Quiz Monkey
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Good and Bad Questions

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What Makes a Good Quiz Question?

Magnus Magnusson famously said that a difficult question is one you don't know the answer to; and an easy question is one you do know the answer to, but it goes to the other fellow.

When you're chatting to people in the pub, and you mention that you like quizzes, they quite often say "Here's a good quiz question ... " and proceed to ask you something that you haven't got a hope in Hell of knowing the answer to.

A lot of inexperienced question setters make the same mistake: they think that the object of a quiz is to catch people out.

I would suggest that the object of a quiz should be to find out who knows most. So there's absolutely no point in asking questions that no one knows the answer to.

I once heard an interview with the producer of the BBC radio quiz Brain of Britain. She said that they aim for the average contestant to get about 60% of the answers right.

I've always thought that sounded about right. I'd suggest however that anyone who gets much less than about 50% is likely to get a bit demoralised. Equally, anyone who gets more than about 90% is likely to get bored. So a quiz should have a good percentage of easy questions – 50%, say – with another 20% that most people will get, and a few that only a genius (or a lucky guesser) will get. That way, 60% falls in the middle of the range that most people could be expected to get; job done.

Of course, one person's easy question is another person's hard question – which is partly the point that Mr. Magnusson was making. If you go to a lot of pub quizzes, I expect you know some pubs where you find the quizzes quite easy, and others where you find them quite hard. If you run a pub quiz, you need to decide whether you want to make it an easy one or a hard one; over time, the audience will adjust itself to suit the level of questions you set.

Regardless of whether your quiz is easy or hard, it's absolutely vital to make it interesting and entertaining.

Very few quiz questions are entertaining in themselves; that's down to the personality of the person who's asking them, as much as anything else. But some questions are definitely more interesting than others.

William G. Stewart (who once referred to me as "my friend Haydn"!) was reported to have said that a question should either make you say "I knew that" or "I didn't know that!"

I would add that a bad question is one that makes you say "So what?", or "Who cares?", or "Never heard of him/her/it" – or something even less polite.

Some people like questions where if you don't know the answer, at least you can have a guess. For example: give a year in the life of King Alfred the Great. Others prefer questions where you either know the answer or you don't. It's a matter of personal taste – and as a quiz setter, you have to cater for all tastes.

In practice, my No. 1 tip towards making a quiz interesting is simply to come up with questions that no one's heard before. That doesn't mean hard questions; it just means you have to think creatively. For example, you can ask about the lyrics of pop songs. There are so many, it's most unlikely that anyone will have been asked before about the exact lyric you choose. Just make them songs that everyone knows; and don't overdo it.

Another way to come up with new questions is to ask about current or recent events. This is essential, in fact, if you want your quiz to seem fresh and new, rather than an old one that you've simply recycled. But again, don't overdo it. I'd say one round is plenty – and this is assuming that you have about six rounds (or more).

Of the thousands of questions on this website, only a small fraction are new at any one time. But of course they don't stay new for long, and not all of them stand the test of time, so a lot of them fall by the wayside before long.

© Haydn Thompson 2017