The competitive edge: supportive or stressful?


Sonia Zaacks and Matthew Chupack, Executive Features Editor and Features Editor

Getting asked about her grades is a common occurrence for junior Sarah Cottick. After a big test, her peers do not hesitate to compare answers and test scores. 

“People are constantly asking [about] grades, people are constantly comparing test scores [and] people are just constantly trying to ‘one-up’ each other [by] saying, ‘I only got one point off’ or ‘I only got two points off,’” said Cottick. “It’s an everyday occurrence.” 

For some students, there is an internal drive to be successful, but for others, the pressure of high achievement can result from various external factors including the constant comparison to others. 

Tina Drossos, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, said in a phone interview that competition within the classroom is based on academic achievement and how students perceive others’ success.

“Academic competition is … grade wars,” said Drossos. “I think that some people just look at [the competition] as grades — who got the highest grades on a particular exam — but I think the other way is [through] awards, recognition … andcollege admission.”

Junior Danny Fitzpatrick said he often compares test scores with his friends to rank his performance against others. 

“[I will] take a test, and then afterward, [students] will be comparing tests between people, and if you do better, you get [some] bragging rights until the next competitive thing [occurs],” Fitzpatrick said. 

According to Cottick, there are forms of competition other than test scores, such as graded discussions, where some students compete for participation points, hindering other students’ abilities to share their ideas. Cottick said teachers can contribute to the classroom stress by initiating these activities or by applauding students who exhibit high performance. 

“I’ve hadteachers where they … tell [us not to] share scores,” said Cottick. “I had other teachers blatantly reward people if they [had] gotten one hundreds or really high scores. … It puts everyone in a position where they know the teacher is presenting this one student as an ideal or as a really good student compared to the others.”

For English teacher Anna Upson, creating a community-based environment and trying to curb high-stress  activities are top priorities. 

“[One] thing I do in graded discussions is give credit for listening to other people rather than trying to talk over people, making it more focused on … building more of a classroom community,” Upson said.

Even though competitive classroom activities can have negative effects, junior Maria Petrova said one positive aspect to competition is that it keeps students motivated. 

“A little competition is good,” said Petrova. “It gives [students] an incentive to keep moving forward.”

According to school psychologist Bridget Bucklin, there are various healthy outlets of competition at Glenbrook North, such as athletics or team activities, but classroom competition may also prove to be beneficial for some students. 

“I think competition can be healthy in the sense that it might push [students] to do more than [they would if it] wasn’t there,” said Bucklin. “[If students] are feeling a little bit of healthy competition from their peers, they might actually go above and beyond in that project and learn more.”

Drossos said competition can also help successful students deal with occasional setbacks, such as poor grades or not always being at the top of their class.

“Healthy competition is extremely important,” said Drossos. “Competition could help people develop self-confidence, it helps with coping skills [and students can] learn how to cope with subjectivity — [they] learn how to cope with loss.”

During her classes, Upson said she tries to have open discussions about constant comparisons being made between students. 

“It does break my heart, as a teacher, to see people who are really good students … just beat themselves upabout [being] one point short of [another] person,” said Upson. “I feel like some of the causes of [competition] are beyond some of my control, [so] it’s hard for me to stop it. There are only certain things I can do to maybe lessen the blow of [competition] … like have more conversations about it.”