The List: University Challenge

Described as the “Alex Ferguson of University Challenge”, for 16 years librarian Stephen Pearson has been the driving force behind the rigorous selection and training procedures of Manchester University’s quiz team, leading them to four victories since 2005. He gives five insights into what makes a successful team.

1. Fingers on buzzers

The ability to buzz in on starter questions is actually more important than pure knowledge. The starters are the key to a team’s success – even if a contestant has copious amounts of general knowledge, if they don’t have the instinct to buzz in straightaway, they’re simply not going to get the starter points. Contestants should buzz in even if they are not 100 per cent sure of the answer.

2. Team building

A cohesive team is essential. When picking the contestants I ensure that there’s at least one candidate who’s strong on literature, history, geography and science. The training sessions allow the contestants to understand when to leave certain questions to the expert in that field. The first practice session is for them to get to know each other as people as much as anything else. I use a similar format to business team-building exercises – there should be lots of bonding and harnessing of team spirit. I’m getting a bit old for it now, but I know that after the practice sessions current and previous contestants will go to the pub for, I’m told, informal mentoring over drinks.

3. The classics

Many of the University Challenge questions include clues which refer to the Latin and Greek derivations of words – particularly scientific terms. This means that people who know their classics can respond even if they’ve got no idea about the science involved. Kwasi Kwarteng, now an MP for the Conservative party, showed this to great effect in his performance as part of the winning Trinity College Cambridge team of 1995.

4. Puppet-mastering

I’ve never encouraged students to sit down and learn things. Preparation is not something that comes from sitting in your room for hours on end and rote learning. In training, I try to keep the tone light. You should have some fun with what people know and don’t know. But I try not to roll my eyes – when Jeremy Paxman does it people know it’s part of the act, but if I did it they might think that I really was thunderstruck. That said, I do try and show off my own knowledge when I’m question-mastering the sessions – but more in the same way as Bamber Gascoigne, University Challenge’s quizmaster from 1962 to 1987.

5. The Butterfly Effect

Even if a question sounds like it’s on a topic you don’t know anything about, you should carry on listening. There’s a question that springs to mind that sounds like it’s asking about ancient Roman history; but if you listen closely you discover it’s actually about the Asterix series. In some sense my tips are in opposition to one another: on the one hand there’s the pay close attention to every word; at the same time you should allow yourself to draw the connections between disparate items. Most people who are interested in taking part in University Challenge probably have a butterfly mind that enables them to make free associations – to think of lots of things and flip instantaneously from one subject to another. Alex Guttenplan, who captained Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to victory in 2010, is an example of someone who was impressively quick on a broad range of questions. I think he’s the absolute star player of recent times.

Your starter for 10

1. Thomas Laxton, Matthew Bramley and Richard Cox are among those who have had varieties of which fruit named after them?

Answer: Apple

Pearson says: Some contestants might switch off because they think, “I don’t know who any of these people are” - but contestants who are paying careful attention will hopefully retain the words “Laxton”, “Bramley” and “Cox” in their memory, and make the connection that these are all types of apple as soon as the word “fruit” appears in the question.

2. What is the present name of the English city whose Roman name is an anagram of the television channel formerly known as UKTV G2 and renamed because, allegedly, everyone knows a bloke of this name?

Answer: Chester (the television channel is Dave, which is an anagram of Deva, which was the Roman name for the city which is now called Chester)

Pearson says: Some contestants might have forgotten the beginning of the question by the time that it gets to the end, and so they might give the answer “Dave” or “Deva”, which isn’t what the question master asked for.

3. An informal name for the Church of Scotland, the Swahili word for freedom, and the author of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care are linked by what enduring science fiction television and film series?

Answer: Star Trek

Pearson says: The informal name for the Church of Scotland is the Kirk (which makes you think of Captain Kirk), the Swahili word for freedom is Uhuru (which inspired the name of Lieutenant Uhura), and the author of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was Dr Benjamin Spock (which makes you think of Mr Spock)

4. What word, derived from ancient Greek words for “mind” and “body”, describes physical diseases which have a psychological origin?

Answer: Psychosomatic

Pearson says: Lots of University Challenge questions include clues to the answer which refer to the Latin and Greek derivations of (particularly scientific) terms. This means that people who know Latin and Greek can answer such questions even if they’ve got no idea about the science involved.

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