March 25th, 2011

Competition and Cooperation: Can They Co-exist in a Classroom?


I so appreciate the comments that are now appearing with some regularity on this blog. Thanks to those of you contributing. We have much to learn from each other.

I have been thinking about a comment David posted on the February 23 post which discussed group testing. He wrote, “When faced with any form of collaborative work … students will make considerable efforts to implement a ‘divide and conquer’ method: split the assigned work somehow and do it individually with almost no collaboration at all.”

That response is commonly reported in the literature. I saw it regularly in my classroom. In one activity where I had students preparing exam review materials for text content not covered in class, groups would take their assigned section and divide it equally sometimes even splitting sections so that every one had the same number of paragraphs. Then the material prepared individually and assemble it into an incoherent whole. The question is why? Why do students take this approach?

One answer might be that they don’t see there’s anything to be gained by collaborating. You can tell them that groups do better work than individuals because they discuss, debate and otherwise exchange ideas but most students remain unconvinced until they experience the difference. That’s one of the lessons they can learn from group exam experiences.

Then there’s the democratic ideal: Everyone is equal and so everyone does an equal amount of work. It isn’t fair to expect someone to do more, even though this is the inevitable outcome of a divide and conquer approach to group work.

But David’s comment got me thinking about the impact competitive environments have on the willingness to collaborate. Whether it’s getting into college, a degree program, or a graduate program, competition plays a key role. Grades in college measure individual mastery of material (as they should) and those grades are often awarded on a competitive basis. The number of high grades is limited, even more so when academic leaders think that’s the solution to grade inflation.

I once worked with an instructor who was concerned that students would not participate during the time he set aside in class to work on homework problems. He wanted students to share their solutions. Nobody would, at least not in any definitive way. Quite by accident I encountered three students from the class working together in the library. We started talking and they told me they had done the homework problems (together) but didn’t want to share their answers in class because problems a lot like the homework showed up on the exam and the teacher graded on a strict curve. They had correctly determined that helping others might well mean less points and lower grades for them.

In general I think education does a better job of teaching the lessons of competition than those of cooperation. Students need to learn the lessons of both. Even though I have reservations about competition, I see a role for it in higher education. Too many of our students are satisfied with less than their best and that bodes poorly for them and our society. Competition can motivate more effort and better results.

The question I’ve been pondering is whether it’s possible to create a classroom environment that promotes the development of both skills. They seem more antithetical than complementary. Is the answer to make more explicit when an activity or assignment requires one or the other and then explore with students why the goals of that activity or assignment are best achieved competitively or cooperatively? When students use the divide and conquer approach to group tasks, it certainly makes sense to raise questions about what that approach assumes. Maybe an assignment can involve both—groups work together on a project but compete against other groups. Perhaps we need to do more thinking about where in the curriculum it makes the most sense to develop these skills. In introductory courses, major courses or during capstone experiences?

I am settled in my thinking about one thing: We send horribly mixed messages when we ask students to cooperate but then reward them competitively.

  • shawnpatrickdoyle

    My role is in academic support, so while I'm in classrooms a lot, I impact how students execute class requirements much more than I do the design of what is required of them. To that extent, while I frequently see students who exhibit the types of behaviors David remarks on, I'm constantly trying to coach them to see ways that competition and cooperation can produce better results for both parties.

    Here's three examples of what I mean: 1. In working with students who are planning on doing group research or papers, I try to talk about the value of some redundancy. I'll occasionally tell the story of F.D.R. who would give the same assignment to two different staff members without telling them. When I ask students why he would do this, many are puzzled, but some figure it out: he wanted to know that the information he got was corroborated and got better information that way. Some are then able to see that redundancy can help them assure themselves a better final product. 2. In working with students who want to stop procrastination, I encourage them to find a friend who does a lot of work in the library and challenge them to see who can spend more time working in the library over a given period. The decision to put off work becomes a harder one to make then because not only will they see their own work suffer, but they'll lose the contest. (Incidentally, my fiancee and I do this with our own work, but we use the honor system, recording when we spend a half hour block of time working continuously in a shared Google Doc's spreadsheet. After a certain span of time is completed, the person with the fews blocks buys dinner.) 3. I encourage students to write first drafts in fifteen minute segments and to record the words they write in each segment. As they go through the process, I tell them there goal with each new segment is to try and beat their previous high word count. This gets them competing against themselves and distracts them from some of the writing anxiety that might otherwise plague them. While it's not cooperating with others, it's getting their will and their work to cooperate together, which is often harder to do.

    The reason I especially like these last two are because they don't put any emphasis on the final grade and encourage students to reward themselves for time put into the project. That helps mitigate some of the other negative effects of only focusing on a final grade and better enables them to perform in the end. And that attitude is one that I think is really key to cooperation.

  • Guest

    Check out teams-games-tournament method. I think the TGT format does a decent job bridging the gap between competition & cooperation.

    Slavin, S. E. – "Individual vs. Team Competition: The Interpersonal Consequences of Academic Performance" from John Hopkins U