December 3, 2014

Competition in the Classroom: Is it Healthy?

by Alice Lee, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Kaiser Permanente Mid-Atlantic States

You have competition every day because you set such high standards for yourself that you have to go out every day and live up to that.” 
– Michael Jordan

Competition exists in our daily lives. People often seek to achieve superiority in a variety of ways, from social situations to organizational charts. In the classroom, students compete for class rank, best exam scores, leadership roles within student organizations, or internship positions at well-known companies. Some people view competition as a problem in educational settings because, although some thrive on competition, it leads to loss and failure for others.  On the other hand, some see it as an important and potentially transformative educational method.

Competition can play an important role in student achievement as it motivates students to excel. A randomized control trial has shown increased efficiency and improved self-awareness in class activities when students were in a competitive environment.1 However, it also has some downfalls.  Competition can trigger stress, anxiety, and discouragement, which can lead to disengagement. Some may argue that it is important for students to face “real world” situations by artificially creating competitive class activities. However, this cab not only leads to unhealthy competition, but also forces students to adopt a specific world-view.1  To be effective, instructors need to have a good understanding of the purpose of competition, how students will perceive the situation, and what consequences the activities will bring. If the instructor’s focus is to determine winners and losers by comparing students to one another, the learning purpose of the activity will be diminished.  When competition become the goal, the students will focus on the end product and winning rather than the learning process and self-reflection on the completed task. Must there always be a winner and losers in a competition? Can competition be used to create mutual benefits for all students?


Instead of focusing on individual student’s success and achievement, the concept of competition can be used in the context of group work. The instructor can introduce competitive goals to the class and divide students into smaller groups. This can shift students’ attitudes from individualized achievement to reaching a goal through interdependent work. Some examples include knowledge based jeopardy and trivia questions. When forming a group, it is important to avoid any gender-based division or creating groups based on students’ academic status or the instructor’s personal biases. Grades should be distributed evenly with an emphasis on participation and group support. In addition, instructors should keep in mind that there is the potential for some team members to dominate, which can unintentionally lead to marginalization of less skilled students.

Several competition based team learning activities have been built into healthcare professional schools’ curriculums.  For example, Regis University School of Pharmacy’s curriculum describes the importance of team-based learning.2 Groups are assigned to complete a pre-class learning exercise. Each exercise is designed such that individual students fully contribute to solve challenging problems. During the class time, each group reveals their answers simultaneously and compete with other teams for correct answers. Each group is accountable for their own work. Through these competitive team activities, the faculty believe it motivates students who do not normally participate in group activities. This showcases the potential benefit of bringing competition into team-based learning activities.


In every competition, one person wins and others lose. Ideally, we want to see both winners and losers treating each party with respect and accept the results as part of the learning process. Students who did not win can sometimes take the loss personally and let that hinder their willingness to contribute in the future. To reduce these negative consequences, instructors should use structured post-activity evaluation to assess the fairness of the activity and the student’s self-reflection regarding their performance. Student can be asked the following questions immediately after the activity:3
  1. How did my participation impact my team’s and my personal results?
  2. What strengths did I bring to the team performance?
  3. What should I improve to achieve better results next time?
In Transformative Classroom Management,3 Shindler describes how to create healthy and avoid unhealthy competition in a classroom:

In healthy competition:
  • The primary goal is to have fun
  • The competition goal is not “real or important” nor is it characterized that way
  • The learning or growth goal is conspicuously characterized as valuable
  • The competition has a short duration and is characterized by high energy
  • There is no long-term effect from the episode
  • All individuals or groups have a reasonable chance of “winning”
  • Students all firmly understand these points 
In unhealthy competition:
  • It feels real - the winners and losers will be affected
  • The competitive goal/reward is “valuable” and is characterized that way
  •  The learning task is characterized as a means to an end (winning the competition)
  • Winners are able to use their victory as social or educational capital at a later time
  • Competition implicitly or explicitly rewards the advantaged students
  • Over time students develop an increasingly “competitive mindset.” 
Competition in the classroom can provide motivational learning opportunities and fun for the students if cautiously managed. Instructors must objectively evaluate the potential impact of competition and try to find an appropriate place for it in educational settings.

  1. Worm BS, Buch SV. Does competition work as a motivating factor in e-learning? A randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE. 2014; 9(1):e85434.
  2. Regis University School of Pharmacy. School of Pharmacy Supplemental Student Handbook 2014-2015. 2014.
  3. Bender, D. Randall KE. Description of an interactive jeopardy game designed to foster self-assessment. The internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice. 2005; 3(4).
  4. Shindler J. Transformative Classroom Management, Positive Strategies to Engage All Students and Promote a Psychology of Success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 2010.