10 Ways Competitions Enhance Learning

Posted July 4, 2016 by Josh Neubert

Competition may be one of the most contentious and misunderstood topics in education. Should our students compete? What about collaboration? Doesn't competition create winners and losers? Its hard to know what to believe when it comes to competitions in education because there is so much misinformation and seemingly conflicting research studies on the topic.

We wanted to cut through the confusion and get down to the research-backed impact. In this post we only address a few of the positive benefits that students can receive. We do recognize that there are potential detriments from competitions. We'll address these in a future post and explore how to avoid them. It is also important to understand that not every competition will provide all of these benefits, and not every competition will be structured to maximize benefits. Through the expanding use of ICS's best-practices in competition design, more and more programs are beginning to understand how to structure the rules and processes of the competition to maximize Net Collaborative Impact.

In future posts we'll explore each of the benefits listed below in more detail and review some of the actual research studies that help us understand how they work. For now, we're going to give a brief overview of a few selected personal benefits to the participants. This is not a comprehensive list, nor is it a full examination of the research. It is a selection of benefits pulled from the research literature that we deemed highly potent for our students. So, without further adieu, we give you the 10 top personal benefits of Educational Competitions:



1. Improving Teamwork and Collaboration

One of the most common concerns and misconceptions regarding educational competitions is the "Competition vs. Collaboration" debate. We mistakenly think that competition is the antonym to collaboration (see more on this in our post Redefining Competition in Education); however, when we break it down, well-structured, consciously designed competitions actually foster collaboration and team work. Most team-based educational competitions require students to take on challenging tasks that require good communication, collaboration, and teamwork. The fact that they are striving to achieve such a challenging task together, makes them work harder at understanding their specific skills, and how to work well with one another. The fact that they know other teams are aiming to achieve the same goals, goes a long way in motivating the teams to become more cohesive, and better collaborators.



2. Enhancing Social and Emotional Learning.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a complex area of development for students and the educators trying to help them. There are so many factors at play here it is sometimes difficult to determine what will have an impact, and if the same interventions will have the same impacts on all students. As with all methodologies used  to help students gain social and emotional skills, competitions can have a wide range of impacts on different students. However, we know best-practices in competition design to help students maximize their benefits from competitions. Through competitions students can gain better understanding of how to deal with conflicting opinions and ideas. They can learn how to collaborate with widely differing personalities. They can learn to manage subjectivity in their lives. And they can learn to better gauge and evaluate risks. There are variances in how students react to competitions that also impacts how they will realize these benefits. Gender variances exist as do socio-economic variances and age variances. Knowing these facts allows us as coaches, competition organizers, and educators to direct our support to help each student individually maximize these benefits from competitions.


lebron James Trophies
3. Developing Academic Heroes.

One critical piece to increasing a student's academic self-identity is in having heroes and idols that they can look up to. Students in K-12 grades are especially malleable to the influence of older peers and those they perceive as being "socially superior" to themselves. To help students increase their respect for academics and interest in learning, it is important that they have heroes in these fields that they can look up to. Competitions are the strongest way to do this. We can learn from athletics on this where we have very specific evaluation criteria on which our youth can easily see who is an expert in the field and who is not. We know that Lebron James is an expert at basketball because of his ridiculously high numbers of shots, rebounds, blocks, and ultimately wins. Without the competition to showcase his skills, would our students still be able to recognize him as a hero they aspire to? Taking a similar structure into academics will help our students place value on educational criteria in ways that they currently cannot.


4. Increasing Intrinsic Motivation.

This is another contentious one when it comes to people's perceptions of competitions. Its often said that by creating external incentives, we end up decreasing intrinsic motivation of students because we highlight the value of the task as only being valuable because of an external reward. This was famously highlighted in this brilliant RSA Animate video. What has happened in the world of competition design since the research underlying that video was conducted is that we've learned how to do incentives right. Simply trying to incentivize a task that requires even a little mental effort with a monetary reward is not a good motivator. However, we know that creating a challenging, purposeful process behind the task IS a good motivator! Competitions have learned this and are relying more and more on highlighting the process and purpose driven challenges behind the competition to drive student motivation. Rarely do we see competitions simply highlight the large awards at the end as the reason to participate. ICS's best-practices in competition design help coaches and competition managers understand how to implement these changes so that their students develop and maintain intrinsic motivation for the challenges they're faced with.


Hofstra students

5. Enhancing Beneficial Peer Comparisons.

Students are constantly comparing themselves to their peers. This is a fact of life that we cannot stop. Comparison is built into human nature. It is a natural way of evaluating how we're doing on the things that matter to us. What we can change are the items on which we compare ourselves. For K-12 students, comparisons are mostly made around items of social status; how likable we are, how many friends we have, how much respect others give us. What we hope to do is to help students see academics as a favorable area in which to compare themselves. To do this we need to place real-world value on academic tasks. We can again take a lesson from Athletics. By placing concrete values on academic tasks similar to how sports competitions assign value to physical attributes, we can begin to increase the beneficial comparisons students make about their academic performances. We don't mean to say that students should value themselves based on their performance in academic competitions, but just that they should be able to place a certain level of respect and appreciation on the academic prowess of students with these skills. When well-designed, competitions can help students move towards these beneficial peer comparisons and place them in a similar high regard along with other social status comparisons.


Two girls build a clubhouse together with a toy (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

6. Strengthening Academic Self-Concept.

This is again a very contentious area for academic competitions. Many will say that competitions create winners and losers, where the losers are then taught that they are not good enough to perform in academics and have their academic self-concept crushed. However, research in social psychology has advanced the field of competition design by leaps and bounds in the last decades. We now know how to mitigate the negative impacts of not-winning a competition and highlight the participation. In basic zero-sum-game competitions, it may happen that students who repeatedly lose end up having lower self-concept in the challenge topics. However, competition design has become much more complex than this. We can take our lesson here from... I hate to say it... but from Reality TV. Look at what many of the performance based competitions on TV do when a team is kicked off. They celebrate their participation. They highlight their effort that it took to get them there, and showcase how the team enjoyed every minute of the challenge. This is just one mechanism in competition design to ensure that even the "not-winners" end up benefiting from their participation. Simply because you don't win the end goal, doesn't mean that you are a worthless good-for-nothing student. Imagine if Basketball was held to this same misconception. We'd have no basketball players left! Everyone would quit and go home to become an academic! Losing in a competition does not have to diminish the participant's self-concept. In fact, research has shown that it can actually enhance self-concept more than winning in some cases!


laptop students

7. Facilitating Growth Mindsets.

In 2006, Dr. Carol Dweck published her now famous book, "Mindset." This laid out the benefits of having a growth mindset in learning and in life. Dweck noted that by having a growth mindset, we constantly look for ways to improve ourselves, and this leads to increased opportunity in our careers and personal lives. Learning to have a growth mindset is not something that is taught in school. We can gain this skill by conducting small iterations and repeatedly exploring improvement in the tasks we take on. Competitions set a framework for practicing and facilitating a growth mindset for our students. They give benchmarks upon which we can base our improvements, and put value on the challenge of improving.



8. Building Mental Toughness.

Persistence, resiliency, and grit are all components of Mental Toughness. These valuable real-world skills come in handy across every area of our careers and lives. We must know how to bend and not break under pressure. We must learn how to handle stressful, competitive situations. Educational competitions in a K-12 setting provide students with safe scenarios in which they can practice these skills. Students faced with tough challenges can learn how to pick themselves up and try again when they fail. They can learn through their participation that failing to achieve the best marks is not the end of the journey, but just a stepping stone, and an amazing learning experience. Limiting students from participating in competitive environments during their K-12 education can be a huge detriment to their future careers. Companies look for employees who are able to handle the stress of competitive situations they will be faced with. Educational Competitions ensure that students will not be put in these situations for the first time when they jump into their jobs.



9. Developing Agency.

The "Yes man" is so last century. Companies in the high-tech industries driving our economy today look for employees who can think. People who can analyze situations and determine a course of action without being told what to do. Unfortunately, our traditional lecture and test model of schooling leaves no opportunity for students to practice these skills. Competitions on the other hand often require them. In many models of educational competitions, students are required to think on their feet, analyze results of their processes, and make improvements, or determine a new course of action. Through the process of these competitions students take on the responsibilities. Much is on the coach to follow best-practices in guiding the students through this process so that they aren't being overbearing and making decisions for the team or leaving the team not knowing how to move forward. When the coach is well trained, students find themselves forced to learn how to get themselves going and over time develop strong agency and self-motivation.


Risk Analysis

10. Improving Risk Analysis.

In traditional schooling, there is little opportunity to teach students skills in risk analysis. More and more schools are beginning to understand the importance of this and other 21st century skills; however, few are successfully executing high quality programs where students are required to analyze risks in real-world situations and determine a course of action. Many types of educational competitions provide a safe environment for them to do so. In tournaments, Engineering Design Competitions, and Open Solution Challenges there are many ways in which students are tasked to evaluate risk. Through these programs we can help students become better prepared for the 21st century workforce by having well developed risk-analysis skills.


These are just a few of the broad spectrum of benefits that students can achieve through educational competitions. Many go hand in hand with each other, but none are guaranteed. It is critical that our educators, coaches, parents, and competition organizers understand the best-practices in executing competition design in ways to ensure these benefits are realized. We have not address all of the benefits to students in this post, nor have we begun to explore the social and community benefits that can be gained through educational competitions. We will address each of these benefits in more detail along with additional community-based benefits in future posts. We will also explore the potential detriments that may result from competitions and examine how to avoid them in future posts.

We hope this is an interesting beginning to the conversation of how educational competitions can be positively impact education. For ICS this is a continuous process to refine best-practices in challenge-based-learning, we always welcome thoughts and comments from our community.