Instructors of large classes must contend with numerous challenges, among them low student motivation. Research in evolutionary biology, echoed by work in other disciplines, suggests that aspects of the classroom incentive structure – such as grades, extra credit, and instructor and peer acknowledgment – may shape motivations to engage in studies and to collaborate with peers. Specifically, the way that incentives are distributed in relative quantity (the slope of competition; the proportion of benefits earned through performance relative to peers) and space (the scale of competition; the proportion of peers with whom one is competing) may affect strategies to cooperate or to compete with others.
We hypothesized that students would cooperate with one another more when competition was “global” (i.e., dispersed over the entire population of Introductory Psychology students) than when it was “local” (i.e., concentrated amongst a smaller group of students). We further hypothesized that students would be more motivated when competition was “steep” (i.e., benefits were conditional on relative rather than absolute performance) than when it was “shallow” (i.e., benefits were conditional on absolute rather than relative performance). Moreover, these two variables were expected to interact: cooperation among students was hypothesized to be greatest when competition was both global and steep and weakest when competition was both local and steep.
Here, we designed an experimental test of these hypotheses in a very large, university-level class. Over four semesters, students were randomly assigned, via their tutorial groups, to various competition conditions: global (between-tutorial) competition, local (within-tutorial) competition and asocial (individual) competition. Notably, the global and local competition conditions implied steeper competition than did the asocial competition condition. Within each semester, students were
rotated through each condition, so that all students experienced all conditions over distinct testing phases. Students competed over weekly tests for “bonus” credit that could be applied to reweight the course final exam in their favour. We measured their test performance (i.e., scores on the weekly tests) as well as their evaluations of the learning environment (e.g.,
their reliance on peers and their sense of community in the course).