"What makes a quiz enjoyable? The quality of questions is arguably the most important."vecteezy

Quizzes have traditionally been a popular activity at Cambridge, with University Challenge the most famous example. With social-distancing rules now in place, virtual quizzes are more popular than ever as freshers’ activities or events run by societies. How enjoyable students find a quiz depends on a wide range of factors, but the quality of questions is arguably the most important. While writing quiz questions is an art, not a science, and there is no single right approach, I’d like to set out some do’s and don’t’s that I feel apply to many quizzes.

Don’t: Be ambiguous

Q: Which European country has the most land borders?

Picture the situation: your society is putting together a virtual quiz, and after being tasked with writing the Geography section, you come up with this question. Looking at a map of Europe, you would be forgiven for thinking that the answer is fairly simple: Germany, which borders nine countries. But if a contestant puts France as their answer, they would have a strong case; France may border eight countries in mainland Europe, but French Guiana in South America (considered an “integral part of France”) also borders Brazil and Suriname, bringing France’s total up to ten.

Now suppose you had prepared for this possibility, and had amended the question to only cover borders with European countries. Even then, there would be a case for France being tied with Germany; the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean is split between the Dutch Sint Maarten and the French collectivity of Saint-Martin, giving those two countries (which are separated in Europe by Belgium) a land border that brings France’s total up to nine to match Germany. Should this French territory be counted? Again, the question is unclear, and whatever decision is made, someone will be unhappy. (And there’s also an argument that the answer is in fact Russia…)

“Testing your questions with others before running the quiz can also reveal complications you had not thought of.”

Ambiguity can be an issue with questions on any topic, but I find that Geography is particularly susceptible. What counts as a country? Is Kosovo (recognised by 98 UN members) a country? Abkhazia (recognised by 5)? Israel (unrecognised by 31)? Taiwan? Wales?

Similar issues exist elsewhere: is Turkey in Europe? Is it “East Timor” or “Timor-Leste”?

That said, the situation is not as difficult to deal with as I have perhaps made it seem. Most questions (whether geographical or not) have only one reasonable interpretation, while others can be clarified by rewording or with a short note. Testing your questions with others before running the quiz can also reveal complications you had not thought of.

Do: Have questions where people can work out the answer


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Q: When the novelist C.S. Lewis died, the media focused on another event; what else happened on 22 November 1963?

Q: Which country contains the largest electoral district (by area) represented by a single legislator?

In my view, one of the qualities that makes a good quiz question is that few people immediately know the answer, but many can make an educated guess after narrowing it down to several possibilities. The first example question should illustrate this; whilst not many people know what took place on that exact date, they will realise that this has to be one of the most important events of the decade, and something that took place in a single day. The Moon Landing and the construction of the Berlin Wall are both reasonable ideas, but many participants will be able to work out the correct answer: the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The same thing applies to the second example. Almost no one would know the answer straight away, but after a little thought, the answer can be narrowed down to a large democracy with sparsely populated regions: Canada, the United States and Australia are all good guesses (though naturally there are other possibilities, such as Brazil). When pushed to choose, it might be logical to go for the largest or second-largest of these, and the answer is in fact Canada, with the US second.

Don’t: Have questions that involve a lot of guessing

Q: Rank these countries by number of Nobel Prize-winners: Australia, China, South Africa, Spain.

A: Australia (12), South Africa (10), China (9), Spain (8).

I created this example to illustrate the problem, but I have encountered similar issues before. Any question that involves ranking several items of data that almost no one will know exactly, are extremely close together, and require a perfect answer to score points, essentially comes down to guesswork. There are 24 possible orderings, and I’d be surprised if there were a person in Cambridge with a more than fifty percent chance of getting the question right.

"...good, creative quiz questions can come from anywhere."instagram/children_illustrations

This can also overlap with the point about avoiding ambiguity. When comparing numbers that are close together, moving just a handful of data points into different categories can completely change the answer. These statistics are based on Wikipedia, but changing how you count dual citizens, or immigrants, or prizes awarded when a country was not independent, could easily upend the ordering.

Do: Get creative!

Q: Which of these headlines is real and which is satirical: “School turns students’ lunch debt over to collection agency”, “Soldier excited to take over father’s old Afghanistan patrol route”?

Q: In a video from “Epic Rap Battles of History”, which American historical figure says the lines: “I’m into fitness, digging ditches through an isthmus!” and “A bullet can’t stop the Bull Moose!”?

Q: What links the Australian state whose capital is Melbourne; an international cricket ground in south London; and an 1815 battle?

What makes a question creative? There is of course no one answer to this question, but I think that one way is through linking questions with each other, or linking questions to something rather than having them stand alone. The third example (which could also be split into four questions) tests three subjects – geography, sports and history – as well as a fourth area when finding the link. The more sub-questions you answer, the greater your chance at working out the connection, but a correct solution is possible knowing only one of the three.

“If you read a fact that you find interesting, or anything else that you think could be turned into a nice question, write it down!”

The second question takes what could be a fairly standard history question (“Which American president, known for his role in the construction of the Panama Canal, founded a party nicknamed the “Bull Moose Party”?), and makes it more engaging by connecting it to pop culture. It is important to make sure that such questions are accessible to everyone; a short explanation of what “Epic Rap Battles of History” is would help. Images, audio or video can often add to a question as well.

Concluding thoughts

My final point is that good, creative quiz questions can come from anywhere. The first example question in this section is based on something from the social media site Reddit, for example, while other questions have come to mind from reading newspapers or obscure Wikipedia articles. If you read a fact that you find interesting, or anything else that you think could be turned into a nice question, write it down! You never know when it will prove useful for your next quiz.