Collaborative, Individualized, and Competitive Learning

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Collaborative, individualized, and competitive learning are instructional methods that can be used with the project-based learning approach in middle school, with collaborative learning (sometimes known as cooperative learning) likely being the most popular. Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time investigating and responding to an authentic and engaging learning activity that prompts students to ask complex questions, identify a problem, and formulate a solution (

Collaboration involves two or more students working together and being graded on the collective solution to a problem for the project. The individualized approach involves students working on a project, or a portion of it, independently of each other and being judged using the same criteria. The competitive approach means students work separately on a project, with solutions assessed on the same criteria and the results available for comparisons among students. Competitive can also be used in some instances between groups working on the same project-based learning problem.

This article addresses the advantages and disadvantages of using collaborative, individualized, and competitive learning in the context of teachers matching the usage of each with what they want students to experience and learn. Under certain conditions collaborative, individualized, and competitive approaches can each be effective. As with all instructional approaches, effective use is dependent on teachers’ knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Further, teachers need to understand when to use each of these instructional approaches and how to implement them.

Some experts exclusively advocate the use of one of these three instructional approaches. However, collaborative, individualized, and competitive approaches need not be mutually exclusive of each other. In certain situations they may even be used to complement one another. For example, the individualized approach could be initially used by members within a group to pursue an interest area of the problem being addressed by a project. The results of each student’s individualized area of pursuit can then be presented as input to the total group for consideration and analysis for solving the project’s problem. Collaboration can then be used within the group to develop a solution to the project’s problem. The competitive approach could be used between groups, although this should be considered with caution based on the developmental levels of students.

Collaboration (Cooperative Learning)

Collaboration is an instructional approach often infused into various curriculum programs such as language arts, science, and social studies through project-based learning. Cooperative learning, which has been around for decades, incorporates collaborative learning; both of which stress establishing a learning community environment. Hence, the terms collaboration and cooperative learning are used here interchangeably.

Five principles helpful in facilitating effective cooperative learning groups are: (1) distributed or shared leadership; (2) heterogeneous membership; (3) positive interdependency, recognizing and valuing dependence among each other; (4) social skill acquisition and working effectively with others; and (5) group autonomy from the teacher so that the group solves the project’s problem in its own ways (Dishon & O’Leary in A Guide for Cooperative Learning). For cooperative learning groups to be effective, it is important that students develop the motivation to help one another and be provided with ample opportunity to do so. Students should feel that they are responsible and accountable to the group for doing their best.

 Table 1 presents the advantages and disadvantages of using collaboration as an instructional approach.

Individualized and Competitive Learning

Individualized and competitive learning have many common attributes. Generally, the major difference is that with individual learning the results of a student’s work are not intentionally compared to that of other students. With competitive learning, the results of a student’s or group’s work can be compared.

Individualized learning was popular in the 1970s and was supported by many educators as “freeing up” students to pursue learning and knowledge on their own. Technological advancements over the past several decades have aided individualized education via the wealth and breadth of information available to students independent of teachers. Individualized education can also supplement numerous instructional approaches, in addition to being used independently with middle school students.

 Table 2 presents advantages and disadvantages for both competitive and individual approaches. (Advantages only applicable to competitive learning are forthcoming in Table 3.)

The competitive instructional approach has been in use since the inception of public schools. Competition is touted as a key component of capitalism, which is the backbone of the United States’ industrial and economic engines. Many business leaders believe competitive learning should be experienced by students in school through various curriculum areas and even systematically taught. Besides using competitive instruction between groups through project-based learning as previously noted, it is frequently used through extracurricular activities such as athletics and academic challenge competitions. Honor rolls and annual awards assembly days are other examples of school activities that differentiate the performance of students in a comparative manner. The new trend of digital badging—where students receive a badge or recognition for performing competency through a computer-based learning activity—also allows for performance comparisons among students, but not necessarily by name.

The competitive approach is sometimes used for a very short segment of learning to supplement other instructional approaches. For example, “KAHOOT!” is a technology-based game made up of multiple choice questions that often has high student interest and is used for quizzes, discussions, and surveys. (To create:; to play:

 Table 3 presents the advantages and disadvantages of using competitive learning.

Concluding Comments

Collaborative, individualized, and competitive instructional approaches to learning can be used effectively in middle school, with the caveat that the competitive approach should be well thought out ahead of time and developmentally appropriate for students. In certain situations, two or more of these approaches can be combined. The key to the effective use of collaborative, individualized, and competitive instructional approaches is a function of the teacher’s knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of each, skills in determining which approach to use and when to use it, and under what conditions to use each. This should be in the context of the developmental level of students and the specific learning goals pursued.