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Competitive College: Does competition help or hinder our academic performance?

By Noelle Witwer
11 Apr 2014

“What obligations do we have to our adversaries? Do virtue and integrity enhance or impede our quest for victory? Is competition an obstacle to or an essential component of a meaningful life? How should competition be effectively regulated?”

These questions and others will be addressed by visiting students and scholars from across the country in this year’s Undergraduate Ethics Symposium, which will take place at the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics April 10-12. The topic for the symposium is “Virtue and Victory: Ethical Challenges in Competitive Life”, a topic that is very relevant to our everyday lives as university students.

Competition is glorified in our culture as healthy and a necessary way to “separate the wheat from the chaff” and drive people to do their best. Those who participate in athletics likely benefit from the motivation of competing against others, and competition is a key part of the American economic system. In many ways, it is built into almost every aspect of our lives. As students, we feel pressured to excel in the classroom in order to get a good job after graduation, a Fulbright scholarship, a Teach for America position, or a spot in a graduate school program. We know that all of these outcomes are ones we will have to compete for, and this can add a level of stress to our learning that would not otherwise be there.

However, competition in academics is not always a good thing. In fact, several studies suggest that competitive learning environments can actually hinder a student from doing as well as she is capable of doing, and may impede her from learning as much material. The book Top Dog by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman talks a lot about situations where competition drives people to excellence, but also has examples of when competition can be a hindrance. One such example is an experiment in which two almost identical tests are given to two groups of Princeton students after they took a questionnaire designed to make them feel like they had been lucky to get into Princeton. One of the tests was called an “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire”, and the other was entitled an “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire”. Students who took the test with the more threatening title, the “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire”, got scores that were 18 percentage points lower than the other experimental group. By manipulating the level of competition perceived by the students, the experimenters obtained significantly different performances.

Academic performance depends on a multitude of factors, and because we can feel that our academics reflect our intelligence, a characteristic that we perceive as a set value and innate, competition in academics can actually be demoralizing and hinder a student’s progress. However, this is not to say that students should not have goals in mind when they set out to learn. But confidence and interest are essential parts of academics, and competition can dull both of these. Cooperative learning methods, on the other hand, like group discussions and group problem solving activities, can be an effective alternative to classes that are set up to increase competition. Our grades may affect what we are able to do after we graduate, but while we are at school, it may be more effective to focus on why we enjoy what we are learning instead of constantly comparing ourselves to others.

Noelle graduated from DePauw University in 2016 with a Cognitive Science interdisciplinary major incorporating neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology. She hails from Bluffton, Indiana, and is now studying at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
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