Classroom Strategies: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Competition in the Classroom

Jessica Allen, Teacher of Mathematics in Puebla, Mexico

The perceptions we possess about ourselves, others, and life are formed from teachings we have received since day one. Our perspectives regarding competition are no exception. Starting from the birth of a child, mothers are swarmed with questions. How soon did the baby open their eyes? Roll over? How strong are they? In the beginning, these questions are addressed to the parents, but after a short time, the child gains more awareness and begins considering whether or not they measure up to others.

In the school-age years, performance becomes the tell-all for many. Therefore, competition is introduced as a means of measuring performance. Now, competition can be a great tool to build character in the classroom. However, the appropriate mindset of teachers and students must prevail in order for healthy competition to exist and bring forth great benefits.

Making Competition in the Classroom Unhealthy

Competition takes a variety of forms in the classroom. When intentionally used with positive methods, the outcomes are favorable. However, competition may not always be practiced well and can bring detrimental long-term effects. One common purpose for competition is to provide students with external motivation. It can be hard to teach a whole group when many are content with passive learning. Instructors might create competitive memorization games or activities in which the best solution gets a certain amount of points.

I have been in classes where participation points are 10% of the final grade, but in order to earn those points, one must answer more questions than classmates. On other occasions, grades are made to be a competition in and of themselves. But do these activities truly create a different classroom dynamic? Does chasing after external motivators build character?

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Another purpose for classroom competition is merely to help students outperform others or win. When this is the primary focus, the improvement in skill after recurring competitions may go unnoticed. The point is to win and become better than others. This can be seen in classroom competitions that are purely based on knowledge or ability.

The students who are not as quick or knowledgeable in a certain area may never have a chance to win here. In this case, these students are not even being motivated externally, they are just reinforced with the idea that they are not good in a given subject. We also see this need to perform or win on a sports team, in an orchestra, and even while considering college entrance exams.

Detrimental Effects

Just as in most of life, when competition in the classroom stems from unhealthy efforts, the effects can be hurtful in the long run. Although I cannot go back in time to analyze the motivations behind my teachers, I do know that most everything was made into a competition. Teachers made it clear that performing better than others was the goal. This brought me to a lousy and erroneous belief that life itself is primarily a competition, making it impossible to find joy in the successes of others.

We may see distinct manifestations of competition in other students. When the focus is placed on winning, students may be unable to see their progress and retire from the activity altogether. Rather than feeling empowered, they see themselves as failures. In other cases, students may compete, but fear losing and therefore begin self-perpetuated failure. Other situations may even lead to conflict between friends or competitors. While it is possible these may be momentary experiences, it is unlikely that they are isolated occurrences.

The Possible Benefits

Two of the most obvious benefits competition in school can bring are an emphasis on discipline and also a focus. It is difficult for anyone to wake up every day with the motivation to go about daily tasks. For students, it may often be even more difficult when they do not understand why they are learning what is taught to them.

Competition can be helpful in such situations to keep students working at what is set before them. For an athlete, the body can feel battered and exhausted many days. The desire to go to practice is close to zero, but they choose to continue preparing for the upcoming match. As a student, there are days when the brain is just tired. But, the importance of learning does not pause here. When a goal is presented, it provides an opportunity for discipline that students may not have enjoyed otherwise.

Through competition, students may also be able to gauge their abilities better. While working independently or even in a typical group situation, the student may be unable to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The competition makes them clear. This can create a great opportunity for individuals to focus on areas that need the most work and attention. Pursuing competition can then allow them to see improvement and exactly how their work paid off.


Now, there is no 3-step formula to encourage healthy competition in the classroom. Rather, we must plan competition focused on our goals for students and consider how our actions align with the goals. We must ask what we hope our students leave our class with and keep that as our bullseye.

As a math teacher, students often join my classes feeling afraid of math, resigned, or traumatized by their past. I want these individuals to overcome such feelings and walk away feeling empowered, able to see their own improvement, and able to problem-solve. How can I use competition along the journey to meet these goals? Each decision I take should be a reflection of the desires I have for my students. When we teach from the heart, the how-to will begin to align.

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