Competition can boost learner performance, or backfire. Here’s how to make sure it works in your favor.

We’ve covered many times before how critical it is to engage learners in order to bolster the success of your online course. There are, of course, many ways to create engagement and motivation, but one we haven’t touched on as much is competition.

This is because competition can so frequently be a double-edged sword. Some learners can be overly competitive, and this turns the entire experience into a toxic quagmire for the rest of the community. Others find the competition intimidating and off-putting, and it causes them to leave the course early.

I’ve recently grown more interested in the topic of competition from reading discussions about the virtues of having a nemesis. A nemesis is someone you want to beat, and whose success spurs you to make your own work better. I’m not sure how much I buy the premise, but there is an element of the discussion I find motivating: the idea that you should choose your nemesis carefully. If the purpose of a nemesis is to push you toward greatness, then anointing someone your nemesis is a mark of respect—a sign that you view that person as a worthy opponent.

Now, I’m not sure how readily this concept could be adapted to online education, but competition in general is very relevant. The key is to make the experience fundamentally positive, so that learners don’t walk away feeling negatively about their course mates or themselves. Here are a few ways to start.

1. Encourage your learners to compete against themselves.

Competition doesn’t mean setting yourself above another person. It can also mean finding ways to top your personal bests—to extend a streak, beat a high score, or earn a new badge. Every learner starts at a different place, and it may take a while for them to gain enough mastery to reach the level of more advanced learners. But turning their attention toward their own progress can help them stay encouraged, even as their skills develop.

2. Be transparent about competition performance.

Let’s say you want to create a competition among your learner base in your language course. You let everyone know that you’re going to track how many new vocabulary words each learner gains that week, and award a prize to whoever comes in first. You announce the winner at the end of the week as promised, but make no mention of any other scores. How do you think this challenge will make your learners feel?

The problem here is that your learners only see who won—they don’t get to see by how much. As a result, it feels like all their hard work is being ignored. Instead, be more transparent about who does what. That way, learners can see how close they came to achieving their goal, and it will give them an idea of what they need to do to win next time. Leaderboards are a great way to accomplish this.

3. Make your competitions about more than winning one trophy.

Your learners will have different strengths, and if you have them participating in a group project, they may have different roles and objectives as well. Think of it like the Academy Awards: they don’t just hand out trophies for actors and directors, but for writers, composers, and costume designers as well.

These awards are far from empty “participation trophies.” They’re competitive and prestigious awards recognizing the hard work of the many people who contributed to making something great, and they serve to shine the spotlight on other, sometimes overlooked areas of the film industry.

Let’s say you were teaching a creative writing class: Over the course of the class you could ask you learners to write short stories or poems each week in a variety of genres. Maybe one weeks it’s horror, the next fantasy realism. Each week you could give out an award for the best submission. You might have one exceptionally talented writer scoop up the award each week, but the change in genre would more likely give a broader range of learners an opportunity to write in a style they love.

4. Create a culture of cheerleading and good sportsmanship.

Finally, encourage your learners to encourage each other. Have them leave supporting messages or positive feedback, and lead the way by doing It yourself. Be up front with your learners about the environment you want to create, and why. Demonstrate how they can contribute to that environment, and think about offering a badge or award to learners who are particularly good at giving their fellow learners encouragement or a helping hand. This may not work in some communities, but in others, it can be useful to mark out positive power users who can help newer learners feel more comfortable as they get started.

If you choose to use competition then make sure you market it.

Of course, there will always be some people who simply won’t want to engage with a competitive course, no matter how positive and healthy you strive to make it. That’s fine. Similarly, there are other learners who won’t touch a course unless they can compete. That’s fine, too.

The point is that competition can and should be a deliberate decision in your course design. If you want your learners to compete—against themselves or others, anonymously or “face to face,” as it were—you should take control over that element before someone else does and it gets out of hand.

And once you decide how you want to handle competition, you should use it as a marketing point for your course. Show prospective students different ways they can turn course projects into a group challenge. Be transparent about how group projects and coursework are assigned so that your potential learners can decide if it will be a good fit for them.

Because if you can create a competitive course that can attract competitive learners while still keeping the experience positive, everybody wins.

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