Is Academic Competition Good or Bad for Students?

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Image courtesy of woodleywonderworks on flickr.com
Image courtesy of woodleywonderworks on flickr.com
Competition. A word so simple still conjures all sorts of images. It could mean an exciting game between one sports team and another, or perhaps fighting for success in the workplace. The idea of competition, however, has caused more harm than good in certain environments. Some high school students feel pressure to be the best in all aspects of their community. Whether it is in academics, sports, or friendly activities, should students feel they need to triumph over everybody else? Academic competition among students, while performance enhancing, causes unnecessary danger to a student's health.

There is no denying that competition motivates individuals to do their best: nothing can get a student going like the desire to excel. Sometimes having kids compete against each other makes them try harder to succeed. If kids are trying and working harder, the extra effort reflects in improved grades and standardized test scores, but can the idea of “pushing one's self” go too far? Constantly competing for academic supremacy can take a toll on the body, causing infinite amounts of stress. When under stress, the body responds with a complex cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters. The primary stress hormone, cortisol, has a direct effect on the heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, immune system, and skin. It can cause, depending on the person, difficulty in breathing, weight gain, breakouts, and a higher probability of getting sick.

We put ourselves under so much stress to do better than everyone else when, in actuality, stress inhibits the brain's learning ability. The anxiety one feels when stressed is the result of steroid hormones that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system releases. These hormones mimic the effects adrenaline gives people when in a fearful situation. While the effects are good for a true life or death situation, this stress response makes learning difficult, as the stimulated senses are not those associated with deep learning. For example, would you be able to memorize math formulas while being chased by a bear? By exposing ourselves to unnecessary amounts of stress, we really slow our ability to take in information.

Acute stress prevents memory storage.  According to a 2008 study by University of California Irvine researchers, when cortisol reaches the hippocampus, the brain’s primary structure for consolidating information from short term into long term memory, the structure’s dendritic spines disintegrate rapidly. Dendritic spines are the protrusions that branch off of neurons. Learning and memory storage only happens effectively when neurons are repeatedly activated – a process that effectively tells the brain that a stimulus, behavior, or habit is important to retain. When dendritic spines degrade, the brain’s ability to identify and store important information is significantly inhibited. Acute and chronic stress impact students of any age, but the effects are particularly dangerous in early development. We stress to be the best, but in actuality we aren't our best when stressed.

Many argue that without competition in schools, students won't reach their full potential. While that argument is valid, does competition in schools relay a message of elitism? At Friends Academy all students are as exceptionally bright as they are competitive. There is a constant fight for the best grades. Are we, as a community, mistaking competition and collaboration? Many believe that we are furthering our development as thinkers and problem solvers by being competitive, as it causes us to think. However, in a learning environment and even in the common workplace we need to rely more and more on working together, and not against each other. We all have a common goal and that is to excel. At Friends Academy all students strive to do their best in hopes of receiving that acceptance letter from their dream college. We are all working to achieve the same thing. Many minds put together are always better than one. The results of a common effort will be far greater than that of an individual.

Competition in itself is not all bad. Teachers thrive on the motivation students possess when they aspire to improve and learn. They use class time more wisely as they know the students are engaged and ready to learn. In fact, light competition is good for you. You should never let competition consume you to the point of exhaustion, but competition in small doses does have a positive effect on people. Encouraging our competitive feelings cleanly and directly is not only acceptable; it’s also healthy. Our competitive feelings are an indication of what we want, and acknowledging what we want is key to getting to know ourselves.

Traditionally the top student in a high school’s graduating class would earn the honor of being valedictorian. Friends Academy students receive awards at fourth day honors, in lieu of class distinctions. However at Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School this year, there were 117 valedictorians out of a class of 457. At Long Beach Polytechnic in California, there were 30. And at some schools there were none. The nation's high schools are changing the way they recognize top students, struggling to balance praise for them while also eliminating unhealthy competition among classmates. Many believe that the removal of valedictorians and other class rank awards will allow students to focus on their achievements without worrying about where they fall in their class rank. “Education’s not a game. It’s not about ‘I finished first and you finished second,’ ” said North Hills Superintendent Patrick J. Mannarino, who was the North Hills High principal when the school got rid of the valedictorian designation in 2009. “That high school diploma declares you all winners,” said Mannarino. Long Beach Polytechnic designates all students who earn straight A’s valedictorians, even though some students can have higher grade-point averages from taking Advanced Placement courses. Julia Jaynes, who shared the valedictorian title with 29 others, said that if her school chose only one, it would destroy collegiality among her classmates. Julia said, “If everyone wants to be the best, I feel like there’d be less collaboration, It makes it so you’re only out for yourself.” However some worry that allowing several students to share a top rank diminishes the achievement of a student who otherwise would have been alone in the top spot. The balance of high praise and preserving the self-esteem of other students is hard to manage; there can never be a perfect system.

In the end, it is important to remember that competition is not all good, nor is it all bad. When the correct balance is struck, competition is a healthy part of life that helps us to succeed. But the correct balance must be struck. It is not necessary or healthy for students to feel like they must be the best at everything. Everyone should focus on their own personal achievements rather than that of those around them. The only person you have to beat is yourself.

 

 

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