Chess:  Improving Academic Performance

David Howard

 

In an environment of increasing emphasis on measurable educational progress as exhibited through the results of standardized tests, a proven method of improving both problem solving and reading skills goes underutilized.  In fact, it is rarely used in American schools.  There is a large body of evidence that instruction in the game of chess provides measurable improvement in several areas of academic achievement.  Chess instruction should be incorporated into education curricula for all students.

To most people, chess is viewed as a recreational game played by adults and motivated children.  More than this, the game has been demonstrated to improve academic and cognitive abilities in students between six and fifteen years of age.  While there are intuitive expectations that correlation between chess playing and academic performance might occur in the area of mathematics, it is more surprising that performance improvement has also been demonstrated in reading and verbal reasoning.

Chess has been studied in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Albert Frank, a school director in Zaire, studied chess in 1973-4, demonstrating that chess had a positive improvement on the development of both numerical and verbal aptitudes.  Significant correlation was found between chess ability and a broad range of beneficial skills in the areas of spatial and numerical relationships, administrative-directional tasks, and paper-work skills.  Johan Christiaen of Belgium studied fifth graders in his doctoral dissertation to show significant cognitive benefit for chess players as measured on Piagetís tests for cognitive development.  A Venezuelan study that showed improved IQ scores for students of both genders and  all socio-economic status groups resulted in the addition of chess study for all students starting in the 1988-9 school year.  Chess is incorporated in the curricula of thousands of schools in over 30 countries.  It is taught to all students in such diverse locations as Russia, Iceland, and Venezuela.

There have been a number of studies within the United States. Robert Ferguson has demonstrated a 17% improvement in critical thinking skills among a sample of 7th-9th graders who studied chess, as well as growth in the creative thinking areas of originality and fluency.  Dianne Horgan has observed that learning to think clearly early in life benefits later intellectual development.  Former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell has stated that chess develops intellect and academic readiness in preschool children.  Stuart Margulies has provided statistical evidence that playing chess improves reading skills.

Chess promotes academic achievement because of several factors.  Chess provides visual stimuli, which tend to improve memory.  From a problem solving perspective, students are presented with a wealth of situations: 70-90 positions in a typical game.  Players immediately experience punishment or reward for their decisions, a key characteristic of operant conditioning.  Chess establishes a learning environment in which students may spend hours engaged in quiet logical thinking.  This is a process that develops their concentration skills.  For those that become interested, play continues outside of the classroom environment;  child chess players are voluntarily and willingly entering into learning experiences by playing on their own time outside of the classroom. 

While the instruction of any subject to speakers with limited skills in the language of instruction is challenging, chess offers a favorable benefit to bilingual students.  Because much of the cognitive benefit comes from play and independent study over the board, the learning process does not depend heavily on language.  For students newly arrived from countries where chess is already taught in the schools, chess provides an opportunity for continuity in an otherwise unfamiliar environment.  This is also an opportunity to break down barriers between bilingual and monolingual students, who will have the opportunity to compete in an intellectual pursuit.

If the argument is so clear, why isnít chess instruction more common in academic curricula?  Most significantly, chess is a game;  we tend to have a bias against games as being anything more than recreation. It is not immediately apparent to most observers that skills developed playing chess extend beyond the chessboard.  Time spent instructing chess takes away from time otherwise spent in the classroom.  To many, chess as a high school club activity is more than enough.  Not insignificantly, not all teachers play chess, or even know the rules. 

Games have been used as a teaching tool for quite some time.  For many people, they are still only a form of recreation.  It is recognized, however, that play constitutes one of the major forms of learning in young children. Games that incorporate academic concepts provide a mechanism for practicing those skills outside of the classroom.  Within the classroom, appropriate games serve as a motivational tool for learning, both as an integral part of a lesson or as an incentive in self-contained classrooms for completing other material.

Learning to play a game is not of much educational benefit if the skills are not transferable to other domains.  It has been shown that training in general problem solving via classroom instruction of chess can be transferred to other cognitive domains, such as poetic analysis.  Key findings from research on the subject are that teaching for the transfer of skills must be one of the instructional goals and that the transfer was more apparent and more frequent among students of above average ability.  

Many teachers do not themselves play chess and are unprepared to teach the subject.  There are a number of course outlines and training programs that have been prepared to address this issue.  The University of Texas at Dallas offers both undergraduate and graduate courses on the subject of chess in education.  The United States Chess Federation is in itself a tremendous resource for educational and training materials for instructors.

As a final possible objection, there is an opportunity cost experienced as a result of the instruction time spent on chess rather than other subjects.   However, the benefits of chess instruction, as demonstrated in strategically vital areas of cognitive and academic development, argue in favor of spending the time.  The leverage of classroom instruction being reinforced by home practice means that more learning hours are experienced for each hour of instruction than in most subjects. 

Chess should be part of every curriculum.  The benefits are clear and wide-reaching in very fundamental ways that translate into increased learning, academic performance, and test scores.

Sources

            Englehardt, C., Hauser, B. (1999).  Graduation 2010: The chess component of critical thinking. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research Association, Clear Point, AL, November 17-19, 1999. Retrieved October 11, 2001 from ProQuest Database.

 

            Ferguson, R. (1995) Chess in education research summary.  Paper presented at the Chess in Education A Wise Move Conference at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, January 12-13, 1995) Retrieved October 11, 2001 from http://users.penn.com/~amchess/research2.html.

 

            Ferguson, R. (2001) The use and impact of chess. Retrieved October 11, 2001 from http://www.amchess.org/research/chess%20research%20summary.pdf.

 

            Schmidt, B. (1983) How to teach chess in public schools: A course outline. [Electronic Abstract downloaded October 15, 2001 from ERIC, document ED229302]. Raleigh, N.C