Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter   2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  4

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Competition in Political Science Pedagogy

Elizabeth Ellen Gordon, Kennesaw State University, GA

William Gillespie, Kennesaw State University, GA


Bio:  Gordon, PhD. is Associate Professor of Political Science and Gillespie, PhD. is Assistant Professor of Political Science.


Abstract  We argue that certain intercollegiate activities such as mock trial effectively combine competitive and cooperative elements to provide unique educational opportunities.  After a survey of other Mock Trial coaches, we conclude that competition does not automatically result in negative educational outcomes.  Instead, mock trial teams appear to mix competition with cooperation to gain positive educational benefits.    
















I am the champion of education in the competitive forum. Competition, clearly, is not the best fit for some; they're adequately served by all the rest our university offers. But there are students who flourish in the competitive arena and, for them, the educational product is truly profound.”

            Undergraduate mock trial team coach



Competition gets almost no respect in pedagogical literature. “Cooperative” or “collaborative” approaches are in vogue, while the rigors of competition as a learning process and tool are disparaged as unhealthy (Kohn 1992; Slavin 1995). Despite the persistence of this kind of argument in educational circles, colleges and high schools sponsor all sorts of teams (athletic, artistic and academic) that compete against other schools on a regular basis.  How are we as undergraduate educators to understand this apparent disparity between educational theory and practice regarding competition at the collegiate level? Based on our own experiences, our first reaction is to question whether competition is always an impediment to learning and to investigate how it might actually enhance education.  To consider this issue, we look at a program with which we are very familiar:  the world of intercollegiate mock trial teams competing under the auspices of the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA).  We will examine whether mock trial teams can provide a useful mix of cooperation and competition to spur learning.


Kohn's Argument Against Competition

Kohn's influential book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, arguing that competition imposes uniformly negative consequences on society, ignited a debate within the fields of education and psychology over the virtues and the vices of competition.  Kohn's major thesis is stated succinctly as “trying to do well and trying to beat others are two separate things” (Kohn 1992, 55).  He believes that many individuals have been socialized into enjoying (or at least tolerating) competition, and he decries the negative psychological costs of competition imposed upon individuals and society, such as diminished empathy with others, increased aggression, and distrust of others.  Kohn ultimately ties these negative costs of competitiveness to world problems such as war, inequality, and political corruption. He argues that refocusing educational efforts and measurements of success to emphasize cooperation over competition will lead to a better student and eventually a better world. His views echo in a crop of recent studies (e.g., Hancock 2001; Wang and Yang 2003; Lam et al 2004) which, while less polemical than Kohn’s, nevertheless caution against competitive approaches in various educational settings.


However, some recent educational research indicates that the relationships between competition, cooperation, and learning are not so clear.  Studies of gifted secondary school students (Bergin and Cook 2000;  Feldhusen et al 2000) suggest that competitive learning may be preferred and deemed beneficial among this population. Recently, a few other scholars  (Ediger 2001; Spader 2002; Ghaith 2003) have presented some benefits of competition in the college classroom environment. The relationship between competition and educational methods seems more complex and situational than Kohn and his followers suggest.


Does Mock Trial Provide a Useful Counter Example?

Mock Trial provides a useful test case to investigate the effects of cooperative learning within a competitive environment.  Mock trial requires students to cooperate on matters of strategy and tactics before and during trial. To succeed, teams must present a superior explanation of the case compared to their opponents’.  Thus, this interesting feature of intense competition between college mock trial teams coincides with the necessary requirements that team members cooperate, build trust, and learn to communicate a united vision if they are to prevail.


In competitions, neither side can create new facts that materially affect the case, but must instead rely upon their understanding of courtroom procedure to support their theory.  They do this by challenging the other team's theory, presenting their side of the case effectively through witness testimony, and providing opening and closing statements that amalgamate the entire team performance into a coherent picture of the case.  Individual accountability comes through scoring for performances by each attorney and witness. However, high scores for a witness and directing attorney become possible only through cooperation, trust, and practice.  Because mock trial success only occurs through the cooperative learning of teams, we believe that it provides a useful platform to evaluate cooperative learning that can occur within a competitive environment.



First, we sought descriptive details of how mock trial programs operate by surveying coaches of AMTA mock trial teams during the 2005-2006 academic year.  We administered a traditional paper survey of coaches at large tournaments held in Tennessee and Iowa, and administered surveys online surveys to coaches who had not already responded at the tournaments. Overall, we contacted 180 coaches, and received 45 responses, for a response rate of 25 percent. Our survey instrument included questions about logistical questions about mock trial programs and open-ended pedagogical questions, especially concerning coaches’ perspectives about competition and teamwork.


Results and Discussion

Survey data support the thesis that competition is integral to mock trial programs. In many schools, competition among students begins within the program itself, with selection of team members. Approximately half of our respondents’ teams (22) conduct auditions to select team members, while others use scrimmage performance to measure ability.


Students who elect to put in the time and effort necessary to participate in mock trial are often competitive by nature. Many coaches described their typical “mockers” as law-school bound students, a group presumably more competitive than the average student, given the adversary nature of American legal practice. Five coaches included the word “competitive” in their description of the typical mock trial student in their programs, and many included adjectives such as “driven,” “motivated,” “ambitious,” and “intense,” which are qualities generally associated with competitive personality types. A few other descriptions also signaled competitive personalities. For example, one coach said typical mock trial students were “desirous of both challenge and recognition for achievement.” Another coach said this: “We draw some real top drawer, high GPA types. For them, MT allows them to see how well they do against top undergrad scholars.” 


Overwhelmingly, coaches report that the competition element enhances the learning experience. Only a couple say it detracts, while a few say it can go either way. One coach reports that cut-throat competition in his/her region had become unhealthy for those students “who aren’t headed for stints in the salt mines of the large urban law firms.” Another analyzes the competition angle this way: “The initial 'hook' for many students is the opportunity to compete in an academic rather than physical setting.  They are often people who have sought an outlet for their competitive personalities without success in athletic settings, and are excited to find their strength elsewhere. That competitive nature often causes conflict, particularly early in the season as students sort through their roles on the team.”


But, for the most part, coaches report that the competitive element enhances learning in several ways. First, many coaches perceive that competition motivates their students to put in the time and do their best work. Some indicate that no other means of motivation is as effective. Engaging in competition allows measures students’ progress, provides a goal, raises the stakes of the activity, and provides rewards.


Second, as one coach said, “the activity faithfully recreates many of the dynamics of the adversarial model, and my students report learning a lot.” For the goal of substantive learning about how American law functions, especially in litigation, competition is an essential element. Mock trial allows students to experience some of the processes, constraints, and emotions associated with competition in a courtroom.


Third, the stress of competition itself helps students gain flexibility and adaptability. Many coaches mention the ability to “think on one’s feet” as a skill that students acquire in the fluid environment of a mock trial competition. “Competition enhances the learning experience.  The students seem to absorb lessons more quickly and thoroughly under fire,” writes one coach. Another writes: “They also learn to adjust and adapt quickly to the different evaluators. That is something they don't get from their regular classes.”


Fourth, some coaches explain that competing against other schools allows their students to learn by seeing different approaches to the same case. Representative comments along these lines include: “Students get to see what other teams do and learn from those experiences.” “[Competition] exposes the students to different techniques and approaches that the other teams use.”


Fifth, many coaches explain that the competition enhances camaraderie and teamwork among their students. One coach explains that competition “gives a sense of duty to fulfill an obligation to their fellow teammates.” “Students learn teamwork in an interactive and dynamic setting,” reports another.


A close reading of the survey results supports the idea that competition is the factor that makes mock trial programs work. While the teamwork aspect is pedagogically beneficial, that, too, is enhanced by competition. As a motivator, competition is essential in this endeavor. While about 2/3 of the responding coaches (29) indicate that their institutions offer academic credit for mock trial, only three of these schools offer more than three credit hours per term. In fact, 16 offer no academic credit. The surveys support the common assumption that mock trial participation is time and labor intensive, and frequently, out of proportion to the academic credit given. Hence, something other than academic credit must be motivating students. The surveys help quantify just how large the time investment can be. Formal team meetings consume up to four hours per week, with supplemental informal meetings often constituting another two to six hours of mock trial work weekly. Participation in scrimmages and tournaments represents another significant time investment.  While about half of our respondents indicate that their teams compete in three or four invitational tournaments yearly, about one-sixth send teams to more than four invitational tournaments per year. The vast majority coach teams that scrimmage informally with other schools. All but one have competed in AMTA regional qualifying tournaments and many in one or more national tournaments. The mock trial season spans most of the academic year, with case preparation beginning in August and championship tournaments held in April. Sustaining student interest for that long period of time requires a powerful motivating factor presumably provided by frequent tournaments.


While many coaches agree that competition enhances teambuilding, coaches are almost evenly split on whether or not teamwork is difficult for their students. Most who acknowledge the challenge qualify their response by explaining that teamwork was “sometimes” a problem or was a problem for some students. One coach is much more emphatic on the difficulties of teamwork: “Absolutely, positively, without a doubt. All of 'us' coaches have talked about this and talk about it again every year.  Some years are worse than others, mostly when there are more new mockers - seasoned mockers are not as bad.  I even think it would be beneficial to have some kind of teamwork or teambuilding class prior to mock trial.” Another describes in more detail the ways in which teamwork is a challenge: “In terms of problem solving, preparation, criticism, teamwork is not a problem, but in terms of the subtle aspects of team support, teamwork is a problem.  In other words, students need to work on the unspoken moral support in all aspects of the mock trial process.”


While coaches indicate that students who choose to do mock trial often have competitive personalities to begin with, mock trial does not necessarily attract those with refined teamwork skills. Our own coaching experience leads us to characterize typical mock trial students as leaders and individualists. Nothing in the survey results disputes this impression. When asked in an open-ended question to describe the typical mock trial student, not one coach used words such as “team player,” “cooperative,” “collaborative,” or the like. Many instead indicate that mock trial students learn to work as a team through participation; in fact, 19 coaches mentioned teamwork or some variation (work with a group, collaboration, etc.) in an open-ended question about what skills mock trial develops in students. Coaches say they emphasize it from the start, label it as essential, and place it at the heart of the learning experience. Of teamwork, one coach answers as follows: “The more difficult it is for a given student, the more he or she is gaining from the experience. My prime example was a guy who arrived after being home schooled. I could see his talent as a scholar and thought him to be more disciplined academically than most. He found teamwork to be difficult but he needed to adjust to the demands of the team. He became more patient, more sensitive to others and better [able] to adapt to changing circumstances.” Judging by coaches’ responses on the question about competition, learning how to function as a team is enhanced by competition.


A few coaches cast the teamwork learning experience in an entirely different light. While learning to work with others may challenge students used to being leaders and individual achievers, it may also enhance the learning experience for students who have not thrived in social situations, those the coaches described as introverted, in need of better speaking skills, or “geeky and awkward.” Experiencing camaraderie and developing confidence through team competition can be very positive experiences for socially awkward students, as our coaching experience also indicates.


While the stress and excitement associated with competition enhance the bonding experience, individual responsibility to the team is also key. In mock trial scoring, the winning team is determined by the totaled scores of individual performances by attorneys and witnesses. No one is unimportant, and any individual failings can significantly harm the team. At the same time, individuals tend to score higher when they are working well as team members, with smooth interplay among attorneys on a team and between attorneys and their witnesses. One potentially problematic aspect is the fact that most tournaments include awards for outstanding individual attorneys or witnesses, in addition to awards for teams. This individual competition is positive in that it spurs strong members to excel even when competing on weak teams. On the other hand, it can set up rivalry among team members, in terms of, for example, flashier witness roles or more time allotted for a witness examination within the strict time limits enforced during a tournament. Experienced mockers learn, however, that such intra-team rivalries are counterproductive to earning a good team score.



The results of the coaches’ survey lead us to conclude that AMTA-sponsored mock trial is appropriate for a study of the pedagogy of competition. Clearly, mock trial creates some of the conditions researchers such as Slavin (1995) recommend for cooperative learning in a competitive environment. Furthermore, the survey results reinforce our suspicions that many educators invest themselves in the demanding world of undergraduate mock trial because they see the activity as educationally valuable not in spite of, but partly because of, the competitive element. Coaches tell us that competition enhances students’ absorption of substantive material (e.g., legal theories and the dynamics of the adversary system) and also promotes development of important life skills (e.g., teamwork and flexibility). The understanding of any pedagogical approach that appears to accomplish these twin tasks should be refined and examined for maximal effectiveness in implementation. While a few valuable articles on mock trial pedagogy (Vile and Van Dervort 1994; Ratcheter 1995; Kravetz 2001; Spader 2002) have appeared, they are more anecdotal and descriptive in nature. The work of scholars like these, coupled with widespread interest in classroom simulations and the rapid growth of AMTA, leads us to believe more systematic empirical research on mock trial pedagogy is warranted. This article represents a first step toward that goal.




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