Anatomy of a (Good) Quiz Question

This is a post by J. Ramanand

What makes a quiz question good? Quiz setters are often too ‘close’ to their own questions to see them objectively or spot the flaws in them. (Plus a spectrum that ranges from Arrogance to Humblebrag.)

That said, I was once asked to recall a ‘good question’ I had personally set, and this one came to mind. This was from a quiz I conducted in Pune in 2005:

A "surveyor's chain” is a measuring device, whose form will be familiar to students of civil engineering even today. It was first used in England in the late 17th century primarily to help landowners measure land. It has 100 metal links of equal length, each of 7.92 inches. The legacy of this chain is still preserved in a very different field. How?

(By now, this question is a bit of a chestnut and many quizzers just ‘know’ the answer. This is a pity, because if you know something outright, it deprives you of the satisfaction of working it out! An argument for blissful ignorance, if any.)

When put to the six teams in the final, five teams thought about it, made some random guesses, and didn't answer it correctly. The question reached the last team, who had assumed the numbers were indeed useful. They made some calculations, and literally worked out the answer to get it right. This is when QM’s discretion to provide ‘time to attempt’ helps - I like to provide some time for promising attempts (and of course, to have the validation that the question could be ‘worked out’).

You can apply basic knowledge of maths and measures now, if you don't already know the answer. To work out: 7.92 inches * 100 = 792 inches == __ feet and so on until you reach something promising. Run to the answer at the bottom.

Let’s examine the question a little closely. What I personally liked about the question:

  • It can indeed be worked out (clues: numbers, timeline, geography, length)

  • There's a little pun at the end for good measure

  • It's about something many Indians would know about, but probably never asked why

  • It's compact - not unnecessarily verbose (but I'm sure one of you can improve it further)

  • It starts in one domain and ends up in another - the connection is hopefully insightful

  • The information looks difficult and obscure at first, but is indeed useful. Poke around and it reveals its secrets.








ANSWER: The distance comes out to be 22 yards, which is why the length of a standard cricket pitch is that unusual number. When the game arose, a surveyor’s chain length became the distance (further “whys” are left as an exercise to the reader!)

Now that you know how to make a question, you must be interested to know how to solve it. You can undertake a Masterclass and go through an Annotated Quiz here.

Have you come across a question that you thought was threaded deliciously? Share it with us below and why you thought it was great!