5 Ways to Incorporate Competition into Your Secondary Classroom

5 Ways to Incorporate Competition into Your Secondary Classroom

A high school student, Betty White, and my Dad walk into a Laser Tag park…

Okay. What on earth do these things have to do with each other? Isn’t this post supposed to be about teaching? How old is Betty White anyway? Does anyone even play Laser Tag anymore? Why am still reading this?

If you made it this far, thank you. I promise, it will be totally worth it.

While I’m not quite sure the actual age of Betty White and I’m too lazy to ask Alexa, the three people listed above really do have something in common. They love to compete. I am confident, without a doubt that Betty White and my Dad would battle to the bitter end in an effort to crown the real laser tag MVP and high school students? They aren’t any different.

Oftentimes as teachers we find ourselves saying, “Why don’t my students care?” or “Why don’t they put in more effort?”. I’ve even gone as far as to call mine boring. Turns out, high school students aren’t boring, they’re bored.

One of the evils associated with our modern tech-saturated society is the fact that our teens live in a world that is constantly moving, changing, and stimulating their every sense. This evil has seeped into the hallowed halls of the high school classroom. We can’t change it. It will not go away. It has left our students with a need to be constantly entertained, engaged, and ultimately, has made them apathetic to the traditional learning environment.

One of my key goals as a teaching professional is the research and application of various techniques all geared towards conquering student apathy. One of the more successful ways I have done this is through creating competition. Take a look below at 5 Ways to Incorporate Competition into Your Secondary Classroom including an explanation of why it works and how to differentiate activities for all types of learners. Tell your teens to, “Watch Out!”, things are about to get crazy!

  1. March Madness

March Madness is exactly what it sounds like—a competition created and implemented in March that can last until the middle of May (they are still playing basketball, right?) I create a bracket for each of my class periods and they compete to be the Champion. “Rounds” are usually based on summative assessments of either new content we have recently covered or material from earlier in the year we have remediated. Each round, the class with the highest average advances. To visually engage students, I make a large banner with the brackets and each class period listed. When they win, I let students move themselves into the next round. The winning class usually receives an invitation to a Pizza Luncheon or some food-related prize.


Why it Works.

March Madness does an excellent job at embracing teamwork and engaging students in the curriculum. It encourages them to study and gives them something to look forward to at the end of the week. You’ll never hear a student excitedly ask you, “When’s our next quiz?!”, until you incorporate March Madness. The banner serves as a constant reminder that there is a competition happening and they better pay attention. March Madness also improves classroom comradery as students often tend to work together and encourage their classmates to do well; similar to being on a sports team.

How to Differentiate.

What happens when a class loses? How do you keep them engaged?

Classes that lose in Rounds 1 and 2 are reassigned to each other for a “Redemption Round”. The winners of the Redemption Round will compete in essentially a secondary bracket and will receive some sort of prize. This keeps students invested in the quizzes and working towards a goal. It helps if the quizzes are also graded so even if their class it out, they are still in.

For my Honors level class, I create the same bracket system but with each student in the class period. In this case, the “Redemption Round” is must larger and is essentially half the class. This ensures each student stays engaged and immediately provides a method of differentiating instruction and classifying students for remediation.

2. Mystery Prizes

Who doesn’t love a good mystery prize?! “Mystery Prizes” can be applied to almost every review game ever! Here’s how they work. Come up with three to five good mystery prizes (see list below). They do not have to be fancy and they don’t have to cost you any money. Write the prizes down. (I use neon cardstock because first, I have way too much neon cardstock. How did I get so much neon cardstock anyway? And second, because it’s fun) and then put them in one envelope for each prize. The way the activity is designed usually determines the way the prizes are given out. For example, if we are playing a team game, I will choose prizes that can be easily given to multiple students. If we are playing a game where winners are independent (Either one winner or a Top Three), I may give out more “valuable” mystery prizes. When the winner(s) are determined, students select their envelope and reveal their Mystery Prize. It is imperative that students share their prizes out-loud. It provides for amazing sounds effects (Ah, man I wanted that one! Bro, mine is way better! That’s not even fair Ms. C.!) and some excellent teacher entertainment.

Why it Works.

Mystery Prizes take away a student’s ability to “opt-out” because they simply don’t like the prize or find value in it. They have no idea what it is, therefore they can’t say, “I don’t care about that.” Mystery Prizes also add a sense of, well—mystery or randomness to a classroom rewards system. This helps to ensure lower-performing students are still being rewarded with valuable praise. For example, a team that wins Third Place may choose a better Mystery Prize than the First-Place team because the selection was random.


Ms. C.’s Top Mystery Prizes

100% on a Quiz

“A” on the Final Project (this is a BIG ONE, only given out as an individual prize)

Classwork/Homework Pass

Request a Song (I have a playlist for the first ten minutes of each period)

Pick a Candy bar

 Sit in “The Green Chair” for a Day

Drop your lowest Quiz grade

3. Ms. C’s Version of Jeopardy” or “Hot Seat”

My version of Jeopardy in the classroom is not at all accurate, but it works and it’s fun. Students are assigned to teams of 4-6 members per team. Any more than six students per team and it becomes incredibly difficult to keep students engaged and manage the classroom. Each team sits in a vertical row. The student in the front seat is in the “Hot Seat”. The students in the “Hot Seat” are the ones responsible for answering the question. The team that answers the question correctly, gets the point.

Why it works. 

“Hot Seats” work first and foremost because they put a student in the spotlight. They are accountable for an answer and it is evidently clear if they don’t know that answer. Putting students in teams however and allowing them to work together, lowers the chances a student will become embarrassed or simply give up if they don’t know an answer. Making it a game and assigning points to the teams keeps the activity moving as students are racing to be the first to answer correctly.

How to Differentiate. 

There are multiple ways to amend this activity for various ability levels and purposes. For example, it I have a class that is lower-performing, I allow teams to work together in finding the correct answer often with resources such as their Interactive Notebooks or the textbook. However, the student in the “Hot Seat” is still the one who must answer. If I want to increase the rigor or level of competition, I require all teams to answer and those who are incorrect, lose a player. If that same team answers correctly later, they may bring a team member back from “The Abyss”. The last team standing wins.

4. Teacher Team-Up

Similar to competition between students and teams, competitions between whole classes can be incredibly valuable in increasing student ownership, accountability, and interest in the content. In December, our U.S. History Cohort of three teachers designed a rotational lesson on World War 2. We each designed a lesson on a specific part of the curriculum. Our students rotated between all three of us as we delivered the materials. At the end of the unit, our students took a summative assessment and the class with the highest average score won! Competitors were assigned by class period so all of our 1st period A Days competed against one another, 7th period B Days, etc.

Why it works.

Plain and simple. Children love bragging rights and low-key, so do teachers. Teaching the lessons using a rotational model ensures that all students receive the same instruction and create a solid expectation when assessing students are the end of the unit. Even though this method is a crazy amount of work and any teacher will be close to losing it by the time the last rotation rolls around, it really provides an in-depth look at how your students learn best, while simultaneously providing an excellent opportunity for teacher reflection.

5. “Academic Celebrations”

In recent years, education policy has become increasing wary of the words “Class Party”. But #sorrynotsorry, students deserve to celebrate a job well done! Fancy education lobbyist person, don’t you enjoy a good happy hour after a long week of political schmoozing?

When students compete for an Academic Celebration” as I now refer to them, they have a clear-cut reward to look forward to. If they win, they get to party. Similar to bragging rights, it’s pretty straight forward. The cool thing is, celebrations don’t have to be fancy and although I’m a big fan of the $5 pizza party, they don’t have to involve food or be expensive. Celebrations can be as simple as spending one class period watching a film that I’ve convinced my Assistant Principal is somehow related to education, playing review games, or doing a craft project rather than a traditional lesson plan. Maybe it’s having a 10-minute dance party and allowing them to DJ (if they choose the Radio Edit version, I do teach the “Big Kids”). However you choose to do it, celebrate the success of your students, they’ve earned it.

When it comes to conquering student apathy, competition is key. Everything in life feels much more valuable, if it seems to have a defined purpose. When you’re a seventeen-year-old high school junior, the chance to prove that you’re the best, is sometimes all the purpose you need. Incorporate competition into your classroom, and watch your students change.

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