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Untold Play

What % of learning quizzes are boring? Or, how to make sure yours is the opposite

What % of learning quizzes are boring? Or, how to make sure yours is the opposite

by Terry Pearce

10 months ago


What’s your favourite quiz show? I’m going to bet it’s not Mastermind or University Challenge. Some people do enjoy those shows but it’s mainly to marvel at how well very well-read people can do on such tough questions. When people want a show to take part in and shout along at the screen, they mostly turn to shows like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, The Chase and Pointless in the UK, or Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy in the US.   

And yet learning quizzes (and by the way, more than a few pub quizzes) don’t learn from this. Like Mastermind or University Challenge, they pose a question and ask learners to name the answer, either from memory or from a range of choices (from which the obvious one is usually too easy). But this isn’t that much fun. It’s like a school test. Either you know the answer, or you don’t. If you don’t, it’s boring and dispiriting. If you do, it’s routine. 

If you take inspiration from gamification and game concepts and frameworks, and successful quizzes and quiz shows, you can make your quizzes stand out from the dull, grey crowd. Here are five key concepts:

Make it so that anyone can try to figure out the answers  

The worst question format is ‘what year did x happen?’, ‘who invented x?’, etc. – a simple question, looking for a single correct answer. You either know or you don’t. Instead, make it engaging for everyone by using question formats that allow everyone to have a try:

  • Copy an idea from Pointless, Blankety Blank and Family Fortunes: pose an easy question but with trickier or better answers ‘worth’ more than others in some way
  • Give them a set of items and make them put them in order, e.g. oldest to newest, best to worst selling, or most to least searched for
  • Make the actual answer almost impossible to guess but award points for closeness – the famous ‘how many piano tuners?’ question shows how people can actually make pretty good guesses at difficult things if they try
  • Give them a question with ten (or more) answers, some easy and some hard – e.g. the ten most-used ‘x’s – and see how many they can get

Make it so that they have to make strategic choices

Good games are based on interesting choices. In a straight-up quiz, there are no choices: if you know the answer, you say it. Having a buzzer introduces a choice – if you’re unsure, do you risk ‘buzzing in’? – but it’s not the most exciting choice ever. You can introduce interesting choices, though:

  • Give them options like the lifelines in Who Wants to be a Millionaire: when do you use them and how well do you trust them?
  • Use ‘play or pass’ – as a reward, or randomly, people get to choose whether to go first or second, which can matter, depending on category and question structure
  • Make them choose questions based on a slightly cryptic ‘clue’ as to what each question is about ask players to bet on themselves: how many questions will they get right (with appropriate bonuses/penalties for over or under-estimating) – The Chase uses a variation on this
  • Frame the quiz in the format of a game – the show Blockbusters is a simple example of this but you could use any game or board, including the ones listed here

Introduce timing and tension

One thing a buzzer does is add tension, which can raise the stakes and make things exciting. However, you can improve on a vanilla buzzer, or do other things to add a sense of urgency and tension: 

  • Add interest to a buzzer by setting a very tough question, then giving more and more clues over time: when should you buzz in if you think you know?
  • Take inspiration from Going for Gold, where control of the buzzer swapped back and forth between players but if somebody got a question wrong, they gave up control of the buzzer straightaway
  • Use the ‘penalty shoot-out’ format where getting a question wrong puts you behind, but puts pressure on the other team or players

Include a ‘blue shell’ catch-up mechanism 

The racing video game Super Mario Kart has a famous game mechanism that has contributed to its long-standing popularity. Everyone but the race leader has the opportunity to pick up ‘blue shells’ that they can fire at the race leader to slow them down. Because of this, players rarely feel they’re too far behind and lose heart – something that can be a problem in any competitive game or quiz. 

So take a leaf out of Nintendo’s book and give your players the chance to catch up if they’re behind (although be careful that it still feels worthwhile establishing a lead):

  • Give players the chance to ‘stick or twist’ on a round, or choose harder or easier questions – with risks and rewards set so that players who are behind can risk things to catch up but those ahead will likely play it safe
  • Give players who are behind small advantages, like going first (or last, whichever is an advantage for your question format), or choosing the category for everyone for the next round

Make question formats unusual and interesting 

The quiz show House of Games is a quirky but instantly appealing British Quiz show, whose popularity rests on the fact that each round is odd, funny and interesting, using different languages, anagrams and all sorts of creative ideas. You could do worse than copy any of its round formats but here are some specific ideas to make questions interesting and fun:

  • Copy the show Catchphrase and use answers that everyone (or most people) would know, but depicted in a puzzle-type way (similar to Dingbats
  • Ask players to find the answer in a Where’s Wally? type cluttered image
  • Ask teammates to give each other clues without mentioning keywords, or by drawing as in Pictionary, or miming as in Charades
  • Show a relevant video and ask players to guess ‘what happens next?’ 

Keep the learning in mind 

There are so many ideas here (and beyond), that it could be easy to get distracted from the learning that the quiz is supposed to revise or cover. But all of the suggestions can be adapted to most topics, so play about with the suggestions, or be inspired and come up with your own, in a way that gets the players thinking about and revisiting their ideas about the topic and your learners will have fun and solidify their learning.