Institute for Personal Robots in Education Blog

The Philosophy of a Good Robot Assignment: Competitions in the Classroom?

One of the first ideas that comes to mind as an assignment using robots in the classroom is to have a competition. Sounds fun, doesn't it? Create a buzz on campus, get people talking about your course! Get students hooked, and engaged! Motivate them to spend some time on the subject! Sounds like you can't go wrong.

But I think that there can be problems with competitions in the classroom. However, you can tweak a competition to avoid problems. What could possibly be wrong with a good-natured, friendly competition? Of course, some students might not do well with the stress. But even beyond that, there might be subtle issues even if everyone wants to participate. Consider the following.

Imagine that each student has a robot, possibly a LEGO-based one, or even one like the Scribbler that we are using in our pilot project at IPRE. You might have the robots go through a maze, or maybe have a robot race. Perhaps it might be something like Botball. Regardless of the design of the competition, you probably will create all of the good side-effects mentioned above. But let's take a closer look at the winners and losers of the competition.

Specifically, what skills did it take to do well in the competition? Did students have to spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over minutia? If the winners won because they squeezed 5% better performance by investing 5 times more time than the losers, this just might be sending the wrong message.

It is probably true the old maxim that 80% of a project can be done in 20% of the total time, and that last 20% takes 5 times longer. But some students could spend a great deal of time fine-tuning, even though the results are ones of diminishing returns.

The end result is rewarding the obsessive student spending hours alone tweaking minutia. The other students could be repelled by the thought that such activity is what computer science is all about. Could this be a contributing factor in the gender imbalance in CS classrooms? I think it could be.

All is not lost, however. One only need create "competitions" that do not reward such behavior. For example, one could create an environment that rewards creativity. Not just "creative solutions" but "pure creativity". For example, if the competition were a "talent show" or some type of performance, then we have completely turned the tables on the problem.

There are many instructors that use competitions in the classroom. Perhaps they don't see the problem I mention. Or perhaps they have other ways of solving the problem. If you are a student or teacher that has participated in a competition in the classroom, let us know how it worked for you.

Another Problematic Consequence of Competitions

Tue, 2007-09-18 11:46

We’ve also got to weigh two conflicting impacts of a competition:

1) competitions can benefit a class by motivating students to work hard and get excited about a topic in preparation for the competition, but at the same time

2) competitions can be harmful to a class by dispiriting ‘non-winners’ – who will likely be the majority of the class – once the competition is over and the top few winners have been congratulated.

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