7 Best-Practices for Educators and Coaches

Posted May 29, 2016 by Josh Neubert

In 2015, more than 3,400,000 students participated in the top 20 educational competitions. They were coached by more than an estimated 250,000 formal and informal educators! Although there is a long way to go, participation in academic competitions is becoming more and more a part of growing up, just like participation in sports. In our post, 10 ways competitions enhance learningwe covered some of the reasons why students and their coaches love competitions. What we haven't talked about yet is how educators can help bring about these great benefits that competitions can provide. 

There are many coaching techniques and educational methodologies that can be used by educators to help students gain the myriad of benefits. Over the past years, ICS has been researching different competition types and exploring the scientific literature on the impact of competitions, and studying what makes educational competitions successful at maximizing their Net Collaborative Impact (See Understanding Net Collaborative Impact for more detail).

In this post, we highlight a few of the key best-practices that educators can use to increase the benefit their students receive from participating in competitions. Not every technique noted here will be useful in every competition, and this is not a comprehensive list of best-practices for educators. We've selected a few of our favorites that we think could be the most beneficial for you and your students. This post just provides a brief overview of each best-practice. We'll explore them each in more detail with their own posts in the future. Without further hold-up, here are 7 selected challenge-based-learning best-practices for educators.


1. Create Heroes.

Students want to find heroes they can look up to and aspire to be like. It is possible for educators to nurture the development of academic heroes. One key factor in identifying heroes is in having easily understood, quantifiable metrics that define why we should consider them a hero. We want our heroes to be experts in a given field or task. In sports, its very clear who is an expert in their field. We have their shots, hits, blocks, steals, wins, etc. to quantify their performance against others. With this information in hand, we can easily see why kids look up to Lebron James, Steph Curry, or Peyton Manning as heroes.

Educational competitions provide a framework on which we can evaluate and measure academic heroes as well. Although we may not have as much readily available information as we do in sports, we do know who has won the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, Destination Imagination, and the many other competitions in the past year. Whichever competition you're participating in, try to find the schools and even individual students who have done well in the past, and use their awards to help define them as heroes in the field to your students. This will help provide something for your students to aspire to, and give the goal a quantified metric. 


2. Identify External Enemies.

Having enemies can be one of the most powerful factors in achieving a goal. Enemies do not have to be a person, or group of people. Enemies can be situational, objects, or ideas. What we mean by an enemy is having a set challenge that they want to overcome. Maybe you want to score higher on your team's performance numbers than the magnet school across the city. Maybe you want to beat your previous year's score. Maybe you want to have the fastest robot build time in your region. Enemies (or challenges) should be specific and quantifiable. It is also important that we don't foster enemies within the classroom or student group we're working with. If you have a competition within your class, identify an enemy that is external. Rather than saying the best score of the Geography Bee will win the classroom competition, say the students who can beat last year's Regional Geography Bee will win the competition. In this way, your students will be taking on the challenge with each other, rather than against each other. This will use the power of the competition to motivate your students, while avoiding the negative stereotype of pitting students against each other.


3. Use Failure as a Motivator.

These days, failure is pitched as a badge of honor. You'll hear on every corner of the entrepreneurial world, that failure is the best learning experience. This may be true, but failing still sucks. We have to make sure that our students know how to learn from failure, rather than being demoralized by it. One of the critical ways to do this is to ensure that there is a period of reflection on the failure. Simply leaving it alone will allow for students to brood on it and begin to think that they just aren't good enough. While reflecting on the failure allows for it to become a learning experience, for the students to understand that it is not their personal fault that caused the failure, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with them. It is rather, something they can improve upon. Failure helps us identify where we can do better, and understand what we have already done well. When taking on educational competitions, make sure that you build in time to reflect on every challenge the students go through. Whether its just a part of your class, or whether its at a State tournament, the reflection period will go a long way in motivating your students for the future and building their resiliency and mental toughness.


4. Put Performance Anxiety to Work.

Everyone gets performance anxiety. Even the best broadway stars still claim they get the jitters during performances. Several interesting differences have been shown in the research literature between people perform worse when in front of an audience and people that perform better. The key difference should be no surprise. Those that are shown to increase performance when having an audience are the people who feel that they have already mastered the task. On the other hand, if you feel that you haven't yet mastered the task, you often perform worse when put in front of an audience. There are several ways to take advantage of this knowledge. First make sure your students have several rounds of deliberate, intentional practice. Secondly, ensure that they have gone through the exact tasks or motions that they will be required to do in the real challenge when they have an audience. Practicing pieces of it are good, but doing the exact same tasks in the same setting will help them put those items into their "habit" forming part of their brain. Finally, before putting them in front of an audience, ask if your students feel they have mastered the task. Having a student express their own mastery will help them internalize the knowledge. Repeat this question immediately before they go to perform in front of the audience, this will help ensure that they remember they are masters of the task and keep the information that has been stored in their habit forming part of the brain easily accessible.


5. Structure the Right Incentives.

Incentives can be tricky, but when done right they are very powerful motivators. There are many types of incentives, some of which are built into the structures of the competitions themselves such as the awards, travel, and scholarships. What we've seen through many scientific studies is that these types of incentives are not always the best motivators. Simply saying to your students, "Do well, and you'll win this award," may actually have more of a detrimental effect than a beneficial one. Incentives that work well are built on challenges to the students that have purpose. This goes hand in hand with the idea of creating external enemies. The incentives that may motivate students best are those that challenge them to perform better than their external enemies. There are many other nuances to structuring incentives that we will explore in a more detailed future post; however, to start out, if you are creating your own challenges within your class, or participating in one of the designed national educational competitions, first of all, make sure your students have incentives that are tied to their own desires - for example, we want to see if anyone in our class can beat our rival's robotics score. 


6. Organize Teams to Facilitate Engagement.

Much research has explore team dynamics and how to create the most successful teams. In fact, businesses spend more than $70 Billion each year on employee engagement and team building activities. Best-practices in team organization really deserve a whole series of posts themselves. The key thing to know now is that there are methods of team organization that can facilitate engagement with all the team members. One thing to note is that research has shown that girls perform better when they are in dyads, while boys perform better when put into groups of 3 or more. We also know that diversity on teams is good, so when you have larger teams, try creating tasks where girls can work on them in dyads, but guys can keep discussions going in a group. Another key piece of information to facilitate good team engagement is to ensure that everyone on the team has a specific role and that they will be held accountable for that role. Giving each student a role helps them know exactly what they need to put their attention to. A third way to foster team cohesion and engagement is to make sure the team has a strong identity. Simply creating a team logo, or a team motto can go a long way in helping the team feel like a cohesive group. Taking a few minutes at the beginning of your team development process to create this identity can have big repercussions down the line in the competition. We'll discuss more about best-practices in team engagement in future posts.


7. Nurture Challenge Mindsets.

Dr. Carol Dweck's now famous book, "Mindset" brought to light the idea of having a growth mindset to facilitate continuous learning. What is less known is the research on "Challenge" versus "Threat" Mindsets. In social psychology these are also called Gain and Loss-Prevention orientations and they have huge connections to whether or not you are successful in a competitive situation. Maintaining a "Challenge Mindset" or "Gain Orientation" has great positive impacts on performance. People in Gain Orientation take more risks that are better calculated than those who fall into Loss-Prevention Orientations. Gain orientation, simply put is thinking about how you can add to your bag of goodies, while Loss-Prevention Orientation is thinking to prevent the loss of items already in your bag of goodies. A common example of this can be seen in sports. We call it the 7th inning slump, or the 3rd quarter drought. What often happens is that when one team goes up with a significant lead, they then switch into "Loss-Prevention" orientation, where they think it is more important to protect their lead than to continue to gain new points. This is seen over and over again not only in sports, but in all types of competitive situations. It also has great implications for companies and their team building efforts. In education, helping students learn to maintain a "Challenge Mindset" can make them a more employable job candidates, and can lead to a more successful career.

The likelihood that a competition participant will enter a Challenge Mindset versus a Threat Mindset is also correlated to gender. Women are far more likely to enter a competition in a Threat Mindset, than men. This is related to how the release of testosterone impacts our brains during these situations. It also relates to the perception that women don't like competitions (which is an vast over-simplification of the truth). On the whole, women tend toward an automatic reaction to think of a competitive situation as a threat to their existing bag of goodies, rather than an opportunity to increase their treasure chest. Helping female students understand how to view a competitive situation as an opportunity rather than a threat can have great implications to their success in high-stress careers such as entrepreneurship, business management, or many other competitive careers.

All of us can be coached to have a Challenge Mindset. There are many tricks to the trade that coaches can use to help their teams maintain a Challenge Mindset. The most easily achieved of these is to simply point out when the team has entered a Threat Mindset. Another is to help the team automatically perform differently when they are in danger of entering Threat mindset. For example, coaching your team to attack the ball harder when they were ahead in a soccer match, can stop the team from moving into a defensive position. This was famously used by the UNC women's soccer coach in their historic 30 year winning streak. Similar techniques can be used for students in academic competitions. Helping them think of ways to add to their success in times when they could fall into a loss-prevention set can train them for future competitive situations they will face in the workforce.


There is much more that can be explore with each of these best-practices and many more than can be expanded upon. This post is only to provide a basic introduction to a few of our select favorite best-practices in Challenge Based Learning. We will write more in future posts that go into additional details on each of these. Please let us know if you have had experience with any of these or have follow up thoughts you would like us to discuss.