Finding a balance in the use of competition

By Alex Case

Having students who are competitive can be a great stimulus to classroom learning and some teachers use points for everything, with points taken away being a great way of maintaining classroom discipline as well. There are, however, some disadvantages to this:

– Students who rarely or never win games will probably get discouraged and so be put off by the use of competition

– If students are in teams, weaker students who lose the team points might be shunned, teased or even bullied

– Students only studying for points might take away their ability to motivate themselves and get interested in the subject matter

I’ve found myself limiting my use of competitive activities over the years, partly to keep myself on my toes and try something new (sometimes points made things too easy!), but also because my present school is full of over-competitive students. However, when I observe classes where teachers do use more points, races, etc, I do feel like I have lost a certain classroom buzz. This article is my reflection on my recent thoughts and experiences, including some ideas I have recently started using that aim to find a balance in the use of competition.

Supplementing competition

One way of doing this is to include other fun activities that are totally uncompetitive, for example stories and songs. Another is to use other motivating things that are not competitive, for example praise and comparing students’ work to their own previous efforts rather than other people’s. A similar idea I have been using is allowing students who finish their written work quickly (in a sufficiently neat way) being allowed to sit on the carpet ready to start the next fun game as soon as the teacher is ready, with students who were late or aren’t concentrating having to miss the beginning of that game while they finish their work off. As I have feeling the students are competitive about when they are allowed to sit on the carpet, I’m not sure this has worked exactly as I planned, but it is still better than stickers! You can also do something similar with stickers, however, by giving everyone one sticker but giving people who finish first or do the best work the first choice of which one they get.

“It’s competition, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Points, but not

One easy way of balancing the giving of points with not wanting there to be obvious losers is to give students points but not add them up at the end or proclaim a winner. One way to do this is to give out flashcards as students shout out which one you are showing or describing, and ask each student how many they have as you collect them in at the end of the game but without comparing their scores to other people’s. With this idea, you’ll obviously need to make sure that all students have at least a card or two before you bring the game to a close.

Another way of using points but kind of not is to shout out random numbers of points that makes your feelings clear but are impossible to really add up and have a total for, e.g. “Minus 100 points” for bad behaviour and “One thousand point for everyone in the class” after a good sing-along.

Never more than one point

Another thing that I have found works when giving out realia and flashcards as rewards for correctly naming them is to give one to any students who have none so far, but with students who already have one being allowed them to swap it for the one they have just guessed correctly or keep the one they already have. If they decide to swap or not usually depends on whether they prefer the thing they have or the thing I could give them (e.g. deciding to keep the teddy bear flashcard or turning down the spider flashcard). Doing this also has the advantage of allowing you to use each flashcard more than once during the game.

It’s your turn to get a point

Even the most competitive classes seem to accept that everyone should get at least one point, so I will occasionally allow only students with no or few points to take part in the next round.

As competitive as you like

Another issue might be a mix of students who are turned on and switched off by competitive games. When such groups are playing games in groups, I tend to tell them what thing means one point (which anyway is usually the easiest way of explaining what they should be aiming to do), but not say whether they should write their scores down or not. Usually different teams will do different things, and if anyone asks me I will tell them that they can choose to or not.

To give another similar example, if students are playing a board game I will point out to the class which person actually finished first (usually meaning just one student in the whole class), and allow other teams to count the person who progressed furthest as winner in their group or just ignore that and move on to the next activity.

Please note that some groups of students will be more interested in clear instructions than in being able to decide such things for themselves, and so might react negatively to not being told one way or another whether they should count up the points.

Shorter and longer scoring sections

Students are likely to focus more and more on points and less and less on the language as the game progresses, especially if the game is very close or one team is far outstripping the other. There are two opposite reactions to this. One is to divide the game into shorter sections with a winner each time, e.g. by erasing the scores from the board every five minutes or so. Another is to make it clear that this game is just part of a score for the whole lesson, week or even term, and so losing teams will be able to make up the points later on.

Written by Alex Case for August 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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