Competition vs. Cooperation in the Classroom

By | January 21, 2014

cooperation in the classroomSome teachers swear that competition is evil, and only use cooperation in class.  Others regularly use competition, get great results and wonder what on earth all the fuss is about.

So which is better?

Wrong question – they’re both just tools to be used appropriately. Just like Teacher Talking Time isn’t necessarily bad, competition in the classroom has its place.

Cooperation is usually good; competition can be both good and bad, depending on how it’s used.

So should newer teachers only use cooperation, with more experienced teachers using competition as appropriate? The problem with that is newer teachers usually only use competition, as it’s easier to set up and run.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Competition and Cooperation?

To review the arguments on both sides, check out this handy table:





  • Can make a boring subject more fun and interesting.
  • Competition is easier to set up and run.
  • In teams, can promote group skills.
  • In certain cases, adds healthy motivation to increase skills.
  •  Shifts focus from the learning process to the end results
  • Lessens learners’ intrinsic motivation for learning.
  • Motivates students by a ‘fear of failure’ and so increases anxiousness (esp. for already shy students).
  • Decreases sense of quality relationships in the class.
  • Potentially decreases creativity in problem solving.


  • Students may learn better in an engaged, cooperative environment.
  • Students learn important cooperative and social skills.
  • Weaker students can be supported and ‘catch up’ in a cooperative environment.


  • Potentially more teacher preparation is needed to run a cooperative classroom.
  • It can be hard to give individual assessment if every activity is cooperative.
  • Weaker students can sometimes rely on others to ‘carry’ them if they know there’s no emphasis on individual performance
  • Stronger students like to be recognised individually for their efforts.
  • Learners in groups have to have a reason to work together. Otherwise they just divide the work up and do it individually.

Healthy and Unhealthy Cooperation

Healthy Competition – is fun, the prize isn’t ‘real’ or valuable, it’s short, it’s high-energy and there’re no long-term ramifications from the competition.

Unhealthy Competition – feels real for the participants. There are real consequences (grades, valuable prizes, bragging rights), rewards the ‘naturally stronger’ students, and develops a consistent competitive way of thinking.

The Golden Rule of Competition / Cooperation

There’s a lot to get your head around, and when you’re a newer teacher it can be hard to know when to apply this knowledge. So to help cut through the confusion, here’s my rule of thumb:

‘Use cooperation to learn, and competition to review’.

If you follow this, you’ll hit the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of both competition and cooperation 90% of the time.

OK, so I just made up that percentage, but as a guiding principle you could do a lot worse :-).

How do you use competition and cooperation in the classroom? Did I miss any advantages or disadvantages? Let me know in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “Competition vs. Cooperation in the Classroom

  1. Aimee M Enders

    I love your rule of thumb. I’m going to start telling my new teachers this! Thanks for another great post.

  2. Donna Stanmore

    Hi I enjoyed the article and like the way that you have put both competition and cooperation into perspective. However, I do think that competition becomes very detrimental, to both teachers and students, when done in a culture that uses it as a tool to denote status, identity and thus used to develop a hierarchy.


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