A new semester has begun and with it comes new readings. For my Assessment in Math and Science class we read two seminal articles in assessment research, including Black and Wiliam's Inside the Black Box (1998). In discussing room for improvement in assessment, the authors state:

"Approaches are used in which pupils are compared with one another, the prime purpose of which seems to them to be competition rather than personal improvement; in consequence, assessment feedback teaches low-achieving pupils that they lack 'ability,' causing them to come to believe they are not able to learn." (p. 142)

For me, I think competition has always been a healthy part of education, but I understand the authors' concern. Some grading practices, such as grading on a curve (using statistical normal curves that assure some students receive high grades and others receive low grades) are by nature competitive. Unfortunately, that kind of competition not only dissuades students from working cooperatively, but it can sabotage good teaching because of the expectation that some students will fail (Krumboltz & Yeh, 1996), and thus must be used with extreme caution.

Black and Wiliam did not specifically mention grading on a curve, which made me wonder how competitive grading was in general, and what the real source of that competition might be. The questions I posed to the class (a weekly requirement on our course message board) were:

Do you think students are subjected to competition by the teacher and their system of assessment, or is competition a natural reaction of students? Can a teacher design and enforce a competition-free system? If so, how?

After numerous responses and further thought, I think competition is so ingrained in who we are as human beings (both in an innate and culturally-driven way) that attempting to eliminate it in education is not only impossible, but it would be misguided and potentially harmful to try. Blaming the competition for those students who don't compete well isn't a particularly helpful tautology. Surely the issues for struggling students go deeper than that, and fixing the problem by eliminating competition isn't an efficient way of handling the problem.

I suggest teachers and schools try to find ways to utilize the benefits of healthy competition in a fair and voluntary way. Students who wish to compete would always have an outlet, and those who don't hopefully wouldn't feel that anything is being forced upon them. Just as competitive sports or other competitive school activities are voluntary and shouldn't be imposed on all students, the competitive aspects of education shouldn't either, unless students choose to participate.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139-148.

Krumboltz, J. D., & Yeh, C. J. (1996). Competitive grading sabotages good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(4), 324-326.