Use Academic Competitions to Develop Agency in Your Students

Developing agency, the ability to become a self-starter and act independently, is a common theme in sports. A coach can teach a wide receiver how to run routes, but the coach can’t make him run fast enough to get open. The player has to decide to put in the work on his own to develop the speed he needs. Something similar can be said for just about every athlete. They can be taught how to play the game, but to be able to play it a competitive level requires the athlete to do what it takes to develop his or her physical fitness.

For athletes, developing agency is simple. If they want to become great at their chosen sport, they will have to become self-starters capable of acting independently. Their coaches can guide them and help them put in the work, but they will have to do much of it on their own. Developing agency can be one of the most important things a student does during his or her early years. Much of what they are going to do in life is going to depend on their own ability to get a project or task started and see it through to completion. So, the sooner they can develop agency in life, the better.

Sports will go a long way towards helping athletes do so. But what about the larger segment of the student population that is not athletically inclined? That is where academic competition can come in handy. It can be easier to get an athlete to develop agency because you can tap into his or her competitive desire. Extrinsic motivators like the adulation of hundreds or thousands of fans at a game certainly helps.

But for the majority of students, it isn’t quite as easy. Academic competitions can provide the venue for which agency can be developed. But there is more to it than just signing up to take part in some competition. First and foremost, it needs to be the right competition. The process works for football player because the kids that join the football team want to play football. They enjoy the game and want to become better at playing it. No every athlete plays the same sports, and not every student needs to play in the same academic competitions. But the good thing is that there are competitions for all types of academically minded student.

If you take a student that is not outgoing or hates public speaking and sign him or her up for the National Speech and Debate Tournament, he or she could break through their fear and still develop agency. But the process will be much tougher, likely less enjoyable, and the chance of achieving success low. If you take a student that is studious and enjoys testing his or her academic prowess, then something like the Constitution Bee, National Science Bee, U.S. Academic Bee and Bowl, and International Mathematic Olympiad would be great.

It takes more than just entering them in the right competition. Getting students into the right one is a good start because they will not feel motivated to study and put in the work for one they don’t like. They will need to feel motivated, both intrinsically and extrinsically. There has been a long-standing argument in the educational world about whether competitions reduce valuable intrinsic motivation in favor of ephemeral extrinsic motivators. We argue, along with many others that they do both. The long-term engagement required for preparation with many of the more established academic competitions helps students develop intrinsic motivation. If a competition is four to five months down the road, coaches are forced to pull on intrinsic motivational factors.

Mehmet Ozturk and Charles Debelak describe how academic competitions can provide both sources of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic, in Affective Benefits From Academic Competitions for Middle School Gifted Students:

“First, these contests should not serve only as extrinsic motivators, but they should also facilitate the development of intrinsic motivation. In general, intrinsic motivation alone is not enough to push children through the drudgery and frustrations that precede success (Damon, 1995). Use of extrinsic motivators is unavoidable up to a certain level of maturity. The ideal progress is the gradual reduction in children’s dependence on extrinsic motivation. Only relying on intrinsic motivation for children who have not reached that level of maturity would risk their achievement. On the other hand, children should learn to develop and trigger intrinsic motivation.”

As long as there is a form of motivation driving them, students will be more likely to continue striving towards a goal—and developing agency along the way. But what if they aren’t particularly strong in the classroom? The term ‘academic competitions’ certainly implies that strength in the classroom is a prerequisite. However, if you ask anyone that is not a fan of standardized tests they will tell you that grades or the ability to take a test do not make the student.

Some students may need a challenge that is not necessarily geared towards test taking but still allows students to exercise their minds in the best way they know how. At the same time, it needs to be something they see value in and have an interest in. Something that develops critical and creative thinking, as well as problem-solving and decision making, would be good— like the Future Problem-Solving Program International.

FPSPI is an open-ended problem-solving challenge where students are presented with a problem. But they are left to their own devices to come up with potential solutions. The program doesn’t offer possible solutions because the idea is for students to devise them on their own. Participants are given a ‘Future Scene’ from which they are tasked with identifying challenges or issues related to that scene. From those challenges and issues, they identify an underlying problem. It’s that problem that they then devise a solution and an action plan for.

This can seem like an enormous task for anyone to take on let alone students with or without high agency. But that is where a good coach/mentor comes in handy. By encouraging students to break down the problem into smaller, more manageable tasks (tasking), they can create milestones, smaller tasks that when completed lead to a solution for the larger problem.

But by completing the smaller tasks along the way, they can achieve a sense of fulfillment (intrinsic motivation) that will help propel them forward. When combined with praise from peers and mentors (extrinsic motivation) they can effectively develop agency along the way. When they do so and become self-starters able to operate independently, the world there will be no limitations as to what they can accomplish.

Dr. Ozturk and his colleagues noted that academic competitions can help students balance extrinsic motivators with intrinsic ones. In Dr. Ozturk’s article on Affective Benefits of Academic competitions, he provides an example of how the long-term dedication to the process of academic competitions adds to a student’s intrinsic motivation:

“one can look at students’ preparation for MathCounts (a national middle-grades mathematics competition requiring strong problem-solving skills; http://www. To do well at the regional or state level, students must begin preparation early in the school year. Although it would seem that their efforts would be driven by the competition that takes place sometime in February or March, they often express their excitement at the challenge of a complex problem much earlier in the preparation period. They cannot hide their delight when they find the answer to a difficult question or learn a new problem-solving strategy.”

Time and time again, academic competitions have been shown to have the ability to grow student agency and long-term intrinsic motivation while also pulling on the short-term excitement of the external competitive motivators. It is critical that our education system help embrace these programs to engage and motivate our students to want to learn and to develop these fundamental affective benefits through academic competitions.


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