Competition as a Learning Tool

I was part of an interesting discussion yesterday around the role of competition in learning. I tend to shy away from designing competition into learning environments, partly I think just by personal temperament, but also because it can lead to a number of undesirable behaviors. Cheating, for instance, and also disengagement for those who either are turned off by competition or who decide they are so far behind they can’t win, so why try.

Another huge issue is playing to win rather than playing to learn. A colleague once told me a story of a math game she designed, and the dismay she felt when, during play testing, she saw kids immediately (and eventually, successfully) employ brute force strategies, clicking and dragging more or less randomly rather than thinking through the math. In many scenarios the focus can easily move from the real world knowledge to be gained to the mechanics of game play.

Competition always raises the complexity of the logistics as well.

That said, the particular learning activity we were discussing yesterday immediately struck me as a natural fit for competition. I think the target audience in some ways is naturally competitive (consultants), which helps, but the key factor for me is that the real world application of the skill is competitive (creating client proposals). That doesn’t mean that the training has to be competitive, of course, but it makes it a more natural fit.

The other factor in play here is that the course owners want this learning opportunity to make a splash and stand out. We don’t do much competitive learning, so it will stand out that way, and competition can drive energy levels, at least temporarily.

Like most everything in the toolkit, competition had its place when used judiciously.


One thought on “Competition as a Learning Tool

  1. Ellen

    Bob, I think one key to competition in learning, perhaps especially when you compete against yourself (beat your time! beat you last score!) is that the reward for “winning” should be in proportion to the effort. And “losing” should not be punitive. My favorite example/non-example is a math game I reviewed many years ago (mid 80s, I think) in which a handful of correct answers earned a couple of minutes of play. In the same game, a correct answer caused some kind of positive sound (fine), but a wrong answer sound seemed to be spanking and crying. Seriously. I guess this isn’t really on topic; sorry about that. Not really.


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