Ashwin Ramaswami

November 15, 2016

“Okay guys, so your summer homework is … study every packet from the 2015 PACE NSC.”

This is what we told our Varsity team last summer. Our logic: they would have plenty of time to do it! And if everyone did this, we would see huge improvements.

But reality sinks in. Summer is long. No work; no practices; no reminders to study. Inevitably, not a single person finished all the homework, even though we had a common checklist. And that brings me to the major problem facing our team (and every other quizbowl team that ever existed) – motivation.

Every team requires dedication and motivation from their players. Teams achieve this in different ways: attending competitive tournaments, holding tryouts, and taking quizzes are only some of them. However, although it may be easy to mobilize a team to study right before a tournament, maintaining consistent study habits is hard. It is rare to see someone, even from the top teams, who can say that they study every day.

Overcoming this problem, in fact, is essential from the very beginning of the quizbowl experience. High school quizbowl has a steep learning curve for most freshmen, even those who have already played in middle school. It takes dedication to begin to start studying. It is hard to get good – unless you have a clear goal of where you want to be.

Take my case. When I started quizbowl as a freshman, I didn’t study very much. But then, in the summer of freshman year, the seniors told us that they needed a fourth player who knew science and RMP. This gave me the drive to study. My team actually needed me – and I could make a difference!

Where to start? The quizbowl canon is huge. Naturally, I began to look for shortcuts. I looked up philosophers, scientific theorems, and more on Quinterest and looked at the most frequent clues for them (so-called “stock clues”). I put the clues into flashcards, using the spaced memorization program Anki to manage my studying every day. And after a little less than a week, I began to first-line tossups in my subject against the seniors. In fact, I improved more in that week than I did in my entire freshman year! These quick returns impelled me to study more; you could call this an “exponential stage.” By the end of sophomore year I had amassed almost 10,000 flashcards.

As time went on, though, I realized that I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t understanding what I learned – or really connecting the dots. Even if I mastered all the clues for “cholesterol”, I couldn’t power a tossup on “LDL.” I could first-line “Grieg” but couldn’t power a tossup on one of Beethoven’s symphonies. I wasn’t mastering my subject – I was just randomly learning clues that I hoped would come up.

Plus, this wasn’t too fun. “Back to studying flash cards?” my friends would ask me after I finished a tournament. Was reviewing hundreds of flash cards really what I wanted to do with my life? Although I had initially studied diligently, I began to lose interest, my quizbowl studying becoming more intermittent. Overall, my progress that year began to level off, kind of like this:

In junior year, though, I realized something – reading about something or learning it in school was much more effective (and fun) than remembering flashcards. So, I began to read and learn things more often. I focused on learning every bit of the advanced science courses at my school and planned to take more courses through Dual Enrollment. With this attitude, I am able to study for quizbowl in a completely different way. Instead of sitting down to review a hundred flashcards, I just sit down and learn. If something seems interesting, I read about it.  

As a result, not only do I understand clues in more context, but I am able to consistently study every day. Tossups are no longer clues to memorize – they are suggestions for what to read about next, what to learn about next. I enjoy learning about and understanding the ideas of great scientists and thinkers. My motivation is back.

Generally, quizbowlers are motivated by many things: playing at nationals, being the best on the team, not letting one’s teammates down. But note how all these factors are temporary. Will winning nationals really be the most important thing in your life when you are at college and beyond? What I appreciate about my journey of learning is that it requires no external motivation to continue. Yes, playing with my friends and working as a team is a wonderful experience. But my success in quizbowl has become a side effect, not a primary motivation, for my learning, which is a process that will continue for life.

So: I think it’s important to keep in mind your goal when you study. At first look, quizbowl may seem like memorization of a bunch of facts. But if you’re doing it right, it really isn’t. These are just some of my thoughts; but whether you are helping other players or getting better yourself, I hope you ask yourself: why are you really studying?