Segments Rock! The Value of Virtual Competitions

There’s a guy who lives in my neighborhood. I think he lives here. I haven’t met him and I don’t yet know him even in the virtual way you can get to know people on listservs (remember those?) or social media.

The segment in question.

The segment in question.

So I’m not exactly yet trash talking him. But we’re close to trash talking. See, we are competitors. We are trying to figure out who runs faster on a Bird Hills trail from Newport Road to Bird Road. A couple of weeks ago, I got third overall, then he beat me on it, and this week I did my best to beat him and get back the bronze medal. I succeeded! Take that, French guy! How’s your Maginot Line holding up now? Huh? (I think he’s French. I don’t know. I have nothing against the French, but if we’re competing, we might as well get nationalist about it. I can’t imagine a running event where the Finns don’t beat the French.)

You might be puzzled about how I can compete — continuously — against someone I’ve never met. It’s easy: it’s a virtual competition. It’s a virtual competition made possible by Strava, an endurance sport logging tool. Strava is like a bunch of other cloud-based exercise logging services and just one of the many I use. (To get technical about this: I log my runs with my Garmin GPS watch, which uploads my runs to Garmin’s Strava counterpart, Garmin Connect, which kindly transfers my data over to Strava.) Strava is fantastic because of the incredibly rich analytics I get for my runs and occasional bike rides. But what really has reinvigorated my running are Strava’s segments.

Segments are bits of a route that someone decides to tag as benchmarks tests, usually just for themselves, but, given the nature of these cloud-based tools, for others as well. If the segment you created is an area where other people go, they’ll get the info about it when they log their workout on the site in question. And thus begins a virtual competition.

Or does it? For me, yes, with qualifications. But for others, according to my anecdata, definitely not. In fact, my colleagues in psychology have a reasonable explanation for this: rivalry increases among people with similar performances when they are ranked near the top, and decreases when the chance of getting the gold, or the bronze, or any meaningful recognition diminishes. If you are ranked 200 in something, you are not particularly excited about beating 199, the story suggests, with pretty compelling results.

So on this particular segment, since we’re talking about the third best time, I’m pretty darned interested in keeping my (maybe) neighbor/the French dude, away from the prize. On many other segments, where I’m nowhere near the top — Ann Arbor has some seriously fast runners — I don’t care if I’m number 65 or 265. Whatevs, I say on those segments.

What’s really cool about Strava (and probably about other such tools) is that you can make the competition meaningful. Individuals enter parameters about themselves into the system, and you can drill down and limit the pool to the people who share your parameters, whether it’s age, weight, gender, or some combination.


I now have bronze on the segment and, dammit!, will keep it.

Sure, the parameters are limited, and there’s no way everyone can make themselves feel that they are competitive. But given the pursuits available, there might be. Not a runner? Try weightlifting. Or target shooting. Or walking. Or knitting. Or chess.

Does this mean that I want to endorse the creepy idea that “Everyone is special”? No. But if we do think, as we should, that for some people, meaningful competition can become a source of motivation to push beyond their current limits, then we should think about how to create them. I mean, there is nothing intrinsically valuable about the Newport Road-Bird Road segment, but given the people who’ve run it, it makes me push harder, and run more.

This blog, despite its name, is motivated by (a) my interest in teaching better and (b) that competition does not belong in education. So this post might seem like a weird anomaly. But the fact is that we have students who are motivated by competition. This, I hope, helps us think of ways in which we can tap into that motivation for more than the usual suspects while also not alienating those for whom all of this still remains creepy.

So, for now, my eye is on this guy from my neighborhood, and whatever segments he chooses to run.

Competitiveness and the Problem of Grading

Back in the 1990s, I used to do a noncompetitive martial art. It was so much fun that I almost dropped out of grad school to become an instructor. It also had its unfun aspects, which is why I’m not doing it anymore. What I want to talk about here is the noncompetitive aspect. What do you think was the effect of this egalitarian, non-selfish aspect? At our school, at least, among the serious practitioners, at least, everything became a competition. Not only did everyone compete on the mat, in every practice (“Ha, bastard, let me show you how much better my technique is!” “No, loser, it’s not about technique but about whether I can throw you. Watch!”) but off the mat, too (“Jack is not as loyal to the chief instructor as Jill.”).

After I quit the martial art, I started running competitively. I loooved racing. It turned out I was relatively good, so I would place pretty well in smaller races or in the age groups of bigger ones. That’s a great discovery when you grew up as a non-athletic klutz. I also liked competition. But the most interesting fact was that, among my training buddies, there was none of that creepy competitiveness my martial arts school had had. Except for the occasional macho jackass who didn’t know the difference between races and training, we trained hard but totally noncompetitively. After all, we had the actual races to see who could do what.

The author in Hopkington with some friends, before his fifth Boston Marathon.

It was also interesting to notice that the jackasses for whom every practice was a race actually didn’t do so well.

Being competitive is good in some instances and not so good at others. This is familiar to all athletes who have reflected on their practice. You can also draw a broader theoretical observation: the rules with which an institution operates might foster the behaviors it values and wants to promote — or do the very opposite. A competitive sport helped foster a collaborative training practice for me and my friends, which improved everyone’s performance. A vague ideology of noncompetition in the martial art helped foster insidious competition in which sniping, griping, and back-biting flourished and progress was random.

* * *

The first reading in my Introduction to Political Theory is a cool essay by Louis Menand on the purpose of college. Although it’s not formally a piece of political theory, it works like one: it takes a step back from a familiar institution — American higher education in this case — and explores theoretically the goals and values that institution tries to foster. One of Menand’s points is that, since 1945, American higher education has embraced two very different theories, meritocracy (use college as a sorting mechanism to identify the talented, the mediocre, and the untalented) and democracy (make sure all graduates have the skills and talents democratic citizenship requires).

Menand doesn’t spend very much time on what kinds of behaviors higher education fosters internally. This is not a complaint; it’s not a central part of his argument. But it is related, so it’s worth asking questions about one of the most importance incentive mechanisms of education: grading.

Educational institutions don’t, for the most part, explicitly aim at competition between students. But depending on their assessment systems, some implicitly do. The most obvious case is ranking, which is still frequently done in law schools. It’s not surprising. Law schools are a kind of a pedagogical North Korea (totally backward, but in a cheerful denial about it): their use of one-time, high-stakes instruments for assessment and the Socratic Method already prove that. The ranking approach is the most insidious one, as it creates incentives not only to compete with your peers, but to actively hurt them. Come to Law School — We’ll turn you into pedagogical Tonya Hardings!

But law schools aren’t the only offenders. Even something like grading on a curve can foster perversely competitive tendencies — while simultaneously demotivating effort at learning. Now “grading on a curve” can mean a couple of different things. It can simply mean setting the median grade in an assessment instrument, but not really caring about what the distribution should be. Or it can mean making sure the shape of the resulting distribution is that familiar bell-shape.

Is this the distribution of your students? In every class? Every section? Regardless of where you teach? Amazing!

Or other related things. The problem with each of those is that it either (a) assumes students in a class are always, for the most part, just like students in another iteration of the class or (b) insists that, regardless of what the students in a course are like, their final outcome should make them look like students in other iterations of the course. In other words, (a) you’ll always think you have some really weak students, some really strong students, and lots of middle-of-the-road students or (b) you think that no matter what the distribution of talent in your course, they should look like a random sample of few weak, few strong, and lots of middling types. I’ll admit, sure, it’s possible students are similar, but you’ll need data independent of your assessment instrument to show it. Good luck with that! It can be done, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts most of the folks who grade on a curve haven’t done their homework on this. So, on either option, it seems ill-motivated.

And meanwhile, students have incentives to compete, in the bad way I experienced in my martial arts school. If the median is set beforehand, making sure others do worse than you will help you. And if the course insists on a normal distribution, it sends a totally perverse signal to everyone that everyone aspiring to do their best and actually doing well is impossible. Should it be?