Effect of Competition on Student Achievement


Does the Competition Have a Positive or Negative Effect on Student Achievement?

The effect of competition on academic achievement is a significant issue in the educational sphere. The competition takes various forms and begins as early as elementary level to as late as the tertiary level of education (Ferreira & Walton, 2005). Based on the academic grading system, students compete with their peers for a top position in their classes. This competition continues as students move upgrade levels. For instance, students completing their high school level have to compete with their peers for positions in the top colleges and universities.

Is such competition good or bad for students? Specifically, does such competition have a positive or negative effect on student achievement?

Competition is indeed a highly controversial issue (Berends, 2009). Whereas some experts believe that competition improves students’ achievement, others believe that it is detrimental to achievement. Both sets of beliefs are founded on some studies conducted to examine the relationship between competition and student achievement. For instance, some studies have found that interpersonal competition leads to higher student achievement than does interpersonal cooperation (Borland, Howsen, & Trawick, 2006); other studies have found that interpersonal competition leads to lower achievement levels for students than interpersonal cooperation (Madrid, Canas, & Ortega-Medina, 2007). Based on these conflicting results, it is important to note that the effect of competition on student achievement depends on numerous factors (Kodrzycki, 2009).

Literature Review

Various studies have examined the effects of competition on student achievement. The studies can be categorized into four groups based on the form of competition:

The first group of studies examines the effect of interpersonal competition on students’ achievement in which students in a particular classroom compete with each other. The second group of studies examines the effect of team competition on students’ achievement in which students in a particular classroom compete in teams. The third group of studies examines the effect of interschool competition on students’ achievement in which schools compete against each other. The last group of studies examines the effect of intraschool competition on students’ achievement in which classes of the same grade level compete with each other.

Interpersonal competition has been examined by scholars such as Eck (2006) and Lam, Yim, Law, and Cheung (2004). Eck argues that many students begin their mathematics course with a negative attitude toward the subject. A negative attitude is correlated with the beliefs that students have about the subject (Schoenfeld, 1985). To change the negative attitude, many scholars—including Druckman (1995), and Sedighian and Sedighian (1996)—have proposed the introduction of games in classrooms. Eck states that games affect the attitude toward learning because of their competitive nature. The attitude then affects student performance and achievement. For instance, competition through instructional games can enhance the students’ interest in the learning process. Conversely, competition can also lead to disinterest and disassociation with the learning process. The extent to which either of these two scenarios happens depends on the goals adopted by the students. The goals can be performance, mastery, or social goals. Performance goals are those that focus on the students’ performance in comparison with their peers. Mastery goals put more emphasis on mastering the concept and content, while social goals emphasize extrinsic rewards such as praise. The type of goal adopted by students affects their performance and achievement, and it has been shown that competition is most beneficial for students who adopt performance goals compared to mastery or social goals (Eck; Wolters, Yu, & Pintrich, 1996).

Lam et al. (2004) investigated the impact of competition on students’ achievement motivation. They found that students who are in a competitive environment avoid challenging tasks and prefer easy tasks at which they can outperform their peers.

This implies that such students forego the learning opportunity that comes from undertaking challenging tasks.

Lam and colleagues based the study on the fact that the competitive environment of schools increases as students move from lower to higher levels of education. As competition grows tougher, the motivation for learning—and subsequently the achievement of students—may be significantly affected.

In a competitive environment, students are more likely to focus on their performance rather than on learning goals (Harter, 1996). Specifically, students will be more inclined to demonstrate their current competence rather than develop their competence and mastery of concepts (Harackiewicz & Elliot, 1993). This is apparent especially during the examinations. With examinations in mind, students will concentrate on passing each examination through cramming lecture information, at the expense of mastering the concepts. If there were no examinations, students will be more inclined to master concepts.

Thus, although competition enhances students’ achievement, the achievement gained may not necessarily be useful to the students later in life (Covington & Omelich, 1984).

The competition also affects students’ achievement—either positively or negatively—by affecting their motivation. Because competition pits students against their peers, students measure their abilities based on whether or not they can outperform their peers in the task at hand. Therefore, students become obsessed with winning the task rather than learning the task itself (Butler & Kedar, 1990). This harms students’ intrinsic motivation. When students lose to their peers, their motivation is negatively affected even further, which can lead to frustration, feelings of failure, and loss of interest in the learning process (Henderson & Dweck, 1990).

Team competition is another form common in schools

In a team competition, the teacher divides the class into several teams that are then given the same task to perform.

The team that performs the task best or in the shortest time emerges as the winner. Team competition affects students’ achievement in many ways, for instance by developing students’ team abilities and learning from others what they do not know (Delquadri, Greenwood, Stretton, & Hall, 1983). The effects of team competition however depend on the socioeconomic factors of the students: According to Greenfield, Keller, Fuligni, and Maynard (2003), the American school system has undergone tremendous changes in the past three decades in terms of socioeconomic status, language, and ethnicity (p. 462).

Therefore, the instructional style may be effective for some students and ineffective for others. With this in mind, Madrid, Canas, and Ortega-Medina (2007) examined the effect of team competition and team cooperation on the achievement of Hispanic Spanish/English bilingual students. Their study entailed the examination of three procedures:

The first involved competitive team peers tutoring; members of teams worked to gain points for the teams. The second procedure involved cooperative team peer tutoring in which members worked to gain points for everyone, irrespective of their teams. The last procedure involved the normal teacher-led instruction in which the students worked to gain individual points. The researchers found that the first and second procedures had higher achievement scores than the teacher-led procedure.

Specifically, Madrid and colleagues found that “the mean percentage gain scores increased from 13% to 80.2% for competitive team peer tutoring; 12% to 92.8% for cooperative team peer tutoring, and 14% to 36.2% for the teacher-led instruction” (p. 159). The cooperative team peers tutoring procedure had higher achievement scores than the competitive team tutoring procedure. The reason lies in the cultural orientation of the students: Whereas the American society is individualistic, the Hispanic society is collective (Knight & Kagan, 1977). Therefore, Hispanic students fare better in a cooperative environment than in a competitive environment. This study supports the study by Johnson and Johnson (1979), who found that cooperation has a more significant effect on achievement than the competition.

Interschool competition is also a common element of educational competition; for instance, schools can compete with each other in math contests, science contests, and essay contests. The schools themselves can compete with each other to court the best students and teachers; ultimately, this also affects students’ achievement. Various studies have been carried out to examine how interschool competition affects student achievement. Belfield and Levin (2002) argue that interschool competition and its effects on achievement can be examined from an economic theory perspective specifically from the demand and supply perspectives. On the demand side, competition among schools for students can enhance the achievement of students. This is especially the case for Ivy League colleges (Hess, Maranto, & Milliman, 2001).

Because such colleges compete for the best-performing students, students must work harder to be admitted by increasing their overall achievement and performance. On the supply side, competition forces schools to compete for educational input such as teachers; schools with highly qualified teachers tend to experience higher achievement scores among the students than schools with underqualified teachers.

If schools compete with fellow schools within the same geographical region, such as the local district, the students’ achievements are likely to be higher than when such schools are not in competition (Marlow, 1997; Hoxby, 2000; Borland & Howsen, 2000). This is especially evident in countries that have national examinations to determine school ranking according to their overall performance. In such situations, competition is always stiff; therefore, a school could adopt different measures to ensure that its students achieve high scores in the national examinations so that the school can be ranked highly.

Intraschool competition refers to competition among classes of the same grade level and within the same school. This is common in schools with small class sizes and many classes at the same grade level. For instance, a school may have three classes per grade level.

The intraschool competition also plays an important role in students’ achievement. Borland, Howsen, and Trawick (2006) examined the effect of intraschool competition on student achievement. However, their focus was on the competition among teachers as well as the teachers’ behavior. They state that if a school has several classes at each grade level, there are also several teachers for each grade. In such a scenario, there would be competition among the teachers—especially if the teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance.

Teachers would change their behaviors in a way that would promote the achievement and performance of their students (Hanushek, 1992; Lamdin, 1995). Therefore, competition among teachers also affects students’ achievement.

In addition to competition among teachers, student achievement can be influenced by competition with peers. If there are many classes, students compete not only with their classmates but also with students in the same grade but from different classes. Thus, the students have to compare their performance with those in the same grade.

There is more prestige in intraschool competition than in interpersonal competition that is limited to only one class (Lamdin, 1995). Thus, intraschool competition is likely to lead to higher student achievement than will interpersonal competition.

Conclusion and Recommendations

A growing body of literature seeks to examine the effect of competition on students’ achievement. These studies show conflicting results: Some show a negative effect while others show a positive effect. This paper has examined four categories of studies based on the form the competition takes: interpersonal, team, interschool, and intraschool competition. Indeed, it is clear that competition is a crucial element in education and has a significant effect on students’ achievement. However, the effects are not obvious; they depend on various factors that may be internal, external, personal, or institutional. On one hand, competition can raise students’ achievement because of the prestige, pride, and self-esteem associated with outperforming peers. On the other hand, competition can also hinder students’ achievement due to disassociation, frustration, and feelings of failure associated with losing to peers.

Therefore, teachers and schools need to assess each student individually to determine his or her most appropriate learning environment and the type of challenge to which each student will respond best.

Table 1. Literature Reviewed.

Effect of Competition Research Support Curricular
Considerations
Studies Findings
Games affect attitudes toward learning because of their competitive nature, enhancing students’ interest in the learning process. On the other hand, competition can also lead to disinterest and disassociation with the learning process. Druckman, 1995;
Sedighian
& Sedighian, 1996;
Schoenfeld, 1985;
Wolters, Yu,
& Pintrich, 1996
Instructional games should be designed in a manner that enhances the motivation of the students in the learning process. Eck (2006) The extent to which competition promotes or hinders achievement depends on the goals adopted by the students‘ that is, performance, mastery, or social goals.
Students in a competitive environment avoid challenging tasks and instead prefer easy tasks in which they can outperform their peers. Harter, 1996;
Harackiewicz
& Elliot, 1993;
Covington
& Omelich, 1984;
Butler & Kedar, 1990;
Henderson
& Dweck, 1990
Teachers should create an environment that encourages students to tackle challenging tasks. Lam, Yim, Law, & Cheung (2004) Competition has a negative impact on achievement by reducing the students’ intrinsic motivation for learning.
The effect of competition on students’ achievement depends on the cultural orientation of the students. Delquadri, Greenwood, Stretton, & Hall, 1983;
Greenfield, Keller, Fuligni, & Maynard, 2003; Knight & Kagan, 1977; Johnson & Johnson, 1979
Teachers should take into consideration the cultural background of students to ensure that they are not negatively affected by competition. Madrid, Canas, & Ortega-Medina, 2007 Cooperation can have a more significant effect on students’ achievement than can competition when students come from a collective-style society.
Effect of Competition Research Support Curricular
Considerations
Studies Findings
Interschool competition and its effect on student achievement can be examined from an economic theory perspective: demand-side and supply-side interpretations. Hess, Maranto, & Milliman, 2001; Marlow, 1997; Hoxby, 2000; Borland
& Howsen, 2000
Interschool competition should be encouraged to motivate students’ achievement and performance. Belfield & Levin, 2002 When colleges compete for the best-performing students, students work harder to be admitted into such schools, achieving an increase in their overall achievement and performance. Similarly, schools with highly qualified teachers tend to experience higher achievement scores than schools with underqualified teachers.
Intraschool competition affects students’ achievement through achievement-promoting teacher behaviors and prestige for the competing students. Hanushek, 1992; Lamdin, 1995 Schools should reduce their class sizes to encourage competition among classes and motivate higher student achievement. Borland, Howsen, & Trawick, 2006 Intraschool competition is likely to lead to higher student achievement than will interpersonal competition.

References

Belfield, C., & Levin, H. (2002). The effects of competition between schools on educational outcomes: A review for the United States. Review of Educational Research, 72(2), 279–341.

Berends, M. (2009). Handbook of research on school choice. New York: Routledge.

Borland, M. V., & Howsen, R. M. (2000). Manipulable variables of policy importance: The case of education. Education Economics, 8, 241–248.

Borland, M. V., Howsen, R. M., & Trawick, M. (2006). Intra-school competition and student achievement. Applied Economics, 38, 1641–1647.

Butler, R., & Kedar, A. (1990). Effects of intergroup competition and school philosophy on student perceptions, group processes, and performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 15, 301–318.

Covington, M. V., & Omelich, C. L. (1984). Task-oriented versus competitive learning structures: Motivational and performance consequences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 1038–1050.

Delquadri, J., Greenwood, C., Stretton, K., & Hall, V. (1983). The peer tutoring spelling game: A classroom procedure for increasing opportunity to respond and spelling performance. Education and Treatment of Children, 6, 225–239.

Druckman, D. (1995). The educational effectiveness of interactive games. In D. Crookall & K. Arai (Eds.), Simulation and gaming across disciplines and cultures (pp. 178–187). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Eck, R. (2006). The effect of contextual pedagogical advisement and competition on middle-school students’ attitude toward mathematics and mathematics instruction using a computer-based simulation game. The Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 25(2), 165–195.

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Greenfield, P., Keller, H., Fuligni, A., & Maynard, A. (2003). Cultural pathways through universal development. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 461–490.

Hanushek, E. A. (1992). The tradeoff between child quantity and quality. Journal of Political Economy, 100, 84–117.

Harackiewicz, J. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1993). Achievement goals and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 904–915.

Harter, S. (1996). Teacher and classmate influences on scholastic motivation, self-esteem, and level of voice in adolescents. In J. Juvonen & K. R. Wentzel (Eds.), Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment (pp. 11–42). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Henderson, V. L., & Dweck, C. S. (1990). Motivation and achievement. In S. Feldman & G. R. Elliott (Eds.), At the threshold: The developing adolescents (pp. 308–329). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hess, F., Maranto, R., & Milliman, S. (2001). Small districts in big trouble: How four Arizona school systems responded to charter competition. Teachers College Record, 103, 1102–1124.

Hoxby, C. M. (2000). Does competition among public schools benefit students and taxpayers? American Economic Review, 90, 1209–1238.

Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (1979). Type of task and student achievement and attitudes in interpersonal cooperation, competition, and individualization. The Journal of Social Psychology, 108, 37–48.

Knight, G., & Kagan, S. (1977). Development of pro-social and competitive behaviors in Anglo-American and Mexican-American children. Child Development, 48, 1385–1394.

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Lam, S., Yim, P., Law, J., & Cheung, R. (2004). The effects of competition on achievement motivation in Chinese classrooms. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(2), 281–296.

Lamdin, D. H. (1995). Testing for the effect of school size on student achievement within a school district. Education Economics, 3, 33–42.

Madrid, L. D., Canas, M., & Ortega-Medina, M. (2007). Effects of team competition versus team cooperation in class-wide peer tutoring. The Journal of Educational Research, 100(3), 155–161.

Marlow, M. L. (1997). Public education supply and student performance. Applied Economics, 29, 617–626.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1985). Mathematical problem solving. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

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Wolters, C. A., Yu, S. L., & Pintrich, P. R. (1996). The relation between goal orientation and students’ motivational beliefs and self-regulated learning. Learning and Individual Differences, 8(3), 211–238.