What is Scholastic Bowl?

Scholastic bowl, also called scholar bowl, academic team, or quiz bowl, is a test of knowledge played out between two teams using buzzers.

Scholastic bowl is played in teams of four or five players each, depending on the rule set being used. In most rule sets, teams can play with fewer players, often as few as one. You can have more than the maximum number of players on your team; the limit only indicates how many can be in the game at a time.

A game room at the 2022 IHSA State Tournament. Each player is holding a buzzer so they can signal in on tossups, and each team’s players are seated next to each other so they can talk during bonuses (see “Questions” below). The teams’ tables are arranged so that all players can see the moderator and scorekeeper (center).

The teams sit at separate tables or rows of desks so that each player can hear and see the moderator. The moderator, also called the reader, is the primary official who oversees a game of scholastic bowl. The moderator’s responsibilities include reading the questions aloud to the teams, judging correct and incorrect answers, and enforcing the rules fairly and impartially. At a well-staffed event, a match might also be overseen by a scorekeeper and, rarely, a dedicated timekeeper. At many events, however, the moderator will perform or delegate the tasks that a scorekeeper or timekeeper might perform, and will be the only official in the game room.


During a scholastic bowl match, the moderator will read two kinds of questions to the teams: tossups and bonuses.

Tossups: A tossup is the reason for scholastic bowl’s use of buzzer systems. A tossup is a long question with only one answer. A tossup is read to both teams at the same time, and each team has one chance to buzz in per question. Tossups are played “every player for themself” style; players may not talk to each other during tossups. Players can buzz in at any time during a tossup, but once a player has buzzed in with an incorrect answer, their team is “locked out” and may not try another answer on that tossup. The length of a scholastic bowl game is usually described in terms of the number of tossups that are read to both teams during it. You will commonly encounter 20- and 24-tossup games.

Bonuses: A bonus question is read only if a team answers a tossup correctly. A bonus is a multi-part question focused around a central theme, but are not related to the tossups that precede them. Bonuses are played by the entire team as a group; each team may discuss possible answers out loud with each other before giving an answer to the moderator. Bonuses usually have three parts: one is easy, one is hard, and the third is of medium difficulty. In some rule sets, only the team that correctly answered the tossup may answer a bonus question. In most games you’ll play in Illinois, however, the team that correctly answered the tossup has the first opportunity to answer each part of a bonus question, and the opposing team gets the chance to answer any bonus parts that the first team gets wrong. This is called a “bounceback” or a “rebound.”

Categories: Scholastic bowl questions cover a wide range of academic subjects, but some subjects are given more importance than others. History, science, and literature are considered the three “major” subjects of scholastic bowl. In a game with 20 tossups, 12 of those tossups will usually be apportioned to those three categories, with the remaining eight tossups divided between geography, math, visual art, music, religion, mythology, philosophy, social sciences like psychology and economics, current events, and popular culture.

A typical question set that has rounds of 20 tossups and 20 bonuses will have a distribution that looks something like this per round:

History 4 tossups / 4 bonuses per round
Literature 4/4
Science 4/4
Geography 1/1
Math 1/1*1
Visual Art 1/1
Music 1/1
Religion 1/1
Mythology 1/1
Philosophy 1/0 or 0/1*2
Social Science 1/0 or 0/1*2
Current Events 0/0*3
Popular Culture 1/1

*1 Math is sometimes folded into the 4/4 science category and usually focuses on math history and theory rather than on computational techniques.
*2 Question writers will sometimes combine philosophy and social science into one 1/1 category. In that case, it is common for each round to have either one philosophy tossup and one social science bonus or one social science tossup and one philosophy bonus, with the order switching round by round.
*3 Current Events often does not have its own category. Although some question writers like to emphasize current events and give it full weight in a category distribution, many will add current events to a group of “philosophy/social science/current events” that collectively gets 1/1 per round, or will mix it into a 1/1 popular culture category.

Question Content/the Canon: When you first begin coaching, it might feel like absolutely anything can be an answer in a scholastic bowl question, but this is not really the case. Coaches and question writers want players to be able to study to improve at scholastic bowl, which has led to the development of what is called the scholastic bowl “canon,” the set of answers and clues that commonly appear in questions.

The canon is different at different levels of play. Middle school questions will follow a narrower and easier canon than high school questions, and high school questions in turn will have a smaller and easier canon than college questions.

The canon can also shift slightly over time. For example, it is not uncommon for an author of lesser cultural prominence to appear in many question sets for several years, then disappear almost entirely for several more years, and then swing back into popularity within the scholastic bowl canon.

Because of this, you will build a stronger and more prepared team by using recent questions in practices, and by focusing your practices on preparing your players for the difficulty and style of questions they will hear in competitions you attend. Visit quizbowlpackets.com to access a nearly endless supply of free practice questions that were used in competitions in recent years (NOTE: These free questions are not available for use in competition).

Want More Information?

Visit the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence’s more detailed explanation of quizbowl.