Number. 17 © CDTL 2003
A Balance between Competition & Cooperation
Professor Y.K. Ip
Department of Biological Sciences / Associate Director, CDTL

There is a saying, “You do not know how much you have learned until you start teaching.” So, what is the most effective method of learning? I would say: “Students teaching other students.” There is a wealth of evidence showing that students of different levels and personalities can learn effectively through peer teaching in a wide range of goals and content (McKeachie, et al., 1986).

Learning is both a personal and social process that results when individuals cooperate to construct shared understandings and knowledge. Therefore, education is a personal transaction among students and between the teacher and students as they work together. The students’ commitment to learning is nurtured by their knowing that (a) their contributions to classmates’ learning, and (b) their own progress in gaining knowledge and expertise, are perceived, recognised, appreciated and celebrated by their classmates and the teacher (Johnson, et al., 1995).

Competitive and individualistic learning situations discourage active construction of knowledge. It also impedes the development of talent by isolating students, and creating negative relationships among classmates and with instructors. However, challenge and social support must be balanced if students are to cope successfully with the stress inherent in learning situations. There are considerable data indicating that higher achievement, more positive relationships and better psychological adjustment results from cooperative rather than from competitive or individualistic learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1989).

In university, learning of facts and theories should be considered secondary to the development of critical thinking skills and the use of higher level reasoning strategies. McKeachie, et al. (1986) concludes that at least three elements of learning processes make a difference in college students’ gains in thinking skills: (a) student discussion, (b) explicit emphasis on problem-solving procedures and methods using varied examples, and (c) verbalisation of methods and strategies to encourage development of metacognition. They state: “Student participation, teacher encouragement, and student-to-student interaction positively relate to improved critical thinking.”

In comparison to competitive or individualistic learning strategies, cooperative learning promotes a greater use of higher level reasoning strategies and critical thinking (Gabbert, et al., 1986; Johnson, et al., 1980). It takes two or more people interacting within a cooperative context to think creatively in divergent ways so that new ideas, solutions and procedures are generated and conceptual frameworks are constructed.

Hence, students should learn cooperatively, and engage cognitively, physically, emotionally and psychologically in constructing their own knowledge, which is important in changing the passive and impersonal character of our classrooms. More importantly, when students, however diverse, work together on cooperative tasks in an atmosphere of cooperative civility where they contribute their fair share, they grow to like and respect one another. This is a vital ingredient of students’ success in their respective future careers in society.


Gabbert, B.; Johnson, D.W.; & Johnson, R.T. (1986). ‘Cooperative learning, group-to-individual transfer, process gain and the acquisition of cognitive reasoning strategies’. Journal of Psychology, 120(3), 265–278.

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.T. (1989). Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co.

Johnson, D.W.; Skon, L.; & Johnson, R.T. (1980). ‘Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic conditions on children’s problem-solving performance’. American Educational Research Journal, 17(1), 83–94.

Johnson, D.W.; Johnson, R.T.; & Smith, K.A. (1995). Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co.

McKeachie, W.; Pintrich, P.; Yi-Guang, L.; & Smith, D. (1986). Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom: A Review of the Research Literature. Ann Arbor, MI: The Regents of the University of Michigan.


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