November 12, 2015

Mike Ritchie

Competition in the Classroom: Motivating or Destructive?

Topics: Learning Through Play


Competition in the classroom

“The power of [competition’s] effect makes its use very tempting. Little else gets a group of young people more energized than competition.” (John Shindler, Cal State LA). This quote sums up the premise I started with when I thought of writing this article. We at ThinkFun make games for kids, some of which (e.g. Math Dice) involve competing against others, while others involve competing against yourself in the sense that you want to keep doing better than you did the day before (e.g. solving an expert challenge rather than a medium). In every case, we pride ourselves on the fact that these games help kids and parents alike develop problem solving skills (and other skills). But is competition in the classroom, or out of it for that matter, always positive for the learning process? Do the negatives, and there are serious potential negatives, outweigh the positives? 

My own assumptions about the value of competition as a learning tool come from personal experience. My dad (Bill) and I would play Math Dice at the dinner table when I was in the third grade. In this game you’re trying to mathematically manipulate three numbers, determined by rolling dice, to arrive at or closer than your opponent to the ‘target number', which is also determined by rolling dice. So if my target is 81 and I have a 3, 4 and 1 to work with, I can solve with (3^4)x1 = 81, or get pretty close with (4^3)+1 = 65, which I have to do faster than my opponent, Bill. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I need to have an understanding of exponents to succeed in this specific case – if I only know multiplication and addition the closest answer to the target that I can come up with will be 13, and that’s probably not going to win against Bill.

The first few nights Bill had no trouble beating me at this game. But I really wanted to win, so I went off and studied my multiplication tables and I learned exponents, which I think was taught in 5th at the time. Within a few days my math skills had improved markedly, and I was able to win more consistently. Needless to say, those skills translated to the classroom, and not just in math. Today, schools in nearby Arlington Virginia have their own Math Dice tournaments, and use Math Dice in the classroom as a learning tool – they’ve been doing so for over a decade now. The game pushes you to reinforce your understanding of basic math concepts, learn new ones, and improve the speed at which you can solve problems in your head.

Learning Skills Directly & Indirectly

The other type of ‘competition’ that’s important for this discussion is less direct – not one person or team vs. another. Instead, it’s the internal sense of competition that comes from wanting to beat your best score, to do better than you did last time you tried – e.g. from practice or solo play. If I’m a soccer player who takes free kicks, the way that I improve that skill is by practicing – trying to put the ball in the top corner more consistently than I could yesterday, or last week. And, as with most things, there are myriad benefits to the soccer player who practices free kicks. In addition to improving my free kick skills I’ll also develop the muscles that help me kick the ball further, I’ll improve my accuracy, and I’ll sharpen my decision making (where do I place the free kick based on where I’m taking it from, that sort of thing). Of course this is an activity you can do by yourself or with friends, in competition.

Theoretically, this practice should not only make me better at free kicks but should also improve my passing accuracy, increase the distance I can kick the ball, and even improve my fitness levels if I’m working outside of normal practice time. The same rules apply to developing mental skills through games. Playing Rush Hour expert challenges will make me better at Rush Hour, but more importantly it will improve my critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, etc., which will help me in other areas.

We all know the old adage that practice makes perfect – there’s no argument about whether or not students should practice what they learn – but does actual competition or gamification always translate to the classroom? The first thing to understand is the important differences between the scenarios I just described (leaving out the Arlington Schools for the moment) and a classroom scenario. In the classroom there is an authority figure, the teacher, and all the potential problems that can derive from the power / authority of the teacher depending on the structure of the competition or game. For example, a trivia game in history class could be set-up so that performance is worth the same as a test or a paper, with an A going to the winners and an F to the losers, while on the other hand it could be set-up so that the losers have to politely congratulate the winners – no grades, nothing really at stake.

Negatives of Competition in the Classroom

The dangers of competition in the classroom are directly related to the incentives built into the game. The better the reward, the higher the risks, and vice versa. Let’s look at some of the specific dangers of competing in the classroom by drawing on John Shindler’s Transformative Classroom Management (2009).

The first issue (I’m looking at these in no particular order) is the danger that competition can harm the learning process by turning a project into a race to the finish line, where understanding and internalizing concepts and knowledge becomes unimportant compared to winning. Shindler uses the example of assigning a task where the first person to assemble a model airplane wins. He writes, “The purpose of the activity moves from the learning goals (i.e., engagement in making sense of the elements of the process and the attempt to interpret and make a quality effort) to efficiency, speed, and the outcome relative to others…we can see this change in focus occurring no matter what the teacher may say either to encourage or discourage it. The structure by its nature encourages the shift in the participants’ attitudes.” (Shindler, 2009).


Obviously, a classroom competition of this sort puts the learning process at risk. Without the right parameters in place students would be likely to rush to the finish line and turn in sloppy, but complete, work.

Now, how would this scenario be different if students worked in teams rather than as individuals, and if a reward was thrown into the mix? Shindler writes that if the focus is on competition, “group members will change the way they regard one another. The competitive condition encourages them to view their fellows less as peers or members of a learning community and more as instruments to be used to reach the goal” (Shindler, 2009). In a collaborative project students aren't likely to exclude or ignore peers that they see as less skilled or valuable, but in a competitive environment, Shindler writes, “some combination of personality dominance and individual level of competence will define the values of the process, inevitably marginalizing weaker and less skilled team members.” (Shindler, 2009).

The danger of cutting students out of the learning process, and of cutting out the learning process altogether, is significant in this scenario. But there's also danger in the wider effects poorly structured competition can have on student relationships. Shindler writes, "The hostility from students who are embarrassed during the activity will come out as retribution in contexts other than these games. Those who are resentful of a loss due to their perception of the performance of their team members will grow in their dislike of them." (Shindler, 2009). In short, there's a potential for students to be marginalized in social circles as well - something that should never happen as a result of a classroom game.

Shindler also talks about longer term dangers of competition in the classroom. He writes, “When a student sees his/her school performance as a contest, it leads increasingly to a helpless pattern…[this] develops through perception of himself/herself as having a fixed quantity of ability. This incites the need to prove adequacy relative to others. While on the surface it may appear that students are motivated to perform it is rather evidence of motivation to avoid the pain of feeling inadequate and inferior.” (Shindler, 2009). Another way he puts it is that when competition in the classroom is a regular activity and has real stakes, like grade points, students can suffer from a fear of failure that will harm them, and the learning process, in the long run.

And finally, there is a risk of harming a student's relationship with, or trust in, their teacher. Shindler writes that when competition is introduced (with a real incentive to win), "One of the first changes will be students conspicuously obsessed with fairness, the rules, and the appearance of cheating and/or any sign of favoritism from the teacher." (Shindler, 2009). Teachers run a risk here, namely that "Over time the students will begin to associate the teacher less with fun and more as the cause of their dissatisfaction." (Shindler, 2009). 

Scary stuff, right? It probably makes you wonder if that fun Jeopardy style game your daughter played in history class last week might have some bad implications for her academic future or her relationships with her peers. The good news is that competition doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As I said, these scenarios are much more likely to be risky when there is a reward or incentive for winning, especially a significant one. If you are a teacher using competitive games in the classroom, be very careful about the incentives you build into those games – if you’re a parent doing something similar outside the classroom, be just as careful.

So competition can be good and fun, and competition can be really bad. But is learning through play generally effective if structured correctly? Shindler thinks so – he writes that games can “raise the level of interest and excitement while accomplishing essentially the same degree of content processing” (Shindler, 2009). And that’s the key point – it raises the level of interest and excitement. In today’s world where the average attention span is constantly getting shorter we need to find ways to incentivize learning for kids and make it fun.

The Benefits of Competition & Games

Competition can be one of those ways. It’s fun and exciting for kids because, well…it just is. That’s why there is intrinsic value in a classroom competition even when it lacks any rewards or prizes – the game itself is enough to get kids interested. Many parents see their children as being more interested in the sports they play (provided they play sports) than their studies, and many of them probably wish they could raise their kid's interest level for the academic side of things. Kids like to play sports because they’re games, and games are fun – they enjoy practicing those sports because that's usually a game too, and because improving makes you perform better, which is generally more fun. We need to bring that same attitude and level of effort to academics, and to the general development of one’s thinking and problem-solving skills. So identify activities (games) that a) your kids think are fun and b) have clear cognitive benefits, directly or indirectly, and then encourage those activities. Encourage healthy forms of competition or gamification around those activities, and around academics – remember, no significant rewards or prizes – and you’ll have a kid who's just as eager to learn as she is to play sports.


You can click here to read the relevant chapter of John Shindler's Transformative Classroom Management.

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