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Cooperative vs Competitive Math Education

Traditionally, competition has been used as a form of motivation for students. We give out academic awards, some schools announce the top of the class, we even hold academic contests such as spelling bee’s, math events, and debates. However, there has been decades of research showing that cooperation is a more effective form of motivation than competition, perhaps because humans are social animals. That being said, I personally get the temptation of using competition as motivation. I am personally a very competitive person and I do not know if anything motivates me more. John Hattie identifies 8 meta-analyses and 1031 individual studies on the topic, all showing positive benefits, with a mean effect size of .53. However, none of these studies were specific to math. 


Qin Zhining, Et al, did a meta-analysis in 1995 that looked at cooperative vs competitive instruction in math. Their study looked at 45 studies. Unfortunately, their study did not properly list their inclusion criteria. This might sound surprising to the reader; however, meta-analysis is actually a relatively new phenomenon, for that reason there are very few meta-analyses prior to the 2000’s in education. Moreover, as conducting a meta-analysis in itself is a skill, we see the quality of such papers has dramatically gone up over time. With this in mind, I do think the reader should take these results with an appropriate level of confidence. That being said, I can think of no reason why the impact of cooperation would have changed over the last 20 years. 

All of these results were statistically significant and most of them were above average. It is really interesting to note that cooperative education seemed far more important in math than for language, perhaps due the complex procedural requirements. I must admit, I love including competitive elements in my classroom and I would be tempted to interpret this data to say we should include some cooperative elements. However, the results clearly indicate that a purely cooperative classroom is better than a classroom that has a mix of both. I will likely have to work on myself as a teacher, including more cooperative and less competitive ones in my class. Of course this study is slightly dated now, so it is possible that there is new research to the contrary of this. However, given that all 8 of the meta-analyses identified by Hattie showed the same trend, it appears quite doubtful. 

Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited: 2022-04-03



J, Hattie. (2022). Cooperative vs Competitive Learning. Metax. Retrieved from <>. 


  Qin, Z., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1995). Cooperative Versus Competitive Efforts and Problem Solving. Review of Educational Research, 65(2), 129–143.

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