Should we compete or collaborate in an academic setting?

Rizwana Roomaney shares some of the pitfalls, challenges and opportunities that competition and collaboration present us with in an academic setting.

Illusrtation by Nino Mekanarishvili

Competition. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it necessary? These seemingly simple questions are quite complex and largely dependent on both the individual and context. In a world where resources are finite, competition is omnipresent, as we compete with one another for survival and to flourish. Competition is good because it allows us to strive for greatness. It is bad because it can lead to feelings of inadequacy. In a world that is geared to support those who excel, competition may even be necessary. Competition is rife among students, with many vying for academic excellence and recognition in order to obtain prestigious scholarships and grants while at university. These grants and scholarships are provided to the top academic achievers and therefore, the academic environment promotes competition.

The issue that I am grappling with is whether lecturers and supervisors should encourage competition. I am inclined to say that we should not, because it can lead to harmful intra and inter-personal dynamics. But not all competition is bad. The environment where competition takes place is of importance. As lecturers and supervisors, we should be creating environments that foster healthy competition. Where winning is not tied to one’s identity or essence but rather motivates students to excel. Moreover, personal excellence should never be to the detriment of others. Competition is often pitted against collaboration, but together may afford many advantages to students.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Collaboration goes beyond the completing of a task at hand and can promote personal growth and social cohesion. While competition at university relies on strong academic capabilities and self-drive, collaboration requires good interpersonal skills, time management, compassion and empathy. All these skills are valuable to students and should be developed at university.

Not all students are keen to collaborate. I often have students requesting to change groups or worse, complain about group members when assigned group projects. Reasons for these requests vary from students not pulling their weight, feeling team-mates are not as academically strong as they are and preference in working independently. These students fail to realise that group academic tasks are about more than the academic outcome but develop skills beyond those of traditional, independent learning tasks. For me, it is obvious that both competition and collaboration play integral roles in learning, professional and personal development and nation building. The question is ‘how do we create an environment that fosters healthy competition and engaged collaborators?’

The starting point may be an awareness of these facets at play and discussing the benefits and drawbacks of both. Creating spaces where students can voice their experiences with both competition and collaboration and their needs, successes and failures regarding each can result in students recognizing and embracing both. Moreover, a broader definition of achievement should incorporate the extent to which students embrace collaboration, and this should become a key factor in the awarding of scholarships and awards. Emphasising both competition and collaboration in a healthy, responsible manner will benefit students, academics and broader society.

Rizwana Roomaney

Department of Psychology,

Dr Roomaney is a research psychologist who teaches research methodology and conducts research in Health Psychology.

by Laylaa Motola
Meme by Layla Motola

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