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Good Question: How Can Educators Make Competition in the Classroom Effective?

Good Question: How Can Educators Make Competition in the Classroom Effective?

We’ve all heard the line about “a little healthy competition,” right? Incorporating competitive activities in the classroom can create interest and build a natural environment for increased engagement and a growth mindset. On the flip side, doing so can also exacerbate any previous bad will or self-esteem concerns among students. For educators, it’s a fine line to manage. 

Recently, one of our members looked to our Edmentum Educator Network Facebook community for insight on how to successfully navigate using competition in the classroom, and it led to some really great online conversation. Here’s a recap. 

Consider member Kristie Gruener-Rabine’s original question:

“Has anyone tried to challenge their kids to work harder by creating a "battle" among their students or groups of students? My students are starting to slow on their progress and loose interest, and I want to graph their progress of skills and maybe make it into a challenge. Does anyone have experience in this? I teach second grade.”

Because you’re all savvy, thoughtful individuals, there were a few clarifying questions asked to start: 

“Kids like to know their progress. Do you have a data wall in your class?”

“It depends on what you are trying to track. Students love competitions. With March Madness coming up, you could do a tournament style bracket.”

Then the suggestions rolled in:

“We set a goal of two trophies every two weeks. When they get their trophies, I have a basketball net set up in my room and they get to take a basketball shot. If they make it we have Pride Checks they get and they use the Pride to buy coupons for things like wear a hat to school, or bring a stuffed animal etc. The students love taking the basketball shots.”

“I do it using charts that I bought online and some stickers from a craft store. It does work for a lot of them and I generally work with the "lowest bucket". Mine is more focused on individual achievement and results in bonus credit, school PBIS incentives, McDonald's vouchers, and the occasional gift card for a larger competition. For class-level competitions, I generally get the okay from administration for a pizza party with movie... We also do some school-level initiatives with mixed rewards.”

The type of “competition” our members were discussing here is what I would consider indirect—it’s not one student or team of students versus another. Instead, it’s encouraging students to develop the internal sense of competition that comes from wanting to beat your best score or do better than you did the last time you tried.

Another key here is keeping rewards to low stakes. The downsides 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.

To wrap up, here are a few of my best tips to avoid the pitfalls of competition in the classroom, and make competitive activities a valuable addition to your bag of lesson-planning tricks:

  1. Try to avoid offering prizes that are too meaningful or valuable.
  2. Keep it short—in general, competitive activities should be longer than a class period.
  3. Encourage students to focus on the activity rather than the prize.
  4. Use competition to reinforce students’ existing knowledge rather than building new knowledge.

But most importantly, enjoy. Students will have fun when you are having fun!

Have you jumped into the conversation on the Edmentum Educator Network Facebook page yet? Bring your questions, share your expertise, and invite your friends so that we can continue growing our community of outstanding educators!