Promoting positive thinking is something every coach has done at least once. The purpose of doing so is simple. We think that if a player can just envision him or herself making the big play; if only we can picture ourselves being successful, then we can make the big play under the stress of the game. The practice is meant to motivate a player into playing harder and/or better because they’ll want to make what they envisioned become reality.

It’s a simple concept, right? Athletes are not the only ones that use it, too. Students in academic competitions do it as well. Coaches of all types encourage students to “think positively!” The self-help community has even gotten into it, saying if you just think positively about your future, good things will happen. Positive thinking has become the idea du-jour in many competitive arenas.

Unfortunately, as with everything, positive thinking is a little more complicated than this.


Past-Positive versus Fictional Future.

In theory, the practice of positive thinking sounds like a great idea, but there’s another layer of subtlety to it that is critically important in determining whether it helps us or actually hinders our potential for success. There are two ways in which we can “think positively.” We can think of fictional future performance, or real past successes. Looking into a speculative future and imagining yourself doing well on a challenge is the wrong way to do it. This can actually harm your performance by setting expectations that you may not meet. However, when we conduct positive thinking exercises where we look at past successes and remember what it felt like in those situations, it helps us remember what it took to accomplish the tasks and train our mind and bodies to work in a similar manner. “Remember how great it was when you won last year’s science fair?” “Remember how hard you worked to get that trip to the regional competition!?” Positive, real-past talk can motivate future performance. Future speculation can harm your chances at good performance.

According to Gabrielle Oettingen, a professor at New York University, by envisioning yourself winning, “You can seduce yourself into thinking that you’ve already achieved your dream, and that can prevent you from doing what you actually need to attain it.”

If you just envision the future where you’re making the winning shot or answering the final quizbowl problem, you do not think as much about past performances or practice, but this is important and is actually the critical factor in learning from these past mistakes. Anticipating errors and learning from your past errors can help you be more critical of what you're trying to do and correct mistakes before they happen.

But if you just imagine how awesome you look standing at the podium accepting your trophy you risk not engaging your mind completely during the task. Failure to do so will likely lead to someone else standing at the podium and receiving the trophy you thought was yours. If you just envision yourself winning in a fictional future, you are not getting the benefit of positive thinking in terms of correcting your mistakes. However, if you engage in “past positive” thinking, you have a higher chance of correcting those errors and making it to the winners circle.

Believing you can do something is great, but in doing so, you risk not seeing where you went wrong before or what you can do better. You risk devaluing the importance of critical thinking. But it is also important to approach how you engage in critical thinking.


Subtractive versus Additive Counterfactuals.

There is one more layer to positive thinking that all coaches, students, and anyone going into a competitive situation should be aware of. This is the difference between subtractive and additive counterfactuals. We know that fictional future thinking does nothing good for us, but now we have to consider two different types of looking at our past performance.

Inevitably, when we start thinking about our past successes, we're also going to think about our failures. And actually, that's okay, so long as we look at them in the right light. Don’t focus on what you did wrong before, what you shouldn’t have done, or what could still go wrong. This type of thought is referred to as subtractive counterfactual thinking. Instead, try to look at your past performances by focusing on what you could have done to perform better - additive counterfactuals.

Dr. Laura Kray at the University of California, Berkeley and her colleagues have studied counterfactuals and determined that people who look back on their performance with subtractive counterfactuals perform worse than those with additive counterfactuals in future tasks. The key is to think through what else you could do in order to perform better. This helps work through potential scenarios that might happen again rather than ruminating on poor performance you want to avoid.

A quick way to understand and implement having a past-positive view is to avoid thinking things that start with “if only this hadn’t happened,” and focus on things like “if only I had also done this…” That will help keep you and your team in the right mindset to actually benefit from thinking about how to get to the winner's circle!

But with all of this focus on the past, shouldn’t we still believe in ourselves and be able to picture winning?

Absolutely—but not to the extent that we become delusional and fail to see the tasks ahead for what they are, challenges that need careful consideration and preparation. So, next time you hit the robotics competition floor or approach a stage to take part in the next quizbowl competition, don’t just think about winning. Think about what you did to prepare, and in situations where you did lose, what else you could have done to beat the other team? Focus on past-positive thinking!

In April 2014, I stepped onto the floor of the Anaheim Convention Center. The building, with a capacity of 7500, was filled to the brim with excited teenagers, parents, and their coaches. This was not to see a concert or any professional sports stars. This was for the Vex Robotics National Championship. With nearly 100,000 students participating in the competition from across the country, Vex is one of the largest educational competitions available to K-12 students. During the event, you could feel the excitement in the air. I had the chance to talk with several of the team coaches and their students. Everyone was not only giddy with excitement at being there, but completely enthralled with the academic concepts at hand. Math, Science, Engineering, all were no longer chores the students were required to learn, but were exciting tools they could use to advance in the competition. For me, as well as all of the Vex participants, it was an eye opening experience.

Outside of these kinds of events, when talking to educators, administrators, and other educational professionals you typically hear one of two trains of thought about using competition in education. Either they are enthusiastically in support of it, or they are absolutely opposed to it. I’ve spent the past 10 years developing and managing educational competitions, first with the X PRIZE Foundation, then as the founding Executive Director of the Conrad Foundation, and now with the Institute of Competition Sciences. In that time I’ve seen the amazing power these programs have to motivate, engage, and inspire our students. Unfortunately, even with all of the empirical evidence pointing to the great benefits provided by educational competitions, less than 20% of formal K-12 students are given the opportunity to participate in these programs. So we have to ask ourselves, why? Why are we afraid of embracing competitions in our educational system?



A recent Mckinsey & Co. report noted that in 2009 more than $375 Million was awarded for new technology developments through 219 large-scale inducement prizes. In 2010, there were 98 competition-based “reality-tv” shows on air. One of these, The X-Factor, reached a record-breaking 19.4 million viewers in the UK for its championship episode. The same year in the US, 4 out of the top 5 viewed TV shows were competition-based. In 2012, American’s spent over $25.4 Billion viewing professional sporting competitions. Competition has been embraced in nearly every aspect of our lives garnering huge impact and influence… every aspect of our lives except education that is.

Competition is an integral part of innovation and is critical to many career and life situations. In 2014, U.S. companies spent $70 Billion on employee training and team-building exercises. Successful teamwork, 21st century skills, and the ability to manage stressful, competitive situations are major success factors in today’s fast-paced technology-driven economy. We know that educational competitions can help students gain these critical real-world skills. So why is it that when competitions have been shown to have such overwhelming capability to not only encourage personal development of the participants, but also to engage communities, rally support for a common cause, and generate heroes for new generations, that we continue to be afraid of embracing them in our educational systems?



The root of our struggle with embracing competition in education may actually have a lot to do with the word “Competition” itself. Many of us automatically identify competition with having a winner and a loser. We think that the only way to use competitions in our education system is in a zero-sum, winner take all scenario. We think that a competition will dissuade the losing students from wanting to continue in their studies. We think that the mere act of competing will cause the students involved to automatically start fighting with each other and break apart relationships. We think of competition as the antithesis of collaboration. What we think couldn’t be further from the truth. The negative associations tied to the term “Competition” produce a limited and biased view of the natural act of competing. It keeps us from realizing the true power and benefits that can be had through these programs for all of our students.

To fully understand how we have unfairly biased our view of competitions in education, we must first separate the noun “competition” from the adjective “competitive.” These terms unfortunately are often confused with each other. In recent years, the term “Competition” has become branded as being synonymous with aggression; however, “Competition” the noun has no inherent emotion. “Competition” simply describes an act or a situation in which two or more participants desire the same resource or outcome. It has no fierce, aggressive, or insidious nature to it. We can define a competition at its most pure, basic form as a process by which the most efficient means to a goal is identified and achieved through comparison with other methodologies.  Instances of this process may result in aggression or what has become known as “competitive” behavior, but the process can also nurture collaboration, community building, and cooperation.

The heart of a competition is about finding the most efficient path to achieving a goal. Over 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has found that repeated competition is the best way to identify this efficiency. Competition is an unavoidable natural process woven into the very nature of life. As humans evolved over the past few millennia our bodies have developed physiological mechanisms to address the competitions we face in nature and in more recent years in our complex societies. It is these adaptations through competition, over successive generations, that have made us the most successful species on the planet.

Our hesitancy to embrace educational competitions is not based on empirical evidence, but on bias, misinformation, and fear. Are there bad competitions? Yes. Can they have negative impacts on students? Yes. However, through careful research, planning, and design, competitions can eliminate or minimize these negative impact while providing vast amounts of positive benefits for our students, and our societies at large. Competitions that follow best-practices in design and operations create what we call a “Net Collaborative Impact.” This means that overall, students will gain more than they lose through their participation. When taking into account all the research and knowledge on competitions that we have today, we can see that the negative impacts can be all but eliminated while maximizing the positive outcomes. This concept of “Net Collaborative Impact” is discussed in more detail in our post, The Importance of Net Collaborative Impact.



For decades, actually since the beginning of our formal education system, we have shied away from competitions. We have let our biases and fear overcome our rational brains. While the rest of the society and nature herself has embraced the structure of competition as the most effective and efficient means of innovation and advancement, we have turned away from this opportunity to motivate, engage, and inspire generations of passionate learners. It is true that when we do not follow best practices in competition design, there can be negative impacts. These have been highlighted in the educational zeitgeist and have bred our fears of competition. However, when we execute competitions based on the decades of research into these powerful phenomena, we can maximize the Net Collaborative Benefit and produce astounding positive results for our students, our schools, and our communities. We know how to design good competitions. We know how to negate the negative impacts and enhance the positive. When taken hand in hand and placed on the scale next to one another, the opportunity for positive benefit vastly outweighs the potential negative impacts.

To all the educators and parents out there, we hope you will work with us to understand the best-practices in competition science and help transform our education systems for the benefit of us all. The Institute of Competition Science has been researching challenge-based-learning for decades and is continuously defining and updating the best-practices that will help maximize Net Collaborative Impact through these programs.

Any educator or student who has participated in Destination Imagination, Future Problem Solvers Program, the Conrad Challenge, Vex Robotics Championship, or one of the other hundreds of educational competitions out there will all tell you the same thing. When done right, competitions have an amazing power to motivate, engage, and inspire. Its time we stopped letting fear rule how we structure our education systems. It is time that we fully embraced the power of competitions and transformed education from being a required chore into being an exciting challenge.

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.

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.


The idea of “competition” in the classroom still scares some of us in the education industry. We’re told that competition creates winners and losers; that it damages collaboration, and ruins intrinsic motivation. Traditional fears of competition stem from  the common misinterpretation that it is the antithesis of collaboration. However, those educators that have participated in challenge-based-learning programs know differently. For a more detailed look at some of the misconceptions and biases around competitions in education take a look at our post, Redefining Competition in Education. In this post we wanted to highlight some of the ways in which competitions can help transform your classroom (or out of school program).

This is not a comprehensive list, nor is it guaranteed that all competitions will have these impacts. As we’ve said in other posts, doing competition right is hard. However, when you follow best-practices in competition design and execution, you’ll see vast changes in your students and the overall feel of your class. You’ll see your students transform from reluctant participants into enthusiastic learners. This is why, at ICS, we have dedicated ourselves to helping educators understand and implement the best practices in challenge-based-learning. Another of our posts highlights a few selected Best-Practices for Educators and Coaches, that may help you execute challenge-based-learning programs with your students.

This post focuses on a few of the ways in which classrooms can be transformed into exciting learning environments through the implementation of well defined competitions. Without further adieu, here are 6 ways competitions can transform your classroom!


Africa-Robotics Competition

1. Increased Content Engagement.

We’ve all seen students who just don’t want to be there. Students who seem like they couldn’t care less about what you’re saying. The students who daydream, sleep, or even actively cause trouble just because they aren’t engaged with the content you’re trying to teach them. There are hundreds, if not thousands of ways we’re told to help increase student engagement. Competition impacts all students differently, but it has been shown that when students are given challenges that pull on their sense of purpose, they become more motivated and engaged to perform the tasks. Some students thrive simply because they’re given a competition and they want to be the best. Other students thrive because there is a challenge that they want to overcome. Still others thrive because the competition provides a real-world scenario in which they can base their learning. Not every student is the same, and not every challenge is the same. However, we believe, there is a challenge for every student. When following best practices in competition science, you will find that there are always ways to execute challenge-based-learning to help motivate, engage, and inspire your students.


Student Teamwork

2. Improved Social and Emotional Learning.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a part of the broader set of “affective dimensions” of learning that are so critical to every student’s motivation and engagement in the classroom. We want students to be well versed in social skills and capable of handling the complex emotions that will be associated with their future college and career opportunities. Educational competitions provide a safe platform upon which teachers can guide students through situations where social and emotional skills will be required. By participating in these programs, students begin to get a sense of some of the scenarios they may be placed in when they enter the workforce. These types of situations are not easily executed in a traditional lecture and test methodology. The competition-based environment puts students under pressure, and forces them to use social skills to work out differences among their own team, as well as interacting with others, while at the same time managing the complex emotions brought out through the challenge. Companies spend more than $70 Billion dollars a year on team building exercises. If we can help students go into their careers with a leg up on the social and emotional skills needed in their careers, it could produce a much needed benefit to our economy.



3. Enhanced Perception of Academic Heroes.

In our previous posts we’ve explored the need for academic heroes. Motivating students is not always easy; however, one technique that demonstrates great promise is in building up new academic heroes. This in itself is a daunting task, but competitions provide a solid foundation upon which we can do it. Here we can take some guidance from fields such as athletics, where heroes are regularly created through their performance in competitions. By including your students in educational competitions, you can draw relationships to their peers or alumni who do well in those programs, and begin to form a new set of academic heroes for your students. The motivational impact of this can be taken far in the classroom to keep your students engaged and excited about your content when the tasks are connected to what is needed to follow in the footsteps of these heroes.


FPSPI Presentation

4. Incorporation of 21st Century Skills.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has defined a great set of skills that are important for students to have when entering their college and career paths. However, it is not always easy to see how to incorporate these skills directly into the classroom. When participating educational competitions, 21st century skills are often built directly into the structure of the programs. Students are provided safe environment in which they can learn the breadth of 21st century skills and practice them in real-world situations.



5. Heightened Real-world connections.

One challenge that is prevalent throughout education is in drawing real-world connections to the content. Daniel Ariely, a Behavioral Economist at Duke University, demonstrated in one of his experiments that by distancing ourselves from direct connections of value (e.g. cash) we limit our concrete understanding of the impact of the transaction. This is why we feel better paying with credit cards than we do with cash, and why casinos use chips instead of actual money. The associative connection to the actual impact of losing the money is more distanced and not as harsh in our brains. The same effect happens in education. The further distanced students are from the real-world impact of the content you’re teaching them, the harder it is for them to associate that content with real situations. Competitions help provide situations that are closer to the real-world environment that they will be faced with in their careers. They provide a way to help your students envision the direct impacts of the content you are teaching on their possible future jobs and opportunities. This draws them closer to the associations they need to internalize the content, just like using cash brings us closer to the actual impact of the transaction.


As always, we would love to hear your thoughts or experiences with how challenge-based-learning has impacted your classroom. Please share your ideas with us so we can continue to improve upon and share what we know works and what doesn’t.