Competition vs. Collaboration

By Katie Ash — December 20, 2007 1 min read
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I read an article this morning called “Collaboration--Rather than Competition--For Quality Learning” by Marvin Marshall, author of the book Discipline Without Stress, Punishments, or Rewards. As the title suggests, the article makes the argument that learning is enhanced by a collaborative setting, rather than the traditionally competitive one that is used in most classrooms. Marshall says that competition creates more losers than winners, and as a result, actually reduces student motivation.

I agree with some of the things Marshall says in this article--I shy away from competition at all costs--but to me, there’s a difference between competition in which you compare yourself to everyone else, and competition against oneself--a distinction I don’t think Marshall makes. While competition between classmates may, in some cases, foster a hostile environment and decrease motivation by labeling some students as better than others, competition against oneself may encourage some students to strive for a higher grade or a more comprehensive understanding of a concept.

And while I look upon collaboration fondly in theory, I worry about how it often manifests itself in practice. I’m sure we can all recall being assigned to a group project in which one of the group members tries to scrape by doing as little work as possible. Or inversely, a group in which one person insists on doing all the work alone to ensure a high grade.

Regardless, Marshall’s argument is intriguing and definitely worth thinking about. How does competition affect motivation? Is the disappointment of losing really enough to discourage a student from working hard in the future? Does an emphasis on collaboration help students be more engaged in their lessons and increase learning? Or does it make it too easy for some students to skate by on the hard work of others?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.