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.