Games in the college classroom – competitive or cooperative?

Games can be a great tool in the classroom to engage students and deepen learning. But does it matter whether the games are competitive or cooperative?

At a recent WAC meeting, this question sparked heated debate. Some argued that competition – or having winners and losers –  provides greater motivation for students to learn. Others noted that it prepares them for the real world, in which competition is pervasive. On the other hand, students who lose these games may not feel so engaged or motivated. If the competitive game is, say, a Jeopardy-style review game, the “losers” might walk away feeling they don’t know the material as well as others and are destined to fail.

There is plenty of research validating the cooperative approach (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998), not just in terms of academic performance (Johnson, Johnson and Smith cite evidence that student achievement is actually slightly higher with cooperation versus competition), but also motivation to learn and attitude towards learning. But I also think it’s important to look at what we do in the classroom in a broader context. Yes, competition is pervasive in the so-called real world. But the classroom can be – and, I would argue, should be – more than preparation for the world that exists; it should help give students the tools to create new worlds. Especially in the Trump era, I would rather challenge than reinforce the message that to get ahead, we have to make those around us lose, or that our communities can or should be divided neatly into “us” and “them.” Why not instead create a classroom community in which helping each other is the norm, and we learn to see each other’s strengths rather than seeking out their weaknesses?

So, what kinds of cooperative games can we use in the classroom? I’ll admit, it’s easier to find competitive game ideas than cooperative ones, but sometimes you just have to get a little more creative. Debates, for example, can be transformed from competitive to cooperative by making consensus the end goal: Teams are assigned a position, and each researches, prepares, and presents their arguments. From here, there are at least two ways to proceed. You can have open debate, then have the teams reverse positions and present those. Or, instead of then rebutting those arguments, the opposing team can reflect back the arguments as they understood them, until the presenting team believes they’ve been fully understood. In either case, the game/debate ends by having the teams join forces to synthesize the best evidence and arguments into what they think is the strongest position. If they can’t reach consensus, they work to identify the main underlying points of disagreement.

Simulations can also be cooperative and engaging. In my discipline, political science, several simulations are available (note: most require either using a textbook or otherwise having paid access) that allow students to collaboratively do things like role-play an interest group trying to influence a legislature, try to survive for a month with no job or home and only $1000 in cash, or try to redistrict a state to either favor one party or ensure minority representation. (A huge list of simulations and games – not all of them collaborative – for political science is available at this great resource.)

If you’ve got any cooperative game resources or ideas of your own, leave them in the comments!

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