1. Team-based Competition
The first few competitions that I tried to set up my classroom were competitions between individuals. My co-teacher, however, gently and wisely nudged me towards setting up team competitions. When teams compete there is less risk of individuals becoming demotivated by activities which they feel create too much pressure or attention on them as individuals. With competition organized around teams, it is less likely students will feel the type of negative pressure and stress that can demotivate some students. Credit for success and for failure is spread across the group and therefore weighs less heavily on each individual student's shoulders. Group competition is also better than individualized competition because it provides the teacher another means by which to teach collaboration skills that will benefit students throughout their education and careers.
2. Interdependence in Teams
Just because you put students in groups to compete doesn't mean they will actually work together effectively as a team. Many teams will have a cocky and/or extroverted student who will be happy do most of the group's work in a competition. Teachers need to take steps to build interdependence in teams and make sure that all team members participate in the competition. One easy move is to randomize who will provide the team's answers or ideas through numbered heads. Also, when designing any group activities, I prefer group size 3 to 4 students. This size is enough to create a collective intelligence that should benefit the group, and small enough to avoid free riding by less engaged students.
3. Avoid Zero-sum Games & Juggernaut Teams
Zero-sum games require that for each winner, there is a loser. In the classroom, you risk demotivating many of your students if you only use zero-sum competitions. It is not necessary to organize pseudo-competitive self-esteem building activities in which everyone's a winner, but it is possible to design competition along what I call the Olympics model. Instead of just one winner, either individual or group, why not have at least gold, silver, and bronze winners? Also demotivating can be the situation in which one team is too much better than the others. I prefer multiple short rounds of competition because this allows more teams the potential to win and I can also quickly reorganize teams if I realize that one team is too strong for much actual competition to happen.
4. Competition between Classes
A great way to avoid some students within a class feeling like they cannot win is to set up competition between different classes. If, for example, you have two Algebra 1 classes of the same academic level, have them compete against each other in someway instead of or in addition to competitions within the class. Such competition with other classes may allow you to cultivate positive peer pressure within the class and help to avoid the potential negative social consequences of always pitting groups of students within the same class against each other. Even if you do not have two classes of the same type, maybe a colleague at your school would be open to establishing some sort of competition between similar classes. There are also websites that allow for students and classes, even in different schools or countries, to compete against each other such as the math website Manga High.
5. Celebrate Success - Wall of Fame
The payoff from competition does not have to stop at the end of the competition itself. I've used my old childhood trophies to add some fun to competitions; the gold medal winning team's name is hung on the trophy until the next time we compete. Snap pictures of winning teams and add these images to a real and/or virtual class Wall of Fame. You can share these pictures with parents who will then have an opportunity to ask their child about their shining moment at school. The pictures also provide you with a quick way to scan to see who hasn't had their turn to enjoy the limelight, and see how you can encourage them with other means.
Competition can be a double-edged sword. Be sure you set it up so that you are not simultaneously motivating one group of students and demotivating another.