Research has shown that chess players tend to have higher cognitive abilities. But does this mean that chess instruction improves cognitive abilities?

Mathematical problem-solving ability in particular is of great importance in educational discussions and many have proposed the use of chess instruction to improve the math abilities of students. A broad literature has developed around this topic, and researchers Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet reviewed the existing evidence in a meta-analysis published in Educational Research Review. The authors found that although there appeared to be a significant effect for the groups who played chess, the majority of the literature failed to have an active control group. In other words, chess instruction was compared to no alternative activities and thus positive effects might largely be attributed to what is known as a placebo effect. Taken in the context of a broad literature showing the failure of training in one area to transfer to performance in another, Sala and Gobet wanted to conduct their own experimental analyses with appropriate controls.

This is what they did in a new paper just published in Learning & Behavior with a focus on math ability. In the first experiment, 233 third and fourth graders were given 25 hours of chess instruction and tested on mathematical problem-solving tasks. There were three groups compared: those playing chess, those playing checkers (an active control group), and a passive control group. These groups showed no statistically significant differences in math ability on the posttest. In the second study, 52 students participated in the same experimental design, but this time the game of Go was substituted for the game of checkers. Again, these groups showed no statistically significant differences in math ability on the posttest.

The authors conclude: “These results suggest that the effects (if any) of chess instruction, when rigorously tested, are modest and that such interventions should not replace the traditional curriculum in mathematics.”


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Does Chess Instruction Improve Math Ability?

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