New academic games motivate students to achieve


New academic games motivate students to achieve
Coleman’s early theories on competition increase student engagement

January 14, 2016—Sixty-five percent of high school students report being bored “at least every day in class” according to a recent survey. One in six students reports being bored in every single class. In “Game Plan for Learning: Building on Coleman’s early theories, new academic competitions motivate students to achieve,” USA Today’s Greg Toppo revisits James S. Coleman’s oft-forgotten findings on teen culture, exploring how educators today can use academic competition to foster engagement, motivation, and student achievement.

In 1959, Coleman found that 40 percent of high school students wanted to be “star athletes” while less than 30 percent valued being “brilliant students.” Worse still, Coleman recorded intense social pressure among students to minimize achievement, keeping demands on the student body low and easily attainable. He characterized letter grades as interpersonal competition between students, instead recommending interscholastic competitions—team endeavors that would bring students together similar to athletic events.

Coleman’s theories were largely overshadowed at the time by his subsequent “Equality of Educational Opportunity” study, better known as the Coleman Report, published in 1966. But Toppo finds that teachers and entrepreneurs today may finally be heeding Coleman’s advice.

Technology is bringing academic competition from the podium of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, where only top students participate, to classrooms across the United States. A math team at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, uses computers to compete with a team in Carmel, Indiana. Classrooms worldwide are using a digital platform called Classcraft to earn points for punctuality, completing homework, and more.

In October 2015, Arete (originally named Interstellar), a software program created by entrepreneur Tim Kelley, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop its NCAA tournament-style academic competition, which reached over 15,000 students at 600 schools in 2014.

Toppo predicts these types of academic games will spread. “Schools still routinely use sports, games, social clubs, and band competitions to get students excited about coming to school. In fact, these activities are often the only ones that keep kids there long enough to graduate….but schools have rarely used academic competition to improve instruction,” he says.

Game Plan for Learning: Building on Coleman’s early theories, new academic competitions motivate students to achieve” will be available Wednesday, January 20 on and will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of Education Next, on newsstands by March 1.

About the Author: Greg Toppo is USA Today’s national education writer and the author of The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. Portions of this essay appeared in the book.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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