Enrichment Activities, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, For Parents, P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box

Help Your Team Get the Most out of P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box (Practice Materials Inside!)

Hello parents, teams, and coaches!

The USAT team hopes you had a great Round Robin 2 last week. After the first Meet of the season, we provided some reflection questions about Mind Sprints. This time, we’d like to challenge the students to think critically about P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box and how they could improve next time. So, if you are looking for something to do to enhance team-building at your next practice, here are a few prompts to get the students talking.

  • Describe P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skits you’ve done before. Can you remember the theme, characters you created, or favorite part of the skit?
  • If you could change any of the rules about P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, what would you change?
  • What skills are needed in order to do well in a P.A.R.T.Y. challenge? Is there anything you can do outside of USAT competitions to hone those skills?
  • Did any of the prompts remind you of books you read or movies you saw?
  • If you could create your own P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box prompt, what would it be? How would you want to score it?
    • DIVE DEEPER: Why not give it a try? Give your students 30 minutes to design a P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box prompt and scoring rubric. If they want to try acting it out, too, all the better! If you need an example of a scoring rubric, check out our sample PARTY in a Box: Butterfly Effect

Do you have anything you want the USAT staff to know about Round Robin 2? Leave us a comment or email us at sarah@usacademictraithlon.com.

Face-Off, For Hosts and Facilitators, Resources, Scoring

Face-Off Scoring and Special Cases

To continue with our series about the finer points of USAT scoring, this post is dedicated to the oral Face-Off! round and special cases that sometimes occur. We covered the way raw and ordinalized scoring for this event works in general in another post, but before anyone answers a single question, there are a few things that happen first.

Though some Mind Sprint challenges can easily be facilitated alone, Face-Off! needs two people for it to run smoothly. So, the facilitator/reader is assisted by a scorer/timer. Buzzer strips should be tested before each Meet starts, to make sure they’re working. (For what to do if there is no buzzer system, see below.) At the beginning of each Tri, the facilitator makes sure that the correct teams are competing by checking their team letters against the Meet schedule.

Next, the facilitator asks each team to identify a captain. Any team member may buzz in, but to keep things organized and easy to score, only one voice may answer. The team captain is in charge of giving a team’s official answer, or they may designate another team member by pointing at them before they answer. A team captain can designate a different person each question, if necessary. Only the first answer a team gives is considered; there is no such thing as multiple guesses.

Teams may have writing utensils and scratch paper out for this round, as well as their dictionaries. They gather around the buzzer system (also sometimes called “slap tapes”) so that everyone can reach. When all teams are ready, the challenge begins.

The facilitator reads the question, while the scorer/timer keeps an eye on who buzzes in and how long it takes. As soon as a team buzzes in, the scorer/timer signals the facilitator/reader to stop reading, even if they have not finished the question. (For what to do if the facilitator/reader misses the signal, or how to score Tris with only two teams, see Special Cases, below.)

The scorer/timer identifies which team is to answer, and they have 15 seconds to confer and give their answer.

  • If the 15 seconds ends and the captain or designee is still in the middle of giving their answer, they may finish, as long as they have begun an actual response rather than just saying “um,” etc.
  • If the 15 seconds ends and/or there is no correct answer given, but another team has also buzzed in, the scorer/timer identifies that team and they have 15 seconds to answer. The facilitator does not repeat the question.
  • If no other team has buzzed in, the facilitator repeats the question from the beginning for the remaining teams. As soon as the next team buzzes in, the facilitator stops reading again.
  • If the facilitator reads the question in full and no teams buzz in within 10 seconds, the scorer/timer calls “time.” The facilitator gives the answer and moves on to the next question.

An oral Face-Off! round ends when either all 40 questions have been answered, or when the time runs out, whichever comes first. If there is time remaining, a facilitator may ask the teams the alternate questions just for fun, but their answers do not count toward their raw score. Also, a facilitator could ask the teams to write their own Face-Off! questions and give them to the host/facilitator to read for parents and teams while the final scores are being calculated at the end of the Meet.

Special Cases

What can you do if there’s no buzzer system available?

If a buzzer system is not functioning or isn’t present at your Meet, you still may be able to use a computer to judge which team is first to answer. In some cases, multiple keyboards have been plugged in to the same monitor and each team is assigned a row of keys. The scorer/timer can have a Word document open and judge which team “buzzes in” first based on which letter appears first.

During power outages, creative facilitators have used everything from banging on empty apple cider jugs with rulers, to striking staplers as items that students use to “buzz in” to give Face-Off! answers. These methods are more subjective and tougher to score, but the bottom line is that the facilitator has the final say. As long as the scoring method is consistent across all teams, and the facilitator/reader and the scorer/timer are doing their best, that is the most that can be done in the case of a power outage.

What can you do if the reader makes a mistake?

If there is a buzzer system present, it usually makes a sound that will alert the reader to stop reading if a team buzzes in. However, it may be up to the scorer to alert the reader when a team has buzzed in during special cases. If the reader accidentally reads more of a question than they were supposed to, the question must be thrown out and replaced by an alternate question in the same category. The alternate questions are listed at the end of the regular questions.

When it comes to words that are difficult to pronounce, we provide a pronunciation guide in parentheses after the word. It may not be a technical phonetic pronunciation guide, but it will indicate where to put the emphasis of a word by using capital letters. For instance, you may see a question like: “What is agoraphobia (ah-GORE-ah-FOH-bee-ah) a fear of?” This indicates that the second and fourth syllables require emphasis for correct pronunciation. If our pronunciation guide isn’t clear, please double check online. There may also be differences between British English and American English pronunciations, such as the word “glacier.” In the UK, this word sounds like “glass-ee-er” and in the US, it is closer to “glay-sher.” Try to choose the American English pronunciation when possible because our teams are most likely to have heard that pronunciation before. The most important thing is to pronounce the word the same way each time a question is read.

Sometimes, readers may misinterpret the answer or disagree with what is on the answer sheet. When applicable, we try to include our reasoning in parentheses after any answer that may seem tricky. For math problems, we always include the equations. However, it is possible the the USAT writers made a mistake. If a facilitator/reader has an issue with a question or answer, they need to talk to the host/facilitator to resolve the issue before the Tri begins. In most cases, the answer can be checked against a reputable source or an alternate question can be substituted.

What do you do when only two teams compete in an oral Face-Off! Round?

Ideally, Meets have six or nine teams competing. However, we also try to respect travel time and expense for school districts, and may schedule Meets that have a different number of teams. The only event where this can make a difference is in the oral Face-Off! round. If a Tri has only two teams competing, proceed the same as you would in a three-team Tri.

However, this gives those teams an advantage because they only need to “out-buzz” one other opponent rather than two. To counteract this advantage, each team’s score should be multiplied by .67 (two-thirds) and rounded to the nearest whole number before being entered into the scoring spreadsheet and multiplied by 5. We do this because it gives all teams the opportunity to answer all of the same questions, but mathematically creates a “third team” to compete with.

For example, if only Team X and Team Y are competing, and Team X got 25 questions right, their score would be 25 x .67 = 16.75, rounded up to 17, and multiplied by 5 to get a raw oral Face-Off! score of 85. Though it is true that they answered 25 questions right, they also had a greater opportunity to answer all of the questions than teams competing in a three-team Tri. It may be possible that they would have gotten the same 25 questions right if they were in a three-team Tri, but there is no way of knowing that. Instead of speculating on what may have occurred, this process accounts for and eliminates the advantage we definitely know Team X had going into a two-team Tri.

Are there any special cases we missed? Have another question about how Face-Off! scoring works? Leave us a comment or contact Sarah@usacademictriathlon.com.

For Coaches and Teachers, For Hosts and Facilitators, Scoring

How to Calculate a Tie-Breaker

In our last post, we went into detail about how ordinalized scoring works. This system allows for ranking of teams relative to the performance of the other teams at their Meet, but it is still possible to end up with a tie. If this occurs during a Round Robin Meet, the tie stands and the Host/Facilitator may request additional ribbons as appropriate. However, during Regionals, only the first place team at each Meet can advance to the State Meet.

In the event of a tie at the Regional Meet, these are the steps to break a tie:

1 – In case of tied ordinal score rankings, the team with the highest combined raw score wins.

For example: The top two teams each have an ordinalized score of 250. Team X received this score by getting ordinalized score of 100 + 70 + 80 for P.A.R.T.Y., Mind Sprints, and Face-Off!; and Team Y received this score by getting 50 + 100 + 100 in the same order. However, if Team X received a total raw score of 175 and Team Y’s raw score was 170, Team X would receive first place and Team Y would receive second place.

2 – If still tied, the team that did the best in the most events wins.

For example: In the case of Teams X and Y above, let’s assume instead that they received the same raw score of 175. In this case, Team Y came in first in two events and Team X came in first in one. Team Y would receive first place and Team X would receive second place.

3 – In the highly unlikely case the teams are still tied, the Host/Facilitator flips a coin.

For Coaches and Teachers, For Parents, Resources, Scoring

Why We Don’t Give Zeroes

If you’ve ever judged a P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box event or taken a look at the scoring guidelines on a challenge, you may have noticed there is no such thing as a zero in the rubric. Why? Because for many people, performing in front of an audience is the scariest thing they could be asked to do.

When Americans rank their greatest fears, “public speaking” consistently comes in high on the list. Approximately one in four adults report this fear. Sure, it makes sense to break into a sweat when faced with a tiger, but when we stand in front of a group of our peers? At least a quarter of us would rather face the tiger. Glossophobia – the technical term for fear of speaking in front of others – can be mild or paralyzing, and can come into effect with an audience of one or one hundred. This means that it can be difficult to talk to teachers or employers later in life, or it can be hard to make ourselves understood by a friend or partner.

Luckily, the younger you start taking these kinds of risks and being rewarded for them, the better shot you have at escaping this phobia. By giving a minimum point value to our teams for simply taking the risk of being in front of a crowd at all, USAT encourages even shy kids to stand up and be heard. We think it’s so valuable, in fact, that we make it mandatory for all competing team members to be seen during the performance.

Even though the idea of rewarding participation has come under fire lately, there are certain types of endeavors and certain age groups that benefit from this kind of unconditional encouragement. Creativity in all forms requires risk-taking. USAT offers a competitive format in order to give our teams something to strive for and ways to set specific, achievable goals. But we also structure the scoring of the program in a way to encourage positive risk-taking activities and create an environment of acceptance to help build the confidence of our participants that will carry them forward in their education, careers, and relationships to come.

Enrichment Activities, For Coaches and Teachers, For Parents, Resources

Never Too Early to Think About Next Year! Helping Your Students Set Goals in 3 Steps

To our teams who are moving on to the State Competition this year, congrats! But for the rest of our teams, we’re not just going to say “better luck next year.” We want to help your team get ready for next season right now.

Okay, you’re right. Next season won’t be coming up for a while. There’s a whole beautiful summer between now and the fall semester. The advantage of thinking about next season already is that this season is still fresh in the Triathlete’s minds. And when it comes to goal-setting, the fresher the experience, the better the goals.

It’s no secret that in the moment, winning feels better than losing. But improving can be its own reward, and one that isn’t dependent on the whim of the judges.

Setting Goals is as Easy as 1-2-3

This goal-setting exercise can be done for the team as a whole and for individuals on a team. If you are doing this is a group activity, allow your students to each have one “secret” goal that they don’t have to share with the group, but they must share at least one goal and the steps to reach it.

One low-pressure way to start the discussion of what worked and what could be improved, is to talk about the student’s favorite and least favorite challenges this year. See how many Mind Sprints they can name and how they felt about them. Ask about their favorite and least favorite P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box prompt this year. Did anyone feel frustrated about Face-Off? This is an easy way to get your students talking about what worked and what didn’t work over the season.

Then, it’s time to identify, quantify, and assess. So, have your students grab some paper, and divide it into three columns. (Hint – turning the page horizontal to a “landscape” rather than “portrait” configuration will give more space to each column.)


1. Identify Areas for Improvement

“Perfection” is a myth. Nobody does everything right all of the time. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, and both can be areas of focus for goal-setting. This is why “Areas for Improvement” is a better label than “weakness;” even if you are good at something, there’s always room to strive to do it even better. And the more specific you can be, the easier it will be to measure success.

The first concrete step for goal-setting is to identify these areas for improvement and write them down. Each student should use the column on the left to record at least two ways they’d like to do even better as individuals during USAT next season, and one way the team could perform better overall. These areas for improvement could be in response to specific challenges they faced this season, such as “get faster at answering verbal brainstorming prompts,” or could be more general, like “listen to each other.” But the goals can’t get too broad, either, or they stop being helpful. Saying “get better scores” isn’t going to be as valuable as identifying specific areas where the scores were lower than they would have liked. It’s best if your Triathletes make their own lists, but here are a few suggestions to get them started if they get stuck.

  • Drawing backdrops for P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box
  • Answering current events questions
  • Listening to each other
  • Staying in character
  • Using time effectively
  • Speaking up
  • Writing clearly
  • Making props

There’s no need to share these lists yet, so have them work on this individually to start. Sharing will come after step 3.

2. Quantify – Create Steps that Lead to Success

People often forget this very important stage in the goal-setting process. It isn’t enough for us to just to declare we plan to “do better” in the year to come. To reach a goal, we need to identify the concrete steps to take to get us there. You may find that some of the goals from above are hard to break into steps, which means the focus of the goal needs to shift to make is something measurable. The Triathletes should use the middle column to record at least one step they can take to reach each goal for themselves and their team.

Let’s use “listening to each other” as an example. It’s easy to say “we’re all going to listen better next season,” but making sure this happens requires more than a promise. For instance, the team could agree that after reading the prompt in every P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box planning session, every teammate gets a chance to share their ideas before anyone touches the materials in the box. This doesn’t mean everyone has to have an idea, but they are guaranteed an opportunity to speak up if they have one.

If Triathletes did end up with list items like “score higher in Face-Off,” there are steps to take there, too. The subject areas in Face-Off are always the same: science/health, social studies/geography, math/music theory, English/literature, and current events/consumer issues. We’ve provided some tips for improving Face-Off performance before, but there could certainly be other ways. And if the students come up with the ideas themselves, they are going to be more likely to stick.

Mind Sprints may change from Meet to Meet, but there’s never a bad time to practice using the SCAMPER technique to improve verbal brainstorming skills. There are ways to practice, like making P.A.R.T.Y.-style props and skits in between Meets. But saying the next step is “practice” is only halfway there. It’s easy to put off practicing if there is no deadline or minimum number to meet. So, make sure the steps take either time (hold one practice before each Meet) or quantity (I’ll turn 10 plastic cups into props) to make them measurable. This makes the steps easier to accomplish, which will help the students reach their goals.

3. Assess

In addition to needing concrete steps in order to accomplish your goal, choosing milestones means that you can easily assess how much progress you’ve made. If you look at the steps the students brainstormed for the section above and find that there is no way to measure when they are done, they might need to rethink their areas of improvement and their next steps. Goal-setting needs to be a fluid process, but as long as it leads to actionable steps that can be measured, then it’s been successful, even if things have to get tweaked along the way.

Goals can be assessed at any time, but if you never set a time, then it’s easy to let the assessment slide by. The goals and steps can be evaluated at the end of each season, but also after every Meet or on a monthly basis, depending on the goal. The advantage of assessing progress more often is that the students may find they have already achieved a goal on their list, so they have a chance to set another one and continue to make progress. On the other hand, they could find out something they thought was a reasonable action step turns out to be too hard or too easy, or they prefer to do it with a friend. Any part of the goal-setting process can be changed at any time, but it won’t happen unless a time is chosen at the beginning.

Sharing Goals and Steps

If you are doing this as a group activity, now it’s time to share and discuss the goals the students made for themselves and the team as a whole. They should each share at least one personal goal, then each share their team goal, and how they plan to achieve them. Students may have suggestions for each other and the types of steps someone can take, and how to achieve their team goals. This activity has the chance to turn into an interesting discussion, and we encourage you to do it as a group.

If a student is working alone, that’s fine, too. But goals are much more powerful if they are shared with someone, like a friend, parent, or coach. Just saying a goal out loud makes it seem more “real,” and if other people know what someone else hopes to accomplish, they will be more likely and able to help them along the way. Sharing creates a sense of accountability that keeping it to yourself simply can’t match. So, even if a goal is only shared with one person, the act of sharing is already a step toward success!

Do you have any goal-setting activities to share? Did this activity lead to any surprises? Share with us in the comments.