A bit about me and quizzing
As an inveterate quizzer, and setter of quizzes, I love testing myself against quiz shows on the small screen and radio, and doing quizzes from my quiz books shelf. I applied for ‘Brain of Britain’ (on R4) this year, but didn’t get through – the audition questions were multiple choice – which are simple if you know the answer – tricky when you’re trying to do your best guess. I made the classic mistake of not going with my first gut instinct and changing my mind on at least three of them and getting them wrong, when my gut instinct picked the right answer. I’ll try again next year!
Many years ago, I applied to Mastermind but didn’t get an audition. I did manage to get on one quiz show though – in 1988 – that was the primetime ‘Connections’ on Granada, hosted by a young and cocky Richard Madeley! I lost on the buzzer in the final round. What amazed me was how many people I knew watched it – in my job at the time I visited a lot of customers to sort out problems, and they’d all seen me on the programme too!
In the late 1980s I was also in a Pub Quiz team – and we lost one key match in the league on a disputed answer – the question had been ‘What is unique about Roquefort cheese?’ The answer on the cards was it’s made from sheep’s milk – we said it was the specific caves it is matured in, obvs – and gave a list of other cheeses made from sheep’s milk – feta anyone? The question-master was unable to accept our answer as he didn’t know anything about sheep’s cheese and we lost.
The Fine Art of Writing Quiz Questions
One more aside, before I come to the main thrust of this post. Have you noticed that the questions on Mastermind are getting longer and longer. It’s as if the question-setters are afraid that brevity and succinct language will lead to too much ambiguity in the answer they want. So they trowel on the detail unnecessarily in the question – which means you can only get a maximum of around 10 in your time in the specialist round these days, as so much time is taken up by Humphrys reading them very fast! I know that Mastermind also used to time all the question sets to ensure fairness – I’m sure they still do, maybe that’s why the questions are now so wordy, but it keeps all the scores down and it’s not so exciting.
There is a definite art to writing and setting quiz questions. That would be a dream job for me! Apart from fact-checking, the wording is so important. Then there is assessing the difficulty and getting the variety right within a round. Let’s look at some examples from a new quiz book I got.
How not to Write and Compile Quiz Questions
I received (via Amazon Vine) a new quiz book from one of the big publishing imprints known for their illustrated factual books from travel to encyclopaedias. I won’t identify the book in question as I’m going to use some of the questions in it to illustrate poor quiz-setting/question-writing. Like many quiz books, this one has 10,000 questions in themed and graded quizzes on specific topics within the usual broad categories. I’ve done a selection of quizzes from it, and here is what I found:
Type 1: I did an easy quiz on ‘musical instruments’ and scored 23/25. (One I got wrong was a True/False question about Polynesian Nose Flutes, the other wanted the harp-like instrument associated with ancient Romans and Greeks – I got distracted and forgot the simple (Apollo’s) lyre – and said Aeolian Harp.) Then I did an easy quiz in the pot luck section – it was on musical instruments – and quite a few of the questions were repeated word for word, or reworded slightly, but with the same answer! I would expect no repetition of this sort in a quiz book.
Type 2: I came across this several times too. In a medium difficulty Film & TV quiz on Science Fiction, one question asked about something in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, quoting the full film title. Further down the page a question asked: ‘Complete the film name: Close Encounters of…..’ That’s such lazy editing.
Type 3: In a difficult quiz in Art & Literature on the subject of Great Literary Journeys, there were two questions about the same author. One asked ‘Which Cormac McCarthy thriller features the postapocalyptic journey of a boy and his father?’ (I wouldn’t call ‘The Road’ a thriller). Then further down the page, ‘Who wrote the tale of three boys riding into Mexico and manhood in ‘All the Pretty Horses’? (I got 18/20 on this quiz).
Assessing the Difficulty
In that same medium SF Films and TV quiz above, there was one question that far too easy – ‘Who does Mark Hamill play in Star Wars?’ and there were several rather difficult ones of which the most difficult was ‘Which series of hit films is based on the books of Pierre Boulle?’ (Answers: Luke Skywalker and Planet of the Apes respectively). I’d have put the latter which I did know, but only because I’ve read one of Boulle’s books, in a difficult quiz.
Likewise, a medium Art question: ‘Which artist famously damaged his ear?’
Type 1: Not being specific enough. A medium quiz on Great Artists simply asked ‘Where was Leonardo da Vinci born?’ Did they mean Italy, or Tuscany, or Florence, or the commune of Vinci (within the metropolitan city of Florence), or Anchiano – the specific hamlet in Vinci? The answer given was Tuscany, so the question should have been worded to achieve that answer, e.g. In which region of Italy…
Type 2: This question also exhibits the worst sin of all – GETTING THE FACTS/ANSWER WRONG. From an easy quiz on British TV soaps …
‘Who plays Head Nurse at Holby City Hospital?’
The answer given was ‘Charlie Fairhead’. WRONG!
Charlie is a character – played by Derek Thompson (right, for over 30 yrs) in ‘Casualty‘. Charlie has never been head nurse either. He started out as charge nurse, and was at one stage Clinical Nurse Manager in the Emergency Department. Casualty has never had a Matron character that I can remember.
Now Casualty’s sister soap set in the same hospital – ‘Holby‘, does have a ‘Director of Nursing’. That’s Adrian ‘Fletch’ Fletcher, who worked his way up from Casualty moving different wards in Holby. Fletch is played by Alex Walkinshaw (left), so that was my answer – which is closest to the question’s wording.
Yes, this quiz book has many faults, but I’m still enjoying doing the quizzes in it to reinforce my general knowledge.
This all shows that there are many points to consider when setting questions and compiling quizzes:
- One of the hardest things is getting the range of difficulty right, and assessing questions as easy, medium or difficult is not straightforward. I do like a fiendishly difficult quiz for personal me vs the question-setter purposes, but in company getting a good range of difficulty in a quiz is better. A wholly medium quiz is not simple to compile.
- Choosing your words carefully to remove ambiguity is an absolute must, but you don’t need to go the full Mastermind.
- Fact-checking. It’s not enough to say the quizmaster’s decision is final these days – people will get on their phones during the interval!
- The art of supplying just enough information in a question to enable an educated guess is often desirable to include, you don’t want all questions to have a straight-forward you know it or you don’t binary response.
Do you quiz or set quizzes? I’d love to talk about this further!