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In order to encourage and motivate students to work harder and study more, it seems the teacher can use various competitions in class or after class. But on the other hand, competitions could cause jealousy and other destructive emotions among students and therefore affect the performance of some students adversely. Due to my doubts and my lack of experience, I haven't used competitions in my classes as a means of motivating students yet. But I would like to know if there is an experienced and useful method to do that. So my questions are:

Have you ever used competitions in your classes? What are the pros and cons of students compete in the class for higher grades? Which points should I consider before encouraging students to compete with each other?

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    See also: Conference submissions (in CS), faculty positions, and (in some places) tenure. – JeffE Apr 9 '13 at 18:10
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    "real winners don't compete" is what the Finnish education expert's Sahlberg says. – Sylvain Peyronnet Apr 9 '13 at 20:01
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    I think @JeffE's real point is: only do it if you want a random unpredictable process with lots of noise :) – Suresh Apr 9 '13 at 21:06
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    @Suresh — Actually, I was thinking "Destructive or not, competition is a fact of academic life." but I like your interpretation better! – JeffE Apr 9 '13 at 21:47
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I often have competitions in class. I try to use them primarily for motivation, not assessment.

Let me give an example: I was teaching an image processing class and we had some images of x-rays of "old master" canvas paintings. The goal was to create an algorithm that could count the density of the thread weave patterns. The quality of the answers could be assessed by comparing the algorithmic answers to manual counts, and I had about 200 locations where I knew the answer. I gave them 100 to train the algorithms. After about two weeks, there were 25 different algorithms submitted (most people worked in pairs) and then I ran the submitted codes on the 100 "unknown" locations.

I called it the "2010 Thread Counting Olympics" and made a big deal about giving out "medals". I created several different ways of measuring the quality of the algorithms: closest in least squares error, number of answers within +/-1 mm per thread, number within +/-2 mm per thread, closest in absolute value of error, closest on the canvases by Van Gogh and closest on the canvases by Vermeer. Then there were bronze, silver, gold, and titanium medals in each category. As I presented the results to the class, I described the various approaches and pitfalls of each of the algorithms, and often asked for clarifications and comments by the authors of the algorithms. By the end of the competition, well over half of the students had won "prizes"... plus they had the recognition of their peers.

The amount of effort that the students put into this project and into the class were amazing, and I think the "competition" aspect was a prime motivating factor.

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    That's a good example of how to do them well. As you say, motivation, not assessment. – Suresh Apr 10 '13 at 0:42
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A competition is almost by definition a zero-sum game, and thus has the destructive aspects described above. But if you want to reward overachievement you can provide extra credit work.

The trick here is to use the extra credit only to improve the grade. Practically what that means is that you assign grades based on your system, and then add in the extra credit and see if that moves people. In other words, allow the extra credit to change your position in the curve, but not the curve itself.

In this way, doing extra credit will benefit the overachievers, but not doing it won't hurt the others.

Update: I want to reiterate one point, because I think it's important. As you state in your question, the goal of the competition is to motivate students to work harder and study more. Students are motivated by many things, but the goal of the competition has to be "to work harder and study more". If the way to "win" the competition is by being better than others, then you're not achieving the goal you set out to achieve, and you're vitiating the class atmosphere. Artificially placing constraints on who can win doesn't make sense, because there's no reason that ALL students can't work harder and study more and get a reward for doing so, and in fact that's a great outcome.

  • Assuming we have 10 overachievers (out of 30 students), if we promise extra credit to only 3 best students, then I guess we have a competition which has no loser and hopefully motivates students too. – user4511 Apr 9 '13 at 16:10
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    @VahidShirbisheh Or will it just pit the 10 best against each others trying to make the other looks bad? What is bad with offering the extra credit to all of them? – Zenon Apr 9 '13 at 17:02
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    you don't offer extra credit for a small group. You offer extra credit for anyone who can achieve the task. If all do so, that's perfectly fine (it might mean though that your task was too easy, but that's a separate issue) – Suresh Apr 9 '13 at 17:06
  • @Suresh: I see your point in your update. In fact, I am asking this question to see if there is any benefit in setting a competition in class? and whether has anybody ever tried this idea in a class? – user4511 Apr 9 '13 at 17:21
  • @Zenon: Yes, we can give every overachiever some extra credit. But, that is not a competition anymore. – user4511 Apr 9 '13 at 17:29
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One key thing to consider is whether you are encouraging your students to do better for themselves or if you are encouraging them to harm other students to look relatively better. Clearly, you must decide how to structure the class to achieve what you want.

I've seen many teachers take the stance: I will give 10% A's, 50% B's, 20% C's, 10% D's, and 10% F's. Their rationale is that this is the way the real world works: There are only a certain number of management positions and if they want it, they must work harder and step on others to get it. However, I've found this is not great for the classroom and it is not the way the real world works either. It is clearly possible to grow a company so that there are more management positions available (indeed, growth is the goal).

Personally, I have come to the point where each student should be judged on his/her own merits so I never run the kinds of competitions discussed above. That said, I have been known to offer prizes in class which are clearly limited. Prizes might include money (I don't generally offer a lot but students do seem excited about even small things, perhaps because they simply like something to represent them winning) but could easily be something else. What I offer comes out of my own pocket (though I don't tell the students this...and I'm not sure they would care either way).

  • Actually I was thinking about a relatively mild competition, for example, three students who find and discuss more interesting problems related to the course get some bonus points. – user4511 Apr 9 '13 at 11:51

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