How to study

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Saint Jerome in His Study

Studying is a very important part of the game of quiz bowl and the key to improving. This guide is intended to lay out concrete steps for a player who is looking for advice on how to start studying. It is certainly not intended to be definitive.

This guide was written by User:Kevin Wang and thus reflects their particular thoughts.

For additional resources on improving, be sure to check out the "Guides" section of the article on studying. In particular, I would be remiss if I did not mention "So You Want to Study Quizbowl" by Max Schindler.


There are two halves to studying:

  • Acknowledging that quiz bowl is a competition written and played by fallible humans whose actions can be predicted and exploited via rote memorization.
  • Learning to appreciate that packets are composed of information compiled specifically for being interesting and important and using it as a way to learn about new things outside of the game.

The first is how you get good, but the second is how you stay good. This guide is meant to provide concrete exercises for the first angle and mental models for the second. The goal is to prepare a player for success at their current level and beyond.

If you just want the two-step guide to success, here it is:

  1. Read through older sets and past questions to familiarize yourself with the game and with what it expects you to know about various topics
  2. Establish a routine that includes taking down new information and retaining things

For some steps you can work on right now, read the exercises in each section.

The mental

Quiz bowl is a game of the brain. Matches are won through months of preparation and study, but they may be lost through psyching oneself out at the last moment.

Prepare for success

It can be daunting to step out of a game room with the realization of how much there is to learn about the world. One of the most important things to know is that it is entirely feasible (and indeed, quite common) for a player to become very skilled in a relatively short amount of time. This is especially true at the high school level, where every year new teams emerge as contenders for the title.

It should not be forgotten that this requires dedication and hard work - the journey is long one, but the rewards are real.


  1. Set some short-term goals - what do you want to have accomplished one week from now? One month? Come up with a rough schedule of how you'll do it.
  2. Set a long-term goal. The day-to-day schedule should look different - in what ways? Does it make more sense to start with those goals in mind or to build up to them?

Think positively

There are a lot of ideas floating around out there about what intangible aspects make one suited for improving: Carol Dweck's growth mindset, Angela Duckworth's grit, Abraham Maslow's self-actualization, etc. The general thrust of these ideas is a desire to do better is sometimes as important as the action itself.

  • Every question you miss is a question you can get next time.
  • Each tournament you play is an opportunity for improvement.
  • Each loss you take is a learning experience.


  1. Next time you neg a question and feel annoyed or frustrated (whether in practice, online, or at a game), actively make the decision to put it behind you. Take a deep breath and tell yourself "on to the next one". Practice doing this every time, until it stops being something you have to do consciously.
  2. Next time you get beat to a question, write down the clue you missed. After the tournament, take the steps to learn that piece of information.

Don't tilt

To "tilt" is to allow one's emotions to dominate their performance - it's a term from poker which has become commonplace in e-sports and other online spaces. Tilting might manifest in a negstorm or a loss of confidence on the buzzer.

Some concrete steps to avoid this sort of response:

  • Learn to ignore negs: Sometimes you as a player are put in a situation where guessing is optimal and the chance of a neg is very high. Sometimes you just neg. Few games are decided by a single tossup and even those are just a game.
  • Learn your confidence intervals: A scenario so common it's practically parody is negging one tossup a clue too early, only to overcompensate and sit too long on the next one. Spend a few practices tracking how confident you are when you buzz. This can help instill patience when unsure and develop confidence when certain.

Find love for the game

Quiz bowl is a hobby, and one with little prestige. Though some regions have well-regarded tournaments and there's no denying the sheen on nationals, the majority of the drive to improve must come from within.

Being able to find a consistent and resilient source of motivation is an important part of long-term success and short-term enjoyment of this little trivia game.

  • Learn to enjoy the game separately from your performance

Many players find the motivation for studying from things like spite or the emotion of "number goes up". It is a documented fact that this is a successful strategy. However, the returns rapidly diminish - it is simply not possible to constantly increase one's PPG, or even maintain it as you move up in difficulty. Tying your mental state to statistical performance or winning can achieve results in the short term, but it often causes frustration as your career progresses.

Some things which can serve as alternative sources of enjoyment:

  • An appreciation for learning: Hearing questions that one does not convert becomes more tolerable if the goal is to hear about new things rather than maximize points.
  • Always winning the buzzer race: If you lose a buzzer race, it means you knew the same clue. Recognizing this fact and adjusting your mindset can make these situations more tolerable.
  • Rewarding your knowledge: One of the most satisfying things in quiz bowl is being able to hear clues which you are personally invested in, either because you've studied them or knew them from outside the game. Focusing on these things you did know can be better than fixating on things you didn't.
  • Having a good time: Games often have an intrinsic comedy to them. Your fellow players share similar interests. Each game and each tournament are an opportunity to spend time with your peers. Don't get in your own head about it.

One does not need to have perfect motivations to improve or to want to improve - however, it is always useful to start cultivating a healthy and positive mindset.

  • Avoid burnout

This is a very common problem, especially as one transitions from one level of the game to the next (high school to college in particular). As you improve, the natural progression is to expand your workload to the maximum that is sustainable. As passion subsides, either in the off-season or through the natural progression of time, what was once reasonable can become daunting.

  • Normalize taking rest days: If you have a routine, skip it. If you have cards due, don't do them. Don't think about quiz bowl for a day, a week, as long as you want. There are merits to consistency, but also to inconsistency.
  • Stop if you want: Attending tournaments isn't mandatory. Going to practice isn't mandatory. Playing quiz bowl isn't mandatory. If you've spent the time and decided the best choice is to step away, do it. Don't stay out of an obligation, only out of enjoyment.
  • Learn because you love it: One of the unfortunate facts of quiz bowl is that it doesn't always award points for our interests. It can be easy to set aside things you enjoy to maximize points. Consider just learning about material you actually want to learn about for a bit - maybe write a vanity set (at your own pace).
  • Expanding outwards

One of the most rewarding aspects of quiz bowl is the exposure to new topics. It provides a list of books to read, movies to watch, art to consume. In many ways, a set is a catalogue of its writers's interests - take advantage of this.

It is often said that reading books is the least efficient means of studying - however, it is likely the most entertaining.

Separate testing from teaching

Questions at each difficulty share many similarities: style, format, and clues are obvious examples. It would be natural to approach playing tournaments at each difficulty the same way as well. However, this can cause both frustration and poor performance.

Imagine, for instance, preparing for questions on Charles Dickens by reading high school regular difficulty sets, gaining a mastery of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and then being faced with a question on Little Dorrit at nationals. Historically, a common response to this sort of whiplash was for players to get very annoyed and complain about the question on the forums; while cathartic, this doesn't actually improve one's chance on getting the question the day of or at future tournaments.

Conversely, imagine preparing to convert canon-busting hard parts at nationals and then losing at a local tournament because teams are dueling over well-trodden firstlines. This scenario often leads to questions at this level being pejoratively described as "stock", as if early clues being known and buzzable in lower difficulty questions is not a desirable scenario.

Both these grievances stem from the essential dichotomy of "test" versus "teach" - should a tournament be viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge of a subject or an opportunity to expand one's knowledge base? Looking at nationals through a "teach" lens can soften the blow when holes in one's knowledge are revealed, and taking IS sets as a "test" situation can make it clear that the goals are different.

Of course, calling it a "dichotomy" is reductive: many tournaments will strike the middle ground between these two purposes. Writers will often aim for this as well, so it's rare that a set will be entirely in one group versus the other. These are also relative terms - an experienced player and a newer one may disagree about whether a particular question is a "test" or a "teach".

Some other ways to apply this framing:

  • During the early part of one's career, much of one's improvement comes from tournaments and practice - as such, it is essential to play questions which are within one's comfort zone. As one improves, more of their learning should come from outside study so it becomes more appropriate to attend harder tournaments and read harder sets at practice to gauge one's progress.
  • During a tournament, the twin focuses should be "playing well" and "preparing for the next tournament". Immediately compartmentalizing questions and clues into "test" and "teach" based on whether one gets it or not can be useful. In particular, this can avoid the sting of a neg by choosing to view it as a place to improve (a teaching moment).
  • When discussing a tournament after the fact, it is best to be honest about where it lies on your teach-test spectrum. One of the goals of post-tournament discussion is to deliver actionable feedback to the writing team, as well as to bystanders who may be working on other sets. It's rarely productive to ding a set meant to be played by the median team for having easy clues or a set intended for pre-nats prep for having hard ones, even if the criticism is true and factual. For more discussion of this subject, see How to discuss a set.

The physical

Ask a hundred players on how to study, and you'll get a hundred answers. The process is very subjective, with different players having different methodologies. The key is to create a plan that works for you.

Some broad stages:

  1. Consider your own experiences
  2. Accumulate information
  3. Write things down
  4. Work to retain information

All of these stages happen in parallel. This guide will discuss "What" and "How".

What to study

The core of studying is the reading of informational sources. However, it may be hard to know what information is "important": what will translate to points.

Here are some heuristics for understanding the information landscape of quiz bowl:

  • Quiz bowl is a game

Even at its best, quiz bowl is an imperfect mirror of a mere slice of the real world. The nuanced reality of a topic can rarely be encapsulated in a short paragraph of trivia. It's still very worthwhile to appreciate these complexities as you encounter them - just don't expect to get many points for them.

  • Quiz bowl has a history

The first instances of a quiz bowl-like game were played in the 1950s. The modern game has existed for several decades. Many common topics have had tens, if not hundreds, of questions written on them. This pool of knowledge is an important resource because it is an easily accessible set of information that has already been processed into the quiz bowl modality. An important caveat is that question quality has increased so much that tournaments from before a certain date are largely useless for learning purposes.

  • Questions are written by other players

Understanding that there is another person producing the questions you will be playing is very important. Writers have to go through a process of finding clues and ordering them - writing your own questions or just adopting that mindset can help you identify key topics or predict future trends. It is also important to be empathetic to the real humans whose volunteer work helps make this hobby possible for everyone.

  • Difficulty is a spectrum

Studying can help you quickly grow more comfortable at any level of the game. Once you've chosen a target difficulty like that of HSNCT or NSC, you can prepare more effectively by understanding that clues used in high school questions often first appear in college sets. Spending time playing questions harder than your goal can be enough to get you acclimated and will regularly expose you to harder topics which you would otherwise only see sporadically.

Accumulate information

No source is better for answering quiz bowl questions than old quiz bowl questions. Nevertheless, there are other advantages to learning from other places: for one, you eventually run out of questions to read. For another, playing questions is the counterpart to writing them; predicting what will eventually come up is an effective way to guarantee points in the future.

Source Advantages Disadvantages
Packet study
  • Existing questions are, more or less by definition, only clues.
  • The archive houses just about every non-NAQT set from the modern era.
  • Many question readers now exist, which provide an interactive component to packet reading.
  • The cost of this efficiency is that this the most artificial way to engage with information - you lose much of the intangible benefits of learning.
  • "The size of the canon" plus "the human desire for novelty" means that the utility of any individual fact plummets at higher difficulties.
  • The premiere online encyclopedia is well-fleshed out for many topics which appear in quiz bowl.
  • Many question writers rely heavily on Wikipedia as a source for questions (for better or worse).
  • Niche topics have very spotty coverage and are subject to strong biases in more or less random directions.
  • There is no guarantee that any given editor will have any idea what they're doing.
  • With academic relevance being one of the most important criteria of importance, a reputable textbook is guaranteed to have information which will appear in quality questions.
  • Most textbooks are designed as pedagogical instruments and are intentionally structured to facilitate effective learning and retention.
  • As a textbook becomes more technical, the percentage of information which is relevant to quiz bowl rapidly drops.
  • The sheer quantity of information on even the most niche fields is overwhelming.
  • Textbooks are very long - even examples with obvious utility (like those for AP exams) will be hundreds of pages long.
Primary sources (books, scientific papers, etc.)
  • These are the font from which knowledge springs forth, the wellspring from which all clues are derived. Or whatever.
  • At their shortest, this could be something like a famous sonnet whose sixteen lines are remembered by all, or a short story whose details are all memorable.
  • It is likely that you'll run into some of these in the course of your studies, meaning they'll be things you have a reason to remember.
  • At their longest, these can be enormous tomes which nobody cares about anymore (if they ever did at all).
  • Even at intermediate length, a book of a hundred pages is ultimately distilled into a tossup of seven lines - even across a hundred such tossups, most of this information only serves to entertain.

The question of "which textbooks" and "which sources" is a question with some complexity. For at least one example, see How to become a good science player.

Different categories have different relationships to their source materials. While plot summaries (online and otherwise) are certainly an important part of learning literature, more or less every question hinges on reading an actual piece of writing. Meanwhile, a student of the sciences is likely to never read a paper until they're in college and will primarily engage with the subject through textbooks.

Even an hour of studying a week will pay dividends - this doesn't scale infinitely, but it does scale. Be careful to avoid overtaxing yourself - take frequent breaks, both during individual study sessions and over longer timescales.

How to study

Consider your own experiences

Think about how you've studied in other situations. When preparing for exams, what worked for you?

Lean on your past - if you have a tried-and-true method for studying for math or what have you, it'll work for quiz bowl too.

Write things down

Basically every route to studying involves writing things down. There are two major reasons to write things down:

  1. during active studying, writing something down can be an exercise in retention and will directly aid learning
  2. it may allow you to record topics to focus on

Here are some concrete ways that this may manifest:

  • writing down what you learn while reading into a document
  • bringing a notebook to practice and tournaments to record answerlines to study or clues to remember
  • writing practice questions on topics you know well and those you don't know at all

Much of the utility of these documents is in the creation - the act of curating information and researching is very productive. It is possible to procure online study documents from other players, but be wary: you will rarely out-buzz someone based on something they wrote down.

Some options for where to write things down:

Method Advantages Disadvantages
Paper and pencil
  • Some people like writing with physical media and it's hard to disagree with the appeal - the feel of the graphite, the smell of the wood, the taste of the paper
  • Most people type faster than they write
  • Written notes have corporeal existences and can only exist in one place at a time, meaning that one can only write or review notes if they remember to bring their notes
  • Hard to incorporate images, or to link disparate concepts
Local text files
  • Notes can now be typed, as well as copy-pasted
  • Can searched with all the power of modern computer hardware
  • These can be more easily copied from place to place, but reviewing in multiple places still requires foresight
the Google suite (Docs, Sheets, etc.)
  • The power of The CloudTM allows you to access your notes anywhere you wish
  • Free (or close enough, anyways)
  • You become tethered to the internet (though this can be circumvented somewhat by saving your notes offline or exporting them to other formats)
  • Large sets of notes begin to be unwieldy, with significantly more overhead to simple tasks like opening them
  • Fun visualizations and accompanying wiki-like syntax for establishing "links"
  • Folders! (It is honestly hard to overstate how nice folders are)
  • Built-in LaTeX (for the nerds out there)
  • No syncing between instances unless you pay (though apparently this can be circumvented using tools like Dropbox)
  • Only exists as standalone app (no web interface)
  • Doesn't really support bullet points (honestly baffling) Whoops - just use "+".

Some other options I (Kevin) haven't personally tried but which have been mentioned/recommended by others for quiz bowl/general note-taking/writing:

Work to retain information

See also: How to flashcard

This is some of the most tedious work of studying. In the previous steps, there is the inherent joy of discovery that comes from learning new things. At this stage there is only the hard work of memorization.

One of the most lauded (and most hated) methods of retention is the humble flashcard. Any serious effort at carding should use an app that employs spaced repetition: the largest such apps are Anki and Mnemosyne. The major advantage of this technique is that, over a period of time, you will be presented with the cards which you perform the most poorly at and can thus focus on remembering them. Compare this to a simpler method like Quizlet or physical cards - with those you are subject to the laws of chance with regards to what order you review and when. While there is little difference for a deck of size ten or even a hundred, it is not uncommon for quiz bowlers to eventually amass thousands or tens of thousands of flashcards.

Nevertheless, flashcards are not strictly necessary - many strong players have never used flashcards, or have tried them and found them lacking. The key is to do what works for you: the goal is simply to retain information and whether that's by carding or rereading notes or writing questions doesn't matter.