On Chess: What research says about scholastic chess and student outcomes
Scholastic chess is a common and growing element of school curricula across the globe; the game is compulsory in Poland and Armenia.
In the United States, chess has been introduced into the school day in places like Success Academy’s network of charter schools in New York City, as well as the Broward County, Florida, school district.
St. Louis Public Schools joined the ranks of scholastic chess pioneers in 2016 by partnering with the St. Louis Chess Club to offer chess during the school day in more than 100 classrooms.
Educators and policymakers who are looking to bring chess into their schools are motivated by more than creating the next generation of competitive grandmasters. Chess is much more than a game, they argue. Chess teaches students to think more critically, improves concentration, increases executive functioning, and aids in spatial reasoning and pattern recognition.
Improving math skills
A growing body of research confirms these claims. A systematic review of studies examining the overall impact of scholastic chess on students finds that it has a positive impact on cognitive outcomes and academic ability generally, with stronger benefits in mathematics performance in particular.
At the same time, only a fraction of existing studies adhere to rigorous “gold-standard” experimental methodologies, or even quasi-experimental approaches.
One such “gold-standard” study in Italy found positive math achievement effects for primary school students. Similarly, a recent quasi-experimental study in Denmark found that replacing one traditional math lesson with a math lesson based on chess instruction improved math test scores.
Of particular note, the Dutch researchers found that the impacts from chess were larger for children who were unhappy or bored in school.
The chess effect
Such findings bolster theories that chess has benefits greater than just student achievement and may extend to so-called non-cognitive skills. Many educators believe that scholastic chess increases concentration, builds self-confidence, and raises student engagement. Research in Ferguson-Florissant and St. Louis Public Schools bears this out.
Students in those scholastic chess programs report that chess has taught them they can complete difficult tasks if they work hard, and has made them more confident they can learn difficult material. They also report that they look forward to school more on days when they have chess, suggesting the game may be a valuable tool to combat chronic absenteeism.
This is important because recent research in education finds that non-cognitive skills are important predictors of later-life outcomes.
Beyond the classroom
The cognitive benefits of chess may also be of value beyond the classroom setting. Some psychologists and educators speculate that it may be valuable for students with autism.
Others have suggested that there may be benefits that counteract the social, physical, and mental effects of aging in older people. Limited research has linked chess to lower rates of dementia. The Chess Club is partnering with researchers at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine in studying the benefits of chess for early-stage Alzheimer’s patients.
On balance, the existing research base demonstrates that chess has many promising benefits for students, but there is much more to be learned. Strong foundational knowledge about the implementation and measurement of chess in schools is an essential step forward.
Future randomized studies that rigorously measure the impact of chess in schools, across a broad range of outcomes and with a high-degree of implementation fidelity, will be essential additions to the state of scholastic chess research. Researchers working with the scholastic team at the St. Louis Chess Club will be adding to this literature in coming years.
Brian Kisida is assistant professor, Truman School of Public Affairs, University of Missouri-Columbia and a member of the St. Louis Chess Club research team. Mike Podgursky is a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and a member of the St, Louis Chess Club Board of Directors.
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