The Inseparability of Competition and Education

Competition in modern society is ubiquitous since the resources are scarce and cannot be allocated to everyone. In the article “Competition, Education and Assessment: Connecting History with Recent Scholarship” written by Robert Nelson and Phillip Dawson, the authors use philosophical methods to investigate the past and contemporary pedagogical research to prove that competition and education are inseparable and therefore suggest moderate form of competition is required to foster the quality of learning.  

Up until now, we have read different articles that covered various fields of study. Comparing Nelson and Dawson’s article with other readings, they all have similar ideas about the necessity of competition as a subset of improvement. Yet, what makes this article unique is that it brings a new approach and concept in relation to the competition. The authors argue for a systemic development in an educational environment that embraces the inseparability of competition and education. 

​Contradictory to my thesis, it is still possible to have education without competition, but it is not ideal. From the psychological perspective provided by Nelson and Dawson, by having non-competitive educational structure, because of its inherent nature to not judge student’s performances based on grades, it would naturally result in lack of motivation for the students to learn.

Garcia uses the social comparison model as a tool to understand how competition actually increases performance by providing an example of the application of the social comparison model in SAT exam. Based on the “N Effect”, we were able to observe that competitive behavior increased as the number of test takers decreased and resulted in a higher average SAT score. This is why competitive education models are favoured over non-competitive educational structures as they motivate the students to learn and maximize the learning experience. Of course, there are flaws in competitive education. The leading argument states that it causes deviation from the actual purpose of learning and thereby students become “strategic-learners,” with a goal for achieving better grades rather than learning. The authors define the following tendency as a “Norm-referenced Assessment” which coincides with the “Artificial Zero-sum Game” idea introduced in the lecture, in which the students are evaluated relative to others’ performances. Although competition is successfully promoted, the actual academic performances of the students may not reflect on the quality of learning. It is the relativity of learning that is emphasized rather than the content learned; however, as the students still take away some learning, I argue that despite the lack of depth that this type of learning can foster, it is still necessary.

Competition is also required in the form of group level as well. Connecting Nelson and Dawson’s idea of competition through cooperation to Molina’s view on competition as a factor that reinforces cooperation, we see that competition when paired with cooperation, can result in higher performance. In higher education assessment such as group projects, students collaborate and strive for their best for their marks. This concept is similar to @pb5535’s and Molina’s anthropological perspective of “Stag Hunt,” where humans collaborate in hunting for bigger animals for greater mutual benefits for all members. However, it is important to note that although mutual benefits are emphasized, what essentially drives the act of cooperation, in itself is based on the competitive nature of humans.

Like @tose1028’s viewpoint of competition as an inevitable feature that arises naturally among human species, I also believe that competition arises inevitably among not only humans but across all species in that they compete for the scarce resources. In addition, like how @alldayavery has mentioned, it is not necessary to shift the entire educational system away from the competition. I believe that it is critical to maintain the competition in moderate levels to foster curiosity-driven learning as well as trigger students’ natural desires to outperform their peers. This leads me to suggest that the following model of learning I propose can serve the goal of this analysis. Instead of having public grade display, private and relative grading method such as Box Plot Diagram on Canvas with slightly higher standards of “Passing Grade” can be an effective method in promoting competitive behaviour while minimizing the anxiety of comparison by keeping the grades disclosed. 

References and Links:



@tose1028 Reading Response:

@pb5535 Reading Response:

@alldayavery Reading Response:


  1. Hi, thanks for your response! I do agree with you that despite competition within education have some downsides, such as lack of in-depth learning, lack of motivation and “strategic-learners”, etc. competition is still necessary and inseparable from education. I found it interesting that you mentioned group competition in education, that is just what I am thinking about! However, I think group competition in education may not always lead to higher performance that sometimes group work ends up a mess in my own experience. I personally think how would group competition work within education is complex due to uncertainty within interactions in a group.


  2. Thank you for your feedback! I was thinking of academic group competition with high returns (e.g. prizes) that could motivate the group members to cooperate to maximize their performance and learning. I also agree with you that there are some exceptional cases that would not always lead to higher performance!


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