Running a quiz
Quizzes have been very popular for years both for socialising and for a bit of friendly competition. Before 2020 they were regular features in many u3a programmes and during the pandemic they proved to be an excellent way of keeping people in touch and their minds active online.
There are various formats that can be used, depending on the number of people involved and the size and facilities of the location. Your u3a quiz may be in an area of a pub or restaurant or perhaps in a local village, church or school hall. If in a room in a pub you may have limited access to audio-visual facilities, but if you have a more private space you may be able to use these effectively. With an audience of up to about 20-25 people you may not need to use a microphone, but with larger audiences it will be helpful to have a sound system. If there is an opportunity to use a projector and screen or even a laptop linked to a large screen television it opens up options for visual and/or sound rounds, perhaps even using video clips and animations.
Whatever your format, it is helpful to know a bit about your audience in advance. Even within u3a there is likely to be an age range and there will also be diversity of interests and experience. Not everyone enjoys a quiz that is little more than a run through “popular” culture such as television, celebrities, sport and music. Equally, people will be put off if the whole quiz is too academic or specialised, so it is wise to seek balance across your rounds.
It is also a good idea to utilise the expertise in your group. Quizzes compiled by different people will vary in style and content to reflect the approach and interests of the compiler, so you may wish encourage that variety by inviting your members to take turns as quiz setter.
Recipe for a slick quiz
- Teams of 4 or 5 maximum
- If possible in your venue display questions on a screen as well as reading them out.
- Using PowerPoint or similar software helps to make the presentation attractive.
- Include pictures, music, animation where possible and natural to do so.
- For hard/specialist questions you may choose to offer multiple choice answers, but in general these should be kept to a minimum.
- Difficulty level: aim for winners to get 80%+, lowest scorers around 50%+.
- Ideally, the quiz should last about an hour and a half. Having 5 or 6 rounds of 10 questions works well.
- Check the answers after every round and display or announce running scores as soon as they are marked.
- In a u3a it should not be necessary to remind people not to use their mobile phones to research answers … but you know the people so if you think there is a risk of cheating ask people to turn them off.
- The presenter’s answer rules, OK!
Questions devised by personal research make for a more interesting selection than those lifted from quiz books or Internet sites, many of which are repetitive and predictable. It will add interest to include locally based rounds, maybe using your own photographs of local scenes. I have also used holiday photographs to ask people to identify places or to illustrate a question about the location.
Getting the balance of difficulty right is a matter of trial and error. I try to include enough questions that I can expect most people to know so that people stay interested, some questions that only a few people may know to find a winner and the odd question that is there for educational or entertainment value – if I hear someone say “That is interesting. I didn’t realise that” then the question has served its purpose. A useful tactic is to test your draft questions on a willing partner/friend. If one such person can get about 60% correct you can be confident that a team of 4 or 5 will get around 80%. Ideally all the teams should be able to score above half marks with top scores reaching above 80%. That will encourage people to come again, at the same time avoiding any thoughts that it is too easy to be enjoyable.
I used to give one point per question, but have found that it is often worth making it two per correct answer as that allows you to give one for a near miss without having to fiddle with half marks.
“Joker” rounds are ones in which you tell the teams the names of the rounds and each team selects their Joker round before you start the quiz. Teams get double points for the round they have chosen. These rounds can add to the excitement but may prove unpopular because a team with specialist knowledge of a topic may gain a significant advantage in that round. It is best to consult the players before introducing the Joker option and only use it if they are in favour.
Phrasing questions is an art in itself. It is very important that you make it clear what the teams have to do in answering the question: are you looking for a single word or a phrase? Try to avoid questions that can be interpreted in different ways. Simple English is usually best.
For more specialist/difficult questions, some people like to offer multiple choice answers, so even if players know absolutely nothing about the subject they've got a one in four chance of getting a point. Or you could give the initials of the answer, or an anagram, or the answer with letters missing. Pointless is good inspiration for this.
Most good quizzes have themes for each round, testing a variety of topics. One of my recent quizzes had rounds called:
- On the box – questions about television programmes and stars
- On your plate – questions about food
- In the garden – questions about plants and gardening practices
- In the past – historical questions from around the world
- In and on the water – questions about things found in the water and about geographical water features
- At random – general knowledge questions
Quirky titles for rounds can be amusing or deliberately misleading! I used a round called “General” knowledge in which every question or answer included the word “general”. The purpose is to add to the fun.
Variations on a theme
If you wish, you can add variety not just to the topics featured in your quiz, but also to the styles of round. Among the types of round I have used are:
- High fives – you can use various Internet sources to find information that allows for questions like “According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation website, which were the five countries that exported the most coffee in 2022?” or “What were the top five selling brands of car in the UK in 2021?”. A little research on a search engine can be very productive.
- Initial Letter Link – set nine questions and ask the teams to make an anagram from the first letters of their answers to make a nine letter word matching a criterion you give them. One of mine was to ask for the name of a European city that had hosted the Olympics and the initial letters made up Barcelona. I am devious though and I listed the questions so that the answers appeared in alphabetical order – AABCELNOR – so they had to work out the anagram.
- Connections – I usually have two of these in a round, each with four questions to answer, the fifth answer being to work out the connection between the previous four answers. For example, I had one where the answers included Income Tax, Fleet Street, Piccadilly and Fenchurch Street station so the connection was places on the Monopoly Board. The answers for another led to the names of British motor car brands.
- Desktop rounds – Occasionally, and especially where there is a meal involved along with the quiz, you can give teams a printed set of questions to fill in throughout the evening and mark these along with the last round. These could be anagrams to solve, pictures of famous places, people, business logos or animals to identify, puzzles to solve or any other theme that your imagination can devise. This encourages interaction between the members of the team so contributes to the social aspect of the quiz. These can be prepared using Word, PowerPoint slides or Excel and printed out. Make sure you have enough copies for the number of teams.
Especially if you are holding your quiz in a public facility like a pub, where other people may be present, it is important to take care in the use of visuals, animations or video clips, or sound recordings. Depending on the source of these, there may be copyright issues.
In the case of pictures, try to use your own or images covered by creative commons licences, many of which are available for download free of charge, and remember to acknowledge your source. Before using sound or video clips, make sure your quiz is covered by the public performance licence held by the venue. This will avoid any potential issues with the Performing Rights Society.
The ideal number in a team is 4 or 5. In Ayr u3a we encourage people to get to know each other, and especially to make new members welcome, by allocating players to teams randomly by getting them to draw numbered lollipop sticks. This avoids the risk of a team of strong players getting together and dominating every quiz and gives everyone a chance of learning from the more experienced players.
Ask each team to think up a name which they put on their answer sheets.
Presenting a quiz
The pattern will depend on the size of the audience and the nature of the facilities. Whether just reading out questions or projecting them onto a screen, I usually read out the questions twice. It is important to speak fairly slowly and as clearly as possible to avoid players misunderstanding a question.
At the end of each round I ask if players would like to hear any question again, as this helps when teams are still debating their answer to a particular question. Give a reasonable time between questions for discussion. Experience will tell you how much time to give for this purpose, so be prepared to slow down or speed up as seems appropriate.
It looks smarter to have printed answer sheets with a space for the team name at the top and the title of each round. This can be done on a single sheet or with a separate sheet for each round, stapled together for convenience.
This depends on the number and nature of the participants, the size and audibility of the venue. If you and the teams are comfortable with it, and if you can be heard easily, you may simply get the teams to exchange answer sheets. With larger groups or if you are concerned that this may lead to disagreements, collect in the sheets and ask one or two volunteers to help with this while you read out the answers.
Again depending on numbers, this can be done on a printed scorecard, adding up manually (and double checking to ensure accuracy) or on an Excel spreadsheet if you have a laptop available for the purpose. That allows automatic calculation and presents the scores in order from first to last, as in the example shown below. If you need help with this process, I can advise you.
If scores are tied at the end you need a tie-breaker question, devised so that one team is bound to win, not another tie, by making it “first to answer” or “nearest answer wins”. I tend to use questions like “What is the length in kilometres of the Tropic of Cancer?” (36,768 by the way). The team whose answer is closer or closest wins.
It is entirely up to your u3a whether or not you give prizes to the winning team. At Ayr our teams are happy to play for fun, the only prize being having the team photograph in the next monthly newsletter. However, if you prefer to offer a tangible prize, it should be something that can be shared among all the members of the winning team.
Help and support
I am Ian Matheson, your subject adviser for quizzes. I have been running quizzes (or sometimes competing in them) for many years. Mostly this has been in person, but over the last three years I have been involved in online quizzes using Zoom. These include regular quizzes on the last Wednesday of each month with teams from u3as from Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. If your u3a would like to join in, please email me at the address below.
My role is to help and support you to run quizzes for your u3a. I can offer advice and assistance on setting questions, quiz organisation and delivery. However, it is not my function to supply you with ready made quizzes. If I did, what I supplied might not suit the needs of your audience. It is much better to help you to create your own. That way, it is customised to your knowledge of your u3a and it will give you more satisfaction when you run a successful quiz and have people asking for more!
I am happy to support you in running face-to-face quizzes or online quizzes, where you may need some advice on the technology as well as on the quizzing. Any question I cannot answer myself, I know where I can get the information. Please feel free to contact me at