University Challenge is so hard

When I tell people I am a professional quiz master, and that I set quiz questions for iPhone quiz games, TV shows etc. I am often asked if we write the questions for ‘University Challenge’ (we don’t), such is the high profile of the show in the UK.

‘University Challenge’ style questions are very hard to write well. They should, ideally, unambiguously point towards the correct answer from the start, gradually giving more and more clues and getting easier as the question progresses, and should flow reasonably naturally to make them easy for players (and viewers) to understand when they hear them read out quickly.

But people who watch ‘University Challenge’ often feel that they are stupid for only getting  2 or 3 starter questions before the contestants. However, this is actually almost exactly par for the course.

Let’s say there are about 25 starter questions in a show. Assume all the players on the show have an even spread of knowledge, and answer all the starter questions evenly. That’s 3 starter questions per person. If you’re sat at home getting 2 or 3 then you are bang on the mark for what is expected. Once you are getting more than 2 or 3 starters before the contestants then you are a cult UC star (Trimble/Guttenplan/Fitzpatrick etc.) in the making.

Of course the often overlooked fact here is that bonus questions are where it can be won or lost. It is quite conceivable for a team to get only about one-third of their bonus questions correct whereas the other team might get two-thirds of theirs correct. The team that has a deeper knowledge for winning points on bonus questions in this example can afford to answer significantly fewer starter questions while still managing to win. (In this example the better team on bonuses could answer 10 starters and have 200 points whereas the better team on starters but worse on bonuses could answer 13 starters and only have 195 points. Fine margins – but the importance of the bonuses is easily forgotten).

How many starter questions do you typically get before the contestants when you watch ‘University Challenge’?

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