Stump the Prof: A Quiz Game

By James Work

In an old thirties black & white film, Jimmy Stewart is a professor. One of his lines stuck with me throughout my teaching career. "You’re not here to answer my questions," he told his students. "You’re here to question my answers."

Stump the Prof is a quiz game I invented some number of years back to use throughout the term. To play, you first divide the class into groups of approximately six students each. You do this in the first week. I sometimes gave these groups funny names: the Seven Dwarves, the seven greatest English romantic poets, the Seven Great Rivers of the West.

On your syllabus you will have already scheduled "Quiz Day." I tried to do it every sixth session, fitting them into my overall reading strategy, with a specific reading assigned to each one. In rotating fashion, each group is assigned a "Quiz Day" on which they must take a turn at providing Stump the Prof questions.

On that day, before class begins, each member of the pre-selected group hands in at least three questions concerning the day’s reading assignment. Any question, provided that is, that anyone who had read the assignment could answer it. (One I recall was "what color was the protagonist’s hair?")

Students who hand in three questions are given full points for the quiz automatically. The rest of the students must respond to three to five questions chosen by the lecturer. These are quick and easy to score. You can do it yourself or you can have your students do it for you. For instance, you could have them exchange papers and score one another, or you can have the day’s group score them.

For a semester total, I simply added up the scores and took the number as a percentage of the total possible. A student who accumulated 62 points, for example, might have a 97% in the grade book.

Now for the fun part. The quiz promotes reading and attendance, of course. But my students also came in hopes of seeing me stumped.

The bargain was this: if they would write the quiz and take the quiz (and score the quiz), then I would give a lecture extemporaneous on one of the questions. No matter how small, no matter how silly, I would talk about it for thirty minutes.

I would begin each "Quiz Day" lecture, I told them, by reading the question and then by beginning "Now, this question is extremely important because …."

They vied with one another to come up with unimportant, impossible topics with which to stump me. What was the caliber of Boone Caudill’s rifle? What was found in the bilge of the boat in which the poet Shelly drowned? What seems odd about El Paso and South Pass?

As soon as I said "now, this question is…." the laughs would begin. But I had their attention. Would I finish the thirty minute talk without running dry? Could I actually show why this little bit of trivia was actually relevant to the material?

So far as I can recall, only once was I completely stumped. I said "now this question is…just plain dumb. Class dismissed." Only twice did a student tell me they had figured out my little game. As in a Las Vegas casino, the odds in his game are with the lecturer.

First of all, with six students handing you three questions apiece, you can have as many as eighteen to choose from. Then there is the time factor. The quiz process takes up ten or fifteen minutes, which substantially reduces the amount of time you have to lecture.

While they are writing their answers, you can be organizing your ideas. (Classes used to find it pretty amusing to watch me sort through the questions, commenting on some of them as I went along. "Hmmm…wrong class…too wordy…awkward…doesn't have a clue…" and so forth.) It’s challenging. It’s a lot more fun than a prepared lecture.

Oh, in case you are wondering: "what color was the protagonist’s hair" is a key question because the entire central irony of Guthrie’s western classic The Big Sky hinges upon Boone Caudill’s discovery that red hair runs in his own family, although his hair is dark. Irony in The Big Sky is worth two, maybe three lectures.