Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Competition is most commonly associated with sports or athletic events in which individuals or teams of individuals compete for some reward or accolade. Competition is also seen in classroom settings, where either individu-alistically or in teams or small groups, students strive to win by being the smartest or fastest on an academic task. Studies on the influence of competition in classrooms have looked at it from multiple perspectives. An earlier one studied forms of classroom competition that involved small groups of students competing with one another, much like what is seen on the field or in a gym. Here, researchers examined cooperative versus competitive learning in small group formats and the impact on motivation and achievement. Subsequent classroom research on competition shifted from a focus on groups to a focus on the individual and the ways in which classroom structures impact students' level of competitiveness. From this perspective, competition is constructed as a personal attribute that students bring to the classroom setting. Thus, researchers examine classroom goal structures and individual goal orientations to understand what competitive orientations bring resultant motivation and academic outcomes. Additionally, devel-opmentalists have examined how competitive strivings unfold over time and how they vary according to gender, culture, and age.


During the 1970s and 1980s, when small group learning was at its height in popularity, researchers studied the nature and function of small group formats for enhancing student motivation and learning. Researchers wanted to understand the tradeoffs of having students work alone versus work in small groups and whether working together (cooperatively) or working to outperform others (competitively) was more effective. A review of this literature reveals that cooperative small group learning activities were largely more successful for student learning and motivation than competitive ones, whether individuals or small groups were involved (Johnson et al., 1981).

Data also suggest that age, group size, and type of learning task matter such that the benefits of cooperation are stronger for younger students than for older students, and for smaller group sizes than larger ones. Further, cooperation is more beneficial for problem solving and other types of higher processing tasks, whereas competition is more effective for rote learning (e.g., Johnson et al., 1981; Johnson, Skon, & Johnson, 1980). Cooperation is also linked to students' positive attitudes towards teachers, the belief that teachers care about them, and feeling liked and accepted by teachers in grades 2 through 12 (Johnson & Ahlgren, 1976). Thus, when it comes to small group formats, activities that promote cooperation are generally more beneficial socially, motivationally, and academically than competitive ones.


Throughout the 1980s, and as cognitive processing models emerged, researchers became more interested in students' cognitive orientations (goals) toward schooling and the ways in which they interpreted classroom activities. The focus shifted among motivational researchers from small group settings to a greater concern for individual perspectives about learning. Achievement goal theory emerged as the dominant approach for studying these processes (Ames, 1992; Elliott & Dweck, 1988). Competition Achievement goal theorists organize individuals' cognitive attributes according to two types of goal orientations that are referred to as mastery or performance. Students with a mastery goal orientation adopt learning goals that are about mastering the task at hand for the sake of gaining competence or increased knowledge. Performance goals, by contrast, pertain to social comparisons of ability. Performance goals are consistent with notions of competition because competition is about the “relative ability comparisons among students in the classroom” (Ryan & Patrick, 2001, p. 442). Data suggest that students who hold performance oriented goals and who are largely more preoccupied with their achievement performance as it compares to others tend to have less adaptive motivational dispositions and attitudes.

Classroom goal structures have also been studied to understand how teacher-created tasks impact students' attitudes towards learning. Classroom goal structures are communicated to students throughout the many layers of the teaching process, including the type of tasks assigned (difficulty, variety), the nature of student evaluations (norm-based or criterion-based), and the way teacher authority is communicated (e.g., Ames, 1992; Blumenfeld, 1992). Tasks promote competition when they prompt students to compare their abilities with those of other students. Similarly, evaluation systems (i.e., grades, achievement feedback) that stress social comparisons in achievement are associated with performance goal classroom structures, as are authority systems or classroom management techniques that restrict student autonomy and control. Thus, classroom structures that emphasize academic comparisons among students tend to be more maladaptive to student motivation than structures that emphasize academic progress or mastery (see Anderman, 2007).


Research from the developmental literature suggests that competitive natures vary according to gender, race, and age. In terms of gender, most research suggests that males tend to be more competitive than females. Similarly, students from cultures that emphasize individualism such as European Americans tend to be more competitive than students from cultures that emphasize collectivism (such as Latin Americans and African Americans). However, some research has revealed more complexity in these generalizations according to a multidimensional view of competition. Schneider, Woodburn, del Pilar Soteras del Toro, and Udvari (2005) examined competitiveness among a cross-cultural group of seventh graders. They defined competition according to four main types: (a) hypercompetitiveness, the need to win at all costs that is expressed by hostility and disregard for the opponent, (b) non-hostile social comparisons, the comparison of achievements without hostility, aggression, or jealousy, (c) enjoyment of competition, which gauges the amount of positive affect toward the experience of competition and (d) avoidance of competition. Schneider and colleagues (2005) found cultural and gender-based differences in competitive orientations. Specifically, Canadian boys were more hypercompetitive and emotionally competitive, but Canadian girls were more competitive when it came to making social comparisons. However, the sample from the Costa Rican culture showed the opposite pattern, namely that boys had more social comparison competitiveness than did girls. By contrast, in Cuba girls were more likely to avoid competition all together. Thus, additional research was thought to be needed to explore the manner in which student characteristics interact with one another in order to determine attitudes regarding competition.

Another interesting consideration of competition involves examining whether winning means diminishing the opponent's chances of getting any rewards. Referred to as interference competition, researchers tested whether females and males differ according to the manner in which they competed. Data suggest that boys are more likely than girls to harm another's chances of getting rewards or status when they compete (e.g., Knight & Kagan, 1981; Roy & Benenson, 2002). This gender difference appears at all ages and in various contexts. For example, in naturalistic observations of children's play, researchers find that boys are more likely to engage in interference competition than girls in their choice of games such as football or basketball on the playground. By contrast, girls typically engage in games in which one can maximize one's own potential without having to interfere with someone else's potential (Lever, 1978).

Importantly, interference competition emerged only in certain contexts. Roy and Benenson (2002) found that fourth-grade girls tend to avoid competitive interference in conditions of plenty—when there were enough rewards to go around. By contrast, they did engage in interference competition when the rewards were scarce. However, fourth-grade boys and kindergarteners (both boys and girls) used interference competition to the same extent under conditions of scarcity and plenty. One explanation may be that girls learn over time about strategically using interference competition when the stakes are high (or rewards are scarce). The growing trend in girls' use of indirect aggression against one another may point to a form of interference competition they have learned over time where spreading rumors, back-stabbing, and excluding become a form of competitive behavior, the goal of which is to undermine another's popularity status.


Good and Brophy (2008) summarize several ways in which classroom competition may negatively impact students' development, learning, and motivation. For example, if students become preoccupied with winning or losing the competitive activity, they may lose sight of important instructional objectives and content. From the student's perspective, performance takes precedence over learning. Further, inherent in the practice of competition is the necessity for someone to lose. If the same students lose over and over despite their best efforts, they may come to see the world as unfair and are likely to give up when faced with challenging academic tasks, as they have learned that failure will be the outcome no matter how hard they try to succeed. Such students may think, “Why should I put forth the effort or invest in the activity if I'm probably just going to lose anyway?” These students will evaluate themselves negatively and will see school as a threatening place in which to be; these students also may be rejected or evaluated negatively by peers, as classmates are unlikely to be willing to work with a person perceived to be a loser.

Conversely, students who routinely win at competitive tasks may lose interest in the instructional material and over time may put forth the minimal amount of effort required to outperform other students, rather than maximizing effort in order to master the task or material. These students might think, “Why should I try my hardest when I can beat the other students by simply going through the motions? Sure I don't learn as much as I would if I invested 100% in the activity, but I still win the competition, and isn't that what's most important?”

Findings from numerous research studies support these ideas. For example, Johnson and colleagues (1981) conducted a meta-analysis examining the effects of competitive goal structures on academic achievement, as compared to cooperative and individual tasks. Results suggest that across studies, students completing academic tasks under cooperative conditions were likely to perform at higher levels than students completing tasks under either competitive or individual conditions. Interestingly, students in competitive and individual conditions were likely to perform similarly to one another.

More contemporary investigations of competition are based on goal orientation and motivation research and attempt to identify explanations for the negative influence of competition. For example, theoretical and research-based perspectives suggest that competition may promote the development of performance goals rather than mastery goals. As previously noted, this means that under competitive conditions, students approach tasks with a desire to succeed in order to appear competent in front of others or to outperform peers (i.e., performance orientation), rather than approaching tasks with a desire to expand their knowledge and skills (i.e., mastery orientation). As explained by Ames (1992), students with a mastery orientation are more likely to attribute successful learning outcomes to effort, which increases the likelihood of continued motivation and is associated with the development of self-regulation skills. Conversely, students adopting a performance orientation are more likely to attribute success to ability, which may or may not encourage continued motivation. So how do these concepts relate to competition? If students come to learn that winning at competitive activities will lead to rewards, they may adopt performance goal orientations rather than mastery goal orientations. The goal is to win (or to avoid failure) by outperforming their peers rather than to develop their competence by mastering the task; completing the task becomes a means to an end (i.e., winning) rather than valued as a way of building competence (e.g., Bergin & Cooks, 2000).

Similarly, competition and performance goals may decrease intrinsic motivation towards academic tasks because students rely on rewards from others to motivate them to complete tasks, rather than completing tasks for the reward of building competence and skills. Competition in the classroom also might distract students from learning: they become so focused on performing better than peers that they get distracted from learning or anxious about losing. A review by Meece, Anderman, and Anderman (2006) concluded that many students are not motivated by competitive classroom activities, which is probably especially true for students who perform poorly in comparison to peers. Classrooms that emphasize competition among students are likely to promote the development of performance goals, as students learn that outperforming other students is valued more than learning. Further, the authors present evidence that tasks or activities that require students to enhance their knowledge and skills (i.e., mastery-oriented tasks) are likely to promote motivation and effort among students, as they strive for greater understanding. In this way, teachers' use of competition in the classroom can influence the types of goal orientations that students adopt, which in turn can influence their motivation towards learning.


Competition is not without its advocates, and several reasons for this are offered in the literature. First, competition may generate interest and excitement in topics or tasks that would otherwise be of limited interest to students. Team-based competitive approaches (e.g., class-wide games) may be especially effective at making instructional material more enjoyable and engaging. Good and Brophy (2008) suggest that competitive classroom activities may be appropriate if all students have a chance to win, and when a team approach is used rather than individually based evaluations. These practices may reduce the likelihood that the same students are always the winners and losers, in which the losers become embarrassed and demoralized. Further, competition between groups (using a team-based approach) may increase cooperation within groups, as students are unified in working towards a common goal (i.e., outperforming the other teams).

Second, competitive approaches may be appropriate within the context of behavior management, such as when the teacher is attempting to reduce disruptive behaviors and increase positive behaviors. For example, interventions such as the Good Behavior Game and its variations (Tingstrom, Sterling-Turner, & Wilczynski, 2006) use team-based competition to motivate students and modify their behaviors. These approaches provide examples of effective uses of competition in the classroom, as they often result in reduced disruptive behaviors and increased on-task and prosocial behaviors among large numbers of students. These interventions often involve either providing a predetermined reward (e.g., free time, tangibles, spending time with teachers or other adults) to the team with the fewest behavioral infractions over a certain time period or providing a reward to all teams that earn fewer than a predetermined number of behavioral infractions over a certain time period. Such competition-based behavior management strategies can also increase academically relevant behaviors such as work completion. Third, some argue that competition in the classroom will prepare students for competition in their lives beyond school (i.e., the workplace). The reasoning behind this argument is that if all classroom tasks are cooperative, students may become overly dependent on their classmates when completing academic tasks and may be unable to perform in competitive or individual contexts in the future.

In the early 2000s school reform efforts seem to be maximizing potential for competition in learning environments. Under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), students' academic performance is regularly publicized and scrutinized and used for making significant decisions about teachers and their students. This chronic public accounting of student performance creates a climate that maximizes the likelihood that students will be known primarily in terms of their test score achievement (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). Therefore, NCLB virtually mandates that students compete with one another to demonstrate their achievement as measured by standardized test scores.

Educators would be wise to encourage students to focus on mastering tasks and making improvements in performance on an individual basis rather than to focus on who is scores the highest. Competition is probably rewarding and motivating for students who win regularly, but what about those who do not? With this in mind, educators are encouraged to be mindful when deciding whether to use competition in the classroom and to be able to articulate a well-reasoned rationale for using competition, just as they would for any other instructional decision. Specifically, they ought to be able to explain how making a particular task or activity competitive will enhance students' learning and motivation. They ought to consider how using competition may be harmful to students in this situation. They ought to be able to identify instructional benefits to using competition. They ought to consider from the students' perspective what the stakes involved in winning and losing are. Addressing these considerations will likely help educators apply competition appropriately in the classroom.


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