Leveraging competition to deliver better learning outcomes

As Gianni Versace put it, “It’s nice to have valid competition; it pushes you to do better”.

The competitive spirit is arguably the most powerful force driving us towards excellence. That’s because humans are competitive by nature. Unlike herd animals, who cooperate to survive, we are more individualistic and, in general, motivated by proving ourselves to be better than everyone else.

That’s true of learning (and e-learning) as well. By instilling a sense of friendly competition in e-learning instructional design, you can significantly improve engagement, motivation and learning outcomes.

While there are a number of ways to modify instructional design to leverage competition, arguably the most effective method is to use gamification.

Motivation in gaming

Why do we play games? While great game design and the sheer joy of playing are key factors, possibly the most important of all is the thrill of competing and winning – against others, or even against yourself. 

In Inside Sport Psychology (1969), sport psychologists Costas Karageorghis and Peter Terry call this kind of motivation “external, or extrinsic, motivation because it involves participation in sport for some kind of reward that is external to the process of participation”.

Extrinsic motivators include defeating other players, or winning medals or points, while intrinsic motivation is the joy of playing the game even if you aren’t keeping score.

Scoring and points 

Carrying this insight to the world of e-learning, it becomes clear that by communicating to each learner on where they stand in relation to others in the group (or in relation to where they themselves were before) they are motivated to compete and improve, and this often drives performance improvement. This can be done through public leaderboards and other gamification elements.

By assigning points to various elements of the e-learning process – for example, points for logging on, for speed of completion, and of course, for performance on assessments and micro-assessments – each learner gains an objective measure of their performance. When these scores are published on publicly visible leaderboards, there is a sense of competition between learners as they all aim to move up the rankings. Since all learners can view the rankings, pride (and to an extent, fear as well) works to drive the competitive spirit!

Other gamification elements, such as virtual medals or badges for the first to complete the module, top scorer on the assignment, and so on, can also increase the perceived extrinsic value of such achievements, and hence the motivation to attain them as well.

Gamification of assessments

While it’s important to motivate learners to log on and participate, it’s also important for instructional designers to motivate their learners to prepare for, and to do their best in, course assessments. One possible way to do so is by converting a simple assessment into a competition, with teams, levels, points and MVPs (most valued players). This has the added benefit of bringing an element of collaboration into the competition.

You can also try assessments that are games themselves, such as timed quizzes. One-on-one contests are another great way to get learners to compete against each other and achieve excellence.

Competition or cooperation?

The spirit of friendly competition is of immense value, but instructional designers should be careful not to take it too far. While competition is a natural human instinct and useful to motivate desirable actions, so is cooperation. Build in elements within the gamified module, such as team games or collaborative exercises, to encourage team building and cohesion.

Too much focus on competition at the cost of cooperation can also impact some learners, who may become demotivated. In such cases, offer an opt out option from the public leaderboard. These learners will still be able to view their own scores and compete against themselves.


Work with an e-learning partner like Hornbill FX to get the best from – and for – your learners. With specific expertise in instructional design and content creation for game-based learning and gamification, Hornbill is well placed to help you create an e-learning program that motivates your learners through competition and gamification. Get in touch with our team today.