Studying Techniques: “Divide and Conquer!” and “Climb the Pyramid!”
Many quizbowlers practice with their teams, read questions on their own, and compete on a regular basis at tournaments. However, what can really separate the best teams from the great teams, and the great teams from the good teams, is a systematic approach to preparation. Certainly, practicing with teammates and reading through questions is helpful. But the level of competition gets better each year, and everyone’s time is limited. So where can you get an edge?
Start by having your team divide up responsibility for different subjects among different players. Don’t limit this to the “A-team” – B team and C team members (and if you really want to go all out, middle schoolers with talent who will feed into your school) should be assigned subjects to focus on too. It makes no sense to have everyone on the team studying all the same information if you play together on a routine basis. Note that there’s no need to simply divide up subjects like “Math and Science” “Social Studies” “Literature” and “Fine Arts.” Take into account what subjects people are studying in school, have studied in the past, and where team members’ interests lie. It’s okay if one team member takes European History and Chemistry while someone else takes American History and Physics. Moreover, a little overlap is okay and inevitable, and can even be a good thing in moderation if a particular player on your team can’t make a tournament. Also, if you’re the captain of your team (or think you might be in a year or two), consider taking on a greater share of subjects than other members on your team. This might not be “fair,” but the reality is that your talent might be greater than some other students on your team. If this is the case, then maybe you could step in and take over “non-Greek mythology,” for example, while still leaving Greek mythology nominally in the hands of a different player.
Finally, don’t overlook subjects like mythology, sports and entertainment (e.g. “trash”), philosophy, religion, economics, sociology, anthropology, film, geography, and current events. Some tournaments focus more on these than others, and these subjects might not fall under one of the classic headings, but someone on your team should have responsibility for them.
Then, once you know what your area of expertise is, then it’s time to start going about your studying systematically. The best time to do this is NOT during team practice, and definitely not at tournaments. Yes, you will pick up things there, but if you want to raise your game and your team to the next level, you need to commit to a certain level of preparation on your own. How much time does this require? That’s up to you, but the top players in the country routinely practice 10+ hours a week. If your goal, however, is first to make your school’s A-team, or win a regional invitational tournament, then perhaps 3-6 hours is a good amount to start off with.
In order to study systematically, you will probably want to make notes in a study binder. Organize your binders by subject, and then divide your binders into more specific headings. For history, you could have a history binder, and then sections divided into Ancient History, US History, European History, Non-Western History, etc. If you’re solely responsible for European History on your team, then maybe organize your notes by centuries or by country.
But what should go in your notes? First thing to make clear: NOT every last bit of information in every tossup question or page in a cultural literacy book that you use to study. While memorizing information contained at the start of a tossup might help you answer a particular question on that subject very quickly, information at the beginning of a tossup is by definition less-widely known. Similarly, all sorts of facts could be used to open a tossup, memorizing any one particular fact at the start of a tossup is a low-percentage strategy in most cases.
A better way to go about things is to “climb the pyramid.” Most quality tossups these days are “pyramidal” in nature, meaning that they begin with the more obscure information and move to the more familiar. When reading tossups on your own, what you should do is figure out where you would buzz if you heard the question in competition. Then, go back to the 1-2 facts that immediately precede what clue you used to buzz in. Find those 1-2 facts. WRITE THEM DOWN IN YOUR STUDY BINDER!!! Then repeat the process with as many good tossups as you can get your hands on. Bear in mind that you should pay particular attention to tossups where you’re buzzing in late. While this may be due primarily to a difficult tossup, it may also be indicative that your knowledge base on this particular topic needs to deepen. Finally, if possible, see if you can compare different tossups with the same answer lines. If certain information is contained in multiple questions on the same subject, then that information might be especially worth knowing.
The simple act of writing things down will help tremendously in your studying. But then you need to review it. And review it. And review it. Don’t have access to your notes? Run through as much of them as you can in your head. The major difference between studying for a course in school and studying for quiz bowl is that in quiz bowl, the information needs to make it into your long-term memory. In order for this to happen, you need to review most facts repeatedly over a few weeks, and then go back and read through it once a month or so to make sure you don’t “lose” that bit of information.
This method of preparation is by no means the only way to succeed in quiz bowl. However, you’re a teenager, which means your life is busy. If you want to maximize your efficiency (and you should), climb the pyramid by using the method described here! And don’t forget to bring your study binder to practice and tournaments, so you can add to it as needed as well. As you improve, you’ll realize that you’ll be writing down more information towards the start of tossups. And you’ll rack up more wins in competition to show for it as well. Winning and getting smarter. Not a bad combination! Good luck in all your quiz bowl endeavors this year (and hope to see you at a National History Bee and Bowl tournament near you!)