Cooperation *and* Competition Help Student Learning

16 Oct

At first glance this title seems to contain a contradictory assertion.  How can seemingly opposite ideas blend to become an accurate statement about learning?  Recent reading and reflection on a set of articles in light of my own experience as a teacher has helped me find the language to describe why I think this title shapes an accurate assertion for us to consider as teachers. 

From "Coaching Corner: Interdependence" at

From “Coaching Corner: Interdependence” at

I am convinced (empirically and experientially) that cooperative learning environments can help students learn better than competitive learning environments.  Cooperative learning environments such as study groups, well-designed and supported team projects, and peer-assisted learning, have been shown in the pedagogical literature to better support student learning.  Furthermore, working with other students has benefits beyond learning including increasing enjoyment, engagement, and persistence.  I use cooperative learning in my own teaching and encourage the next generation of college teachers who take my course Teaching in Higher Education to do the same in their teaching.    And yet, spurred on by the readings, I see how pure cooperation may not be the best single approach. 

In “The Effects of Cooperation and Competition on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance” the authors define pure cooperation as a group of individuals working together to attain a common goal.  But what if all students don’t value that common goal?  Competition might be a way to spark that value.

Pure competition was defined as one person attempting to outperform another in a zero-sum situation.  If this is the main driving force on learning, as when students compete for a pre-determined and limited number of A’s in a class, there can be negative outcomes.  One outcome would be to discourage students from working together and taking advantage of the multiple resources each unique individual brings to the class.  But a lower stakes appeal to student’s competitive sides might increase interest and enjoyment in a task, as was described in the article. 

Einstein Exam Cartoon

The authors looked at the effect of competition and cooperation on students making free throws with basketballs.  When they compared individuals competing with each other (pure competition), individuals cooperating with each other (pure cooperation), and cooperative groups competing against each other (a joining of both), they found that competition between groups led to the highest levels of task enjoyment and performance. 

The authors explain that the competition between groups for a low stakes reward (like bragging rights) was enough to motivate students to work together to achieve the same goal.  The competition supported the cooperation.  I have seen this in my own teaching when student teams initiate a friendly rivalry against each other for who can score the most correct answers on a group quiz that doesn’t count towards a grade.   So harness the competitive spirit in students to draw them together to cooperate on a common goal. 

The authors offer the following guidelines for using competition appropriately in learning.  The instructor should:

  • Not place a heavy emphasis on winning
  • Ensure opponents are evenly matched to make competition challenging
  • Articulate the rules clearly in a straightforward manner
  • Allow participants to gauge their progress relative to their opponent
Teams need to be evenly matched.

Teams need to be evenly matched.

The second point “ensures opponents are evenly matched to make competition challenging” is worth a closer look.  It would be difficult to ensure that single students pitted against each other were evenly matched, since they each come to our classrooms with different experiences, knowledge, and skills.   But by putting students in teams it is possible to evenly divide the collective resources of the class to create teams that are evenly matched.  (See the” Assign Teams Early in the Semester”section of Four Teamwork Principles, Or What I Learned from Students, Colleagues, and the Literature).   I will be introducing a little bit of intergroup competition into my teaching next semester to help move my students from dependence and independence towards interdependence. 

Research Articles

Joanne C. Y. Chan and Shui-fong Lam.  “Effects of Competition on Students’ Self-Efficacy in Vicarious Learning.” British Journal of Educational Psychology (2008) 78: 95–108.

John M. Tauer and Judith M. Harackiewicz.The Effects of Cooperation and Competition on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2004) 86.6: 849–861.

Zhining Qin, David W. Johnson, and Roger T. Johnson. “Cooperative Versus Competitive Efforts and Problem Solving.”  Review of Educational Research (Summer 1995) 65.2: 129-143.


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