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Chess in Education Research Summary

Compiled by Dr. Robert Ferguson

This summary has drawn freely from several sources including Dr. Tim Redman’s Chess as Education: Character Assassination or Life of the Mind and Robert Ferguson’s doctoral dissertation. The following studies will be reviewed briefly.

  • Chess and Aptitudes by Albert Frank
  • Chess and Cognitive Development by Johan Christiaen
  • Developing Critical and Creative Thinking Through Chess by Robert Ferguson
  • Chess as a Way to Teach Thinking by Dianne Horgan
  • The Development of Reasoning and Memory Through Chess by Robert Ferguson
  • The Effect of Chess on Reading Scores by Stuart Margulies
  • Étude Comparative sur les Apprentissages en Mathématiques 5e Année by Louise Gaudreau
  • Playing Chess: A Study of Problem-Solving Skills by Philip Rifner

John Artise in Chess and Education states: "Visual stimuli tend to improve memory more than any other stimuli; . . . chess is definitely an excellent memory exerciser the effects of which are transferable to other subjects where memory is necessary." The following studies offer some hard evidence to support the claims of Artise and others.

The Zaire study, Chess and Aptitudes, lead by Dr. Albert Frank at the Uni Protestant School (now Lisanga School) in Kisangani, Zaire, was conducted during the 1973-74 school year.

Frank wanted to find out whether the ability to learn chess is a function of a) spatial aptitude, b) perceptive speed, c) reasoning, d) creativity, or e) general intelligence. Secondly, Frank wondered whether learning chess could influence the development of abilities in one or more of the above five types. To what extent does chess playing contribute to the development of certain abilities? If it can be proven that it does, then the introduction of chess into the programs of secondary schools would be recommended.

The first hypothesis was confirmed. There was a significant correlation between the ability to play chess well, and spatial, numerical, administrative-directional, and paper work abilities. Other correlations obtained were all positive, but only the above were significantly so. This finding tends to show that ability in chess is not due to the presence in an individual of only one or two abilities but that a large number of aptitudes all work together in chess. Chess utilizes all the abilities of an individual.

The second hypothesis was confirmed for two aptitudes. It was found that learning chess had a positive influence on the development of both numerical and verbal aptitudes.

Chess and Cognitive Development was directed by Johan Christiaen. The research was conducted during the 1974-76 school years at the Assenede Municipal School in Gent, Belgium.

The trial group consisted of 40 fifth grade students (average age 10.6 years), who were divided randomly into two groups, experimental and control, of 20 students each. All students were given a battery of tests that included Piaget’s tests for cognitive development and the P.M.S. tests. The tests were administered to all of the students at the end of fifth grade and again at the end of sixth grade. The experimental group received 42 one-hour chess lessons using Jeugdschaak (Chess for Youths) as a textbook.

A first analysis of the investigation results compared the trial and control groups using ANOVA. The results showed significant differences between the two groups in favor of the chess players. The academic results at the end of fifth grade were significant at the .01 level. The results at the end of sixth grade were significant at the .05 level.

Dr. Gerard Dullea (1982) states that Dr. Christiaen’s study needs support, extension, and confirmation. In regard to the research, he also maintains: ". . . we have scientific support for what we have known all along--chess makes kids smarter!" (Chess Life, November, p. 16)

Ferguson’s first study, Developing Critical and Creative Thinking through Chess, expanded the support Dullea referenced. Dr. Ferguson’s ESEA Title IV-C federally funded research project was approved for three years (1979-82). It was extended for one school year (82-83) at local expense for a combined total of four years. The primary goal of the study was to provide challenging experiences that would stimulate the development of critical and creative thinking.

The project was an investigation of students identified as mentally gifted. All participants were students in the Bradford Area School District in grades 7 through 9. The primary independent variables reviewed were the chess treatment, the computer treatment, and all non-chess treatments combined. Each group met once a week for 32 weeks to pursue its interest area.

The first aspect assessed in this study is that of critical thinking. The average annual increase for the chess group was 17.3% as measured by the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal. The second aspect tested is that of creative thinking. While the entire chess group made superior gains over the other groups in all areas of creativity, the dimension that demonstrated the most significant growth was originality. Several researchers have found that gains in originality are usual for those receiving creativity training, whereas gains in fluency are often slight or nonexistent. The fact that the chess group’s gains in fluency were significant beyond the .05 level when compared to the national norms is an important discovery.

The Venezuela experiment, Learning to Think Project, tested whether chess can be used to develop intelligence of children as measured by the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children.

Both males and females showed an increase of intelligence quotient (IQ) after less than a year of studying chess in the systematic way adopted. Most students showed a significant gain after a minimum of 4.5 months. The general conclusion is that chess methodologically taught is an incentive system sufficient to accelerate the increase of IQ in elementary age children of both sexes at all socio-economic levels. It appears that this study also includes very interesting results regarding transfer of chess thinking to other areas of study. (FIDE Report, 1984, p. 74)

B.F. Skinner, an influential contemporary psychologist, wrote: "There is no doubt that this project in its total form will be considered as one of the greatest social experiments of this century" (Tudela, 1987). Because of the success of the study, the chess program was greatly expanded. Starting with the 1988-89 school year, chess lessons were conducted in all of Venezuela’s schools (Linder, 1990, p. 165). Chess is now part of the curricula at thousands of schools in nearly 30 countries around the world (Linder, p. 164).

Dianne Horgan has conducted several studies using chess as the independent variable. In "Chess as a Way to Teach Thinking," Horgan (1987) used a sample of 24 elementary children (grades 1 through 6) and 35 junior high and high school students. Grade and skill rating were correlated (r=.48). She found elementary players were among the top ranked players and concluded that children could perform a highly complex cognitive task as well as most adults.

Horgan found that while adults progress to expertise from a focus on details to a more global focus, children seem to begin with a more global, intuitive emphasis. She deduced: "This may be a more efficient route to expertise as evidenced by the ability of preformal operational children to learn chess well enough to compete successfully with adults" (Horgan, p. 10). She notes that young children can be taught to think clearly and that learning these skills early in life can greatly benefit later intellectual development. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell agrees. In his book Your Child’s Intellect, Bell encourages some knowledge of chess as a way to develop a preschooler’s intellect and academic readiness (Bell, 1982, pp. 178-179).

During the 1987-88 Development of Reasoning and Memory through Chess, all students in a sixth grade self-contained classroom at M.J. Ryan School were required to participate in chess lessons and play games. None of the pupils had previously played chess. This experiment was more intensified than Ferguson’s other studies because students played chess daily over the course of the project. The program continued from September 21, 1987 through May 31, 1988.

The dependent variables were the gains on the Test of Cognitive Skills (TCS) Memory subtest (p<0.001) and the Verbal Reasoning subtest (p<0.002) from the California Achievement Tests battery. The differences from the pre and posttests were measured statistically using the t test of significance. Gains on the tests were compared to national norms as well as within the treatment group.

Margulies’ (1991) The Effect of Chess on Reading Scores: District Nine Chess Program Second Year Report evaluates the reading performance of 53 elementary pupils who participated in the chess program and compares their results to 1118 nonparticipants.

Dr. Margulies concluded that chess participation enhances reading performance. The results of the paired t-test were significant beyond the .01 level. The results of the Chi Square test for the chess players in the computer-enhanced and high-scoring nonparticipants were significant at the .01 level.

Margulies’ study conclusively proved that pupils who learned chess enjoyed a significant increase in their reading skills. Inside Chess (February 21, 1994, p. 3) states: "The Margulies Study is one of the strongest arguments to finally prove what hundreds of teachers knew all along--chess is a learning tool."

Étude Comparative sur les Apprentissages en Mathématiques 5e Année by Louise Gaudreau (30 June 1992) has recently been translated and offers some of the most exciting news yet about chess in education. The study took place in the province of New Brunswick from July 1989 through June of 1992.

Three groups totaling 437 fifth graders were tested in this research. The control group (Group A) received the traditional math course throughout the study. Group B received a traditional math curriculum in first grade and thereafter an enriched program with chess and problem solving instruction. The third group (Group C) received the chess enriched math curriculum beginning in the first grade.

There were no significant differences among the groups as far as basic calculations on the standardized test; however, there were statistically significant differences for Group B and C in the problem solving portion of the test (21.46% difference in favor of Group C over the Control Group) and on the comprehension section (12.02% difference in favor of Group C over the Control Group). In addition, Group C’s problem solving scores increased from an average 62% to 81.2%!

Playing Chess: A Study of Problem-Solving Skills in Students with Average and Above Average Intelligence by Philip Rifner was conducted during the 1991-1992 school term. The study sought to determine whether middle school students who learned general problem solving skills in one domain could apply them in a different domain. The training task involved learning to play chess, and the transfer task required poetic analysis. The study was conducted in two parts.

Results of the quasi-experiment indicated treatment effects only for the transfer task. Results of the quantitative-descriptive study indicated treatment effects for all variables among gifted subjects but only on the number of methods used for students of average ability. Data indicated that inter-domain transfer can be achieved if teaching for transfer is an instructional goal and that transfer occurs more readily and to a greater extent among students with above average ability.

Why does chess have this impact?

Why did chess players score higher on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking as well as the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal? Briefly, there appear to be at least seven significant factors: 1) Chess accommodates all modality strengths. 2) Chess provides a far greater quantity of problems for practice. 3) Chess offers immediate punishments and rewards for problem solving. 4) Chess creates a pattern or thinking system that, when used faithfully, breeds success. The chess playing students had become accustomed to looking for more and different alternatives, which resulted in higher scores in fluency and originality. 5) Competition. Competition fosters interest, promotes mental alertness, challenges all students, and elicits the highest levels of achievement (Stephan, 1988). 6) A learning environment organized around games has a positive affect on students’ attitudes toward learning. This affective dimension acts as a facilitator of cognitive achievement (Allen & Main, 1976). Instructional gaming is one of the most motivational tools in the good teacher’s repertoire. Children love games. Chess motivates them to become willing problem solvers and spend hours quietly immersed in logical thinking. These same young people often cannot sit still for fifteen minutes in the traditional classroom. 7) Chess supplies a variety and quality of problems. As Langen (1992) states: "The problems that arise in the 70-90 positions of the average chess game are, moreover, new. Contexts are familiar, themes repeat, but game positions never do. This makes chess good grist for the problem-solving mill."

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