As teams get started for the year, a common question is “What should I be studying?” Good teams usually have a system for splitting categories among players, so what actually is important?
Ideally, there is a topic distribution. A thorough distribution usually has fixed numbers of questions for each broad subject per pack, and fixed number of questions for each subcategory over the course of a set. For example, a set might have 15 science questions per pack, with 10 geology questions spread over the twelve packs in the set. Topic distributions are well-established in the quizbowl circuits south of the border; not only does it offer guidelines on what to study, but it also organizes the submission of questions editors receive from writers.
There is no official distribution in Reach. I found this out while setting up a writing effort in 2014, and I don’t think that has changed since. I will return to that later, but I will start with my brief foray into coaching in 2012. For that year, I tried to reverse-engineer a distribution from the limited number of complete sets I had on hand at the school (the 2010-11 and 2012-13 intramural sets). The chart:
A brief explanation of the broad subjects:
- Pop Culture: TV, movies, music, games, and sports. I generously lumped all books (even Twilight) with literature. The largest subcategory was sports, with about 7.1% of total question content.
- History: Anything under the domain of history up to 2000, unless it fit more specifically into a smaller category like science or arts. I subdivided history into Canadian, US, post-Roman Europe, Ancient, and World. Europe had 6.7% of total content.
- Science: For this case, science includes solving math problems, though I tallied them as a subcategory separate from math concepts. Some topics, like Newton discovering gravity, fell under history if I deemed it more suitable. Perhaps surprisingly to some, neither computational math nor chemistry (via elemental symbol questions) was largest; it was biology with 5.4% of total content.
- Geography: The catch-all for identifying things on a map. Theory of geography was non-existent. There was a fairly even balance between Canadian, European, and “rest of World”, with “rest of North America” being the subcategory that lost out. I can’t recollect fully, but I think “rest of world” was largely dominated by identifying capitals, while Canadian geography got its point haul from several who-am-I questions.
- Literature: With less than 10% of total content, even after throwing in “pop lit” and children’s books, this is the most lacking subject in the distribution. Most quizbowl distributions place literature around 20% as one of the “big three” with history and science. In the sets I reviewed, Canadian, US, and European literature combined (the rest of the world was non-existent) came to 7.1% – the same as sports.
- “Words”: This is another catch-all for questions in which the word itself is more important than having background knowledge in a subject. The three subcategories I used were “definitions (incl. translation)”, “spelling”, and “wordplay”. “Wordplay” includes anagramming and those quirky questions where you add a letter to make a different word. For “definitions”, I was willing to place science/history/etc ones in that corresponding subject, but a lot were just things like “what does genuflect mean?” In my opinion, none of this “words” category belongs in quizzing, but it’s there.
- Miscellaneous: The last catch-all for questions that don’t fit another subject. Provincial flowers, mixing colors, slogans, and so on. It is possible for legitimate topics to appear as “miscellaneous” (even quizbowl accounts for this), but I’m not holding my breath for questions on administration, shop class, nursing, and other studied material that fall between the subject cracks.
- R/M/P: This is a quizbowl clumping. It stands for “religion, mythology, and philosophy”, which are topics that can often overlap. “Religion” in this case refers to practices and beliefs; events (such as the life of Buddha or the 95 Theses) usually fall under history. Dominated by identifying Greco-Roman gods, the mythology subcategory leads the way with 2.6% of total content.
- Fine Arts: This category has your visual (painting, sculpture, etc) and auditory (music, opera, etc) arts. Smaller topics like dance, architecture, and certain films find their way in as well. Music is slightly favored over visual art in the sets I reviewed, but the subject as a whole is fairly small.
- Current Events: Topics after 2000 that wouldn’t be considered “pop culture” or sports are found here. It ended up being fairly evenly split between politics and other newsworthy events. This is a subject that can be difficult to “study” for; it tends to require a habit of being world-aware.
- Social Science: Got an interest in economics, anthropology, psychology, linguistics, or dozens of other social sciences? Too bad.
Take all this with a grain of salt. It is only a sample size of 2 sets, and sets do evolve as the difficulty and years change – a modern Nationals set is not likely to have much wordplay, for example. However, it is still reasonable to expect that the “big 3” of Reach will be pop culture, history, and science this year.
When I wrote in 2014, I used the following distribution:
- 19.3% History. I tried a roughly even split between Canada/US/Europe (all eras)/World, but shifting some US to Europe.
- 19.3% Science. No computational math. I restricted questions on elements to not make any reference to their symbol, except possibly as a gimme at the end of a what-am-I or long question.
- 17.9% Literature. This was my weakest subject, but it needed a big boost from what existed.
- 12.9% Pop culture. Sports was toned down to balance out with movies, TV, music, and games.
- 8.6% Geography
- 5.7% Fine arts
- 5% R/M/P
- 4.3% Current events. So much for that category when my questions started showing up three years after the fact.
- 2.1% Social sciences
- 5% miscellaneous. No “words”. Usually, “miscellaneous” became a multi-clue question that spanned several different subjects (like how “blue” appears in science, literature, or music, for example).
It should be noted that the list above is what I submitted. Editorial control determined what topics appeared in question sets, and it needed to accommodate questions from other authors.
I don’t know the future of a distribution in Reach. Ever since quizbowl showed up, there have been rumours of players trying to adapt the topics, but rarely do they get to the point of writing and submitting. Quizbowl writing is a more lucrative venture, which discourages any new talent from coming in at Reach. There is also the problem that the majority of customers would resist change, even a change to better reflect a school curriculum (when was the last time you used anagrams or Drake in class?).
For now, if you’re looking for something to study, find the biggest topic no one else on your team is covering. That’s the best bet. How to study is another matter…