Competition - Based Learning

In an effort to enhance the learning process in higher education, a new model for Competition-Based Learning (CBL) is presented. The new model utilizes two well-known learning models, namely, the Project-Based Learning (PBL) and competitions. The new model is also applied in a networked environment with emphasis on collective learning as well as collective outcomes. The new model, which is referred to as CBL, provides educators with an alternative solution to overcome many of student's deficiencies associated with traditional learning practices; such as lack of motivation, lack of self esteem, insufficient practical and real-life experience, and inadequate team work practices. The new CBL model makes a clear distinction between PBL and competitions and CBL. It avoids the disadvantages of competitions, while at the same time gaining from the many benefits of PBL. Identification features of CBL, components of CBL, as well as advantages are presented. An open source Learning Management System (LMS), namely, Moodle is used for the implementation of a networked environment to support CBL.


A competition can be defined as a contest between individuals or groups to reach a common goal that cannot be shared. There are hundreds of local and international competitions attracting students at all levels of higher educational institutions. For example, some of the well-known competitions in the Information Technology area may include: ACM Collegiate Programming Contest, Microsoft Imagine Cup, Yahoo Hack U Competition, and Oracle ThinkQuest.

While some researchers in the field may view competitions in education negatively, many others think that competitions often bring out the best in individuals and motivate students to achieve more in school (Fulu 2007, Fasli and Michalakopoulos 2005, Lawrence 2004). Competitions can enhance student's motivations, self-esteem, and learning outcomes. Cooperative goals make students take better care of their responsibilities and tasks for the sake of their groups (Cantador & Conde 2010, Yu 2002, Lam et al 2001, Ediger 2000).

Many researchers state that competition damages the learning process by forcing students to focus on goals instead of on the process itself, and also argue that the stress to which students are exposed has negative effects (Lam et al 2001).

Our experience with competitions proves that both positive and negatives arguments regarding competitions are true. Despite the many well-known advantages of competitions, we find that:

  • Competitions do not focus on the learning process nor do they satisfy the ILOs of the curricula.
    • Assessment of individual students is usually not carried out, nor there are any indicators on how much students learn.
    • Many participating students become so focused on the competition; so they lose interest in their regular course work.
    • Many participating students performed very low in some of their regular courses due to their involvement in a competition.
    • Many participating students show symptoms of hyper competiveness.

These problems and others have proven that there is a serious need to take matters in a more structured and more systematic way. There is a need to distinguish between curricular and non-curricular activities and thus, to distinguish between competitions and learning. 


To formalize a model of CBL, and to derive a definition which satisfies the objective of enhancing the learning process and learning outcomes, we rely on previous work on PBL (centrality, driving question, constructive investigations, autonomy, and realism), Networked Learning, collective learning, and constructivism theory.

For the definition of CBL to be valid, it must satisfy a set of constraints as follows:

  1. CBL must be accomplished in groups. Competitions that are based on individuals are to be avoided to reduce the negative aspects of competitions such as selfishness, stress, hyper-competiveness.
  2. Constructivism and autonomy: Team members are the active players. No immediate interference from educators or mentors.
  3. Curriculum based problems: It is very important that project requirements and objectives which constitute the competition are drawn directly from the curriculum.
  4. New knowledge must be relevant to the curriculum: The main objective of the competition is that student learn and acquire new knowledge relevant to the curriculum.
  5. Problems to be implemented in the competition must be multi-disciplinary, challenging, authentic, and resemble real-life problems.
  6. Collective learning outcomes: it is important for both team members, as well as educators to know that there would be an assessment for each individual in the team. Therefore, the ILOs should be determined by the educators and must be presented to students ahead of time.
  7. Transparency: Using the social networked environments, team members can be aware of intermediate results of the competition as they happen.
  8. Control and monitor: To ensure learning to take place and to avoid negative aspects of competitions, team members must work under controlled environment, and must be monitored from a distance at all times. Students' autonomy is to be respected as long as they work within the controlled boundaries.

Given the above mentioned constraints, CBL can be defined as follows:

A constructivist approach to learning in which competition is used as stimulus for the maximization of the ILOs specified in a given course or curriculum, while team members participate in a project under controlled environment.

The above definition covers the major constraints discussed earlier. It begins with describing CBL as a "Constructivist" approach to learning, which implies that learners are viewed as coming from different backgrounds, and that they play an active role in learning. The definition then attempts to constraint the role of "competition" as a stimulus for maximizing the efforts on behalf of the learners, and as doing so, maximizing the learning process. Competition must be executed within a controlled environment to avoid any negative aspects associated with competitions. The definition also stresses on the fact that learning should cover ILOs already specified in a course or curriculum.

Components of CBL

Given the constraints and definition of CBL, we now present a set of components required for the application of CBL (Figure 1):

  1. Course outline based on a specific curriculum: The selection of a course from within a curriculum for the application of CBL is a very important step to insure that ILOs relate directly to the curriculum. The course syllabus could be modified to suit this type of learning but without deviating away from the objectives of the course. The selected course could be of any level, but must be relevant to the size and difficulty of the project. It is worth mentioning here, several higher educational institutions who share similar courses can participate in the selection of the course and the design of the entire competition, thus removing the boundaries between institutions and allowing for more cooperative work.
  2. A clear set of ILOs must be derived from the course syllabus and aligned with the overall ILOs for the curriculum. These ILOs work as a guide in the process of constructing the project which will be the basis for the competition.
  3. Project requirements and specification: Project requirements must be defined in a way that its completion would fulfill the ILOs. Requirements must resemble a real-world problem which clearly defines the type of new knowledge to be learned, whether this new knowledge comes at the core of the curricula, and what existing knowledge is necessary for students to get involved in the project.
  4. A set of well-defined competition rules: As with any competition, a set of well-defined rules must be applied. These rules could include project themes, winning criteria, ranking procedures, violations, policies, best practices, and so on.
  5. A set of external incentives or a reward system: The distinguishing feature of CBL from other forms of learning is that participants share one ultimate common goal of winning the competition and receive a reward. The reward or incentives are to be chosen carefully to be a driving force for the participation of students.
  6. A socially networked environment (competition environment): Competitions are social events by nature. They require the availability of a well connected environment by which participants can communicate with their team members, other teams, mentors, organizers, and audience.
  7. Evaluation committees or judges: Judging committee could be selected from unbiased individuals who could be internal or external to the institution depending on the size of the competition. The judging committee evaluates projects based on project specifications and competition rules. A criteria is usually applied which looks at the project from a competition point of view with disregard to the ILOs or the curriculum.
  8. Assessment method for ILOs: For CBL to be considered a successful model for learning, actual learning must take place. We stress on the fact that is collective learning have taken place. This means that every individual in the team must have learned what was intended for him/her to learn. Assessing the learning outcomes of team members is not necessarily a difficult task; the teacher can easily determine that through interviews or presentations, or even using traditional examinations. Questions can be easily drawn from the objectives, and from the ILOs of the course. 

Last modified: Wednesday, 1 July 2015, 1:23 AM