between the college and high school level, there are several styles of writing questions. Each style “tests” for a particular skill or type of recall.


Toss-up questions are so named because each team has an equal opportunity to buzz in, answer the question, and win points.

Buzzer beaters

Buzzer beater, fast-buzz, or quick-recall questions are short with a single clue, and relatively simple. They have virtually disappeared at the college or high school levels, being looked down upon by many players. An example:

QUESTION: “Which company makes Macintosh computers?”

ANSWER: Apple (Computers)

This type of question is written specifically to test quick recall skills of players, and does not discriminate the different levels of knowledge that the players possess, as pyramid-style questions do.


Pyramid-style or pyramidal tossup questions include multiple clues, generally written so that each question starts with more difficult clues and moves toward easier clues. This type of toss-up is the standard style written in college and high school tournaments. Compare this example to the “quick recall” questions above:

QUESTION: In 1977, this Silicon Valley garage startup sold its computers for $666.66. In late 1997, it became a Fortune 500 company led by one of its two founding Steves, hoping that the public would “Think different” and buy more of “The computer for the rest of us.”. For ten points, name this company which in 1984 introduced the Macintosh and now sells its popular iPod.

ANSWER: Apple (Computer)

Unlike Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy!, quiz bowl players may interrupt the question and answer at any time. The lead-in clue (“In 1977, this Silicon Valley garage startup sold its computers for $666.66”) uniquely identifies the desired answer, but is obscure enough so that those with deeper knowledge can answer earlier. As the question progresses, the clues become more accessible: Fortune 500, two founders named Steve, “Think Different”, etc. The final “giveaway” clue, given after the phrase “for ten points”, is often the easiest, such that most teams will be able to answer by this point.

Pyramid-style questions are designed to give the player with the most knowledge of the subject being asked about the best opportunity to answer first. It is for this reason that pyramid style toss-ups are growing in popularity, as it typically removes (or at least reduces) the element of a “race of reflexes” or “buzzer race” to answer questions, and rewards the more studied player.

One criticism of pyramid-style play is that it rewards knowledge of the obscure over the important. Another is that matches can potentially have longer running times. This is sometimes countered by implementing timed matches. Moderators will also read questions at a quick pace to counteract slowdown. Writing pyramid-style tossups can be more difficult because the answer must have many clues, ordered from unique and obscure to giveaway, without tapering too quickly or slowly.


There are two styles of mathematics tossups; computational and non-computational. Non-computational questions are generally math history or involve a specific aspect of mathematics, and are similar to the other subject areas. This also includes tossups on numbers, constants, functions, etc.. Computational mathematics ask the player to solve a math problem, which is dissimilar to the other subject areas. Computational math problems are harder to write in pyramidal style as they generally do not feature an obscure clue that can uniquely identify an answer. As such, many pyramidal quiz bowl formats will ask fewer or even no questions about computational mathematics when compared to formats that are not primarily pyramidal. Typically, players are given extra time to solve the problem.

One strategy used to implement pyramidality into computational math is to offer clues on how to solve the problem; during this time, weaker players can figure out how to work the problem, while stronger players are given a head start in computation time.

NAQT has removed all computational math tossups from their national championship tournaments, although there are still computational bonuses.

Bonus questions

Bonus questions may or may not (as in the case of NAQT style formats) be related to corresponding tossups.


Multi-part bonus questions are often seen in a patterned format; that is the individual parts of a bonus question are often related by some common thread. This common thread is often revealed (though not always) in the opening part of the bonus question (called the “lead-in”). For example:

BONUS: Given the title of an Irving Stone biography, identify the subject.

  1. Lust for Life
  2. The Passions of the Mind
  3. Greek Treasure


  1. (Vincent) VAN GOGH
  2. (Sigmund) FREUD
  3. (Heinrich) SCHLIEMANN


Just like “quick recall” questions, patterned bonus questions have virtually disappeared at the American collegiate level, and are becoming less common at some high-school competitions. These questions are more commonly encountered in areas involving mathematics. For example:

BONUS: “Given a pair of resistors, give their equivalent resistance if they were connected in parallel with each other.”

  1. 2 ohms and 2 ohms
  2. 3 ohms and 5 ohms
  3. 10 ohms and 20 ohms


  1. 1 ohm
  2. 1 and 7/8 ohms
  3. 6 and 2/3 ohms

This bonus question tests only a single skill, thus if only one player has memorized the skill, the question is reduced to one question, repeated three times.


Some bonus questions are not broken into specific parts. Instead, players must be able to give their answers from a requested list. For example:

BONUS: In any order, identify any five of the six nations which border India.


  1. (People’s Republic of) China
  2. (Federal Democratic Republic of) Nepal
  3. (People’s Republic of) Bangladesh
  4. (Islamic Republic of) Pakistan
  5. (Kingdom of) Bhutan
  6. (Union of) Myanmar [alt: Burma]

This style of question writing typically gives less information and forces teams to recall larger chunks of information all at once, and critically consider multiple options that the team may come up with; some of which may be wrong.

30-20-10 (and variants)

This no-longer-used type of bonus gave three (or some other number) discrete clues in order of decreasing difficulty; with the decreasing difficulty comes decreased point value, providing an incentive to answer the earlier clue. In NAQT format, whose question writers were particularly fond of 30-20-10 bonuses, a correct answer after the first clue is worth 30 points, one after the second clue is worth 20 points, and a correct answer given after the third clue is worth 10 points. Virtually any pyramidal tossup can be modified to create a 30-20-10. In general, the team may offer an answer after every clue in a 30-20-10.

An example of a 30-20-10 might be:

30-20-10. Identify the author from works.

30. Player Piano, his debut
20. Slapstick
10. Slaughterhouse-Five

Answer: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The 30-20-10 bonus was officially banned from ACF in 2008 and NAQT in 2009.

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