Twice per year Eton boys are presented with a ‘trials card’: a sheet of paper summarising their performance in internal examinations. Among other things, the card contains the boy’s numerical ranking relative to his cohort. Faculty members have been debating for some time whether this practice needs to be changed. . Proponents argue that it promotes ‘healthy competition’ which motivates the boy towards academic success. Opponents argue that it demotivates those who rank towards the bottom end: they stop trying and blame their ‘failure’ on lack of revision. However, I would contend that the argument runs deeper than this. The root question is not whether rankings are motivational, but whether competition is a healthy basis for motivation in the first place.

As Galloway et al. (2004) point out, educational policy in Britain in the late 20th Century was based on promoting competition. This caused students to define ‘success’ in terms of their relative performance rather than their independent progress. However, judging success only by comparison to others may harm the wellbeing of students. As Atkinson (1964) describes, the very concept of this success necessitates the possibility of failure. In this sense, boys can be driven more by a fear of failure than by a desire to succeed. Martin & Marsh (2003) elaborate on the dangers of this, concluding that students become more prone to ‘anxiety, low resilience, and vulnerability to learned helplessness’. The last of these often applies when boys are numerically ranked. ‘Learned helplessness’ refers to a situation in which the student stops trying because s/he believes that her or his actions will have little effect. Even if the student has a good grasp of the subject, s/he will still see her or his performance as a ‘failure’. This has a clear demotivational effect as well as an inevitable impact on the student’s self-esteem. The ranking system implies that education is a zero-sum game – it is not possible for all students to succeed. But why should this be the case?

It can be argued that competition has a motivational effect on some students (Kilduff, 2014). If the ranking system were abandoned, students might struggle to find new ways to motivate themselves. Why is motivation so difficult to achieve? Albrecht & Karabenik (2017) argue that education should be framed as relevant to life after school. Students can thus be motivated by understanding the applications of their learning. This is a tempting approach, but somewhat unrealistic. It is very hard to extract real-world applications from many syllabi, especially at a GCSE level. Even then, teachers might struggle to convince students that the applications are relevant to them personally. At a Sixth Form level, the relevance approach to motivation might have more success, especially as students have specialised in subjects which they find interesting. Still, students tend to look at the very immediate outcomes of their actions.

Students must first discard their fear of failure. Humans, and especially teenagers, are driven by their need to achieve competence.

Ideally, students would be intrinsically motivated to learn – that is, motivated simply by a desire to understand instead of external pressures, examinations, or university prospects. This type of learning has many benefits. Students have greater satisfaction with the school experience because they actively enjoy learning. Furthermore, the quality of their learning improves (Sheldon & Biddle, 1998). However, achieving this intrinsic motivation is by no means an easy task.

What can be successful in instilling motivation?

Students must first discard their fear of failure. Humans, and especially teenagers, are driven by their need to achieve competence (Newman et al., 1992). In order to actively enjoy learning, students must be encouraged when they get an answer right, and not put down if they make a mistake. This gives students a willingness to venture ideas, which invigorates class discussion. Furthermore, students should they feel that they are making a positive contribution to the group (Bransford et al., 1999). Group projects or class discussions are an effective way to foster this feeling, and teachers should do their best to ensure everyone’s contributions are considered. Teachers could also experiment with student-led teaching, which “empowers students with direct ownership of the learning experience” (Marvell et al., 2013). This might seem daunting to a 16-year old but if this becomes the norm in the classroom, students will embrace it.

All these techniques are worthy of consideration. However, as Galloway et al. (2004) note, “…there is no consensus about the nature of motivation, nor even about the most appropriate way to analyse it.” With this in mind, there is no one system which can motivate everyone. The onus is on the student to develop his or her own method, and the school can only do its best to provide an environment which makes this as easy as possible. Despite some of the concerns voiced, there is still a place for competition in education. After all, a sense of competition prepares students for the competitive world they will enter after university. However, what should underpin motivation is an environment which makes learning as enjoyable and as rewarding as possible.


Albrecht, J. A. & Karabenick, S. A. (2018). Relevance for Learning and Motivation in Education. The Journal of Experimental Education, 86(1), 1-10.

Atkinson, J. (1964). An Introduction to Motivation. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.

Galloway, D., Rogers, C., Armstrong, D., Leo, E. & Jackson, C. (2004). Ways of understanding motivation, in H. Daniels and A. Edwards (eds.) The Routledge Falmer Reader in Psychology of Education. London: Routledge Falmer.

Kilduff, G.J. (2014). Driven to Win: Rivalry, Motivation and Performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(80), 944-952.

Martin, A. J., & Marsh, H. W. (2003). Fear of failure: Friend or foe?. Australian Psychologist. 38(1), 31–38.

Marvell, A., Simm, D., Schaaf, R. & Harper, R. (2013). Students as scholars: evaluating student-led learning and teaching during fieldwork. Journal of Geography in Higher Education. 37(4), 547-566.

Sheldon, K. M., & Biddle, B. J. (1998). Standards, accountability, and school reform: Perils and pitfalls. Teachers College Record. 100(1), 164–180.