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Mind Match Chess

Project Summary

We have teamed up with the Serpell Lab (Virignia Commonwealth University, but at Virginia State University for the start of the project) and Ashley-Parr LLC to implement an intervention program in socially disadvantaged elementary schools (equivalent to UK primary). This longitudinal investigation examines the impact of an after-school chess club on children's attention, memory, and inhibition skills, and whether positive changes are also found in their classroom and home behaviour.

The aims of the project are twofold, to address the question of which mechanisms are involved in the relationship between chess and academic achievement, and to investigate the malleability of executive functions. There has long been an intuitive lay belief that playing chess is associated with ‘intelligence’ in some way and many in the world of chess have advocated chess as a way to enhance academic achievement. Evidence suggests that participation in chess programs can positively impact performance in a variety of school subjects. But why would playing chess impact performance in multiple subject areas? We think it might have to do with executive functions.

Executive functions are generally regarded as the processes involved in goal-directed behaviours in cognitively challenging situations. Often described as our ability to reason, plan ahead, multi-task or switch between tasks, sustain attention, delay gratification, and make complex decisions. They appear to be domain-general skills that can be harnessed for success across a variety of academic domains. Students with better executive function skills tend to be better behaved and more attentive, and, therefore, more likely to benefit from their classroom experiences. As such if executive functions are bolstered by learning chess, this could explain the association between chess and academic achievement.
Playing chess seems to be related to improved academic achievement in literacy and numeracy, with greater chess progress related to greater academic gains. Finding evidence of improved behavioural control for children who play chess would lend support to this untested idea as even though children and adults who play chess show improved executive functioning abilities, there is not enough evidence to date to conclude whether chess causes advanced executive functions or whether individuals with advanced executive function skills are more likely to play chess.

What is Special About The Project?

This internationally collaborative project includes late elementary school children from a large urban school district in the mid-Atlantic region of the USA with a high proportion of under-represented ethnic minority students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds. We uniquely investigate how improvements in executive functions influence academic achievement in specific school domains. This project is innovative because it distinctively: 1.) explores the malleability of executive functions for older children; 2.) investigates the link between changes in executive functions and academic achievement in three areas: literacy, numeracy, and science; 3.) includes children from a large urban school district so as to generate data that are generalizable to a diverse group of students. If successful, results found here have the potential to inform school-based interventions in specific academic areas that are targeted to improve the types of executive functions appropriate for different academic contexts.

Why Chess?

This is an explorative study examining the malleability of executive functions in the context of playing chess. Playing chess requires both ‘hot’(emotionally laden) and ‘cool’(purely cognitive) executive functions, and, as children learn more about chess, tasks that at one time involved hot executive functions now involve cool executive functions – with subsequent new tasks involving hot executive functions. Thus, as children learn more and more about chess, new opportunities to expand executive functions emerge. Moreover, as children improve so does their competition, encouraging them to consider more strategies and piece positions (working memory) and necessitation more complex problem solving behaviours.

Because children progress with chess at an individual level this expansion of executive functions happens in a way that is tailored to each child. Importantly, chess is fun for kids, keeping them engaged in executive function tasks for longer. Finally, chess is an activity that children can continue to enjoy for many weeks, enabling them to be continually engaged in an experimental manipulation and making the previous criteria of practicing a little bit often more feasible. Children’s natural inclination towards winning will enable them to continue to be engaged in the activities throughout the academic year. Further, because of the desire to win, frequent reinforcement and feedback encountered while playing chess can help foster executive function in ways not seen with other interventions. As such a number of problems with motivation and practice necessary for other executive function training programs can be overcome.

Press Coverage

Virginia Commonwealth University has has showcased this project in the video below.

YouTube Video

The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A110932 to the University of Cambridge. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education. The research has received ethical approval from the University of Cambridge Psychology Ethics Committee (No. 2011.39), Virginia Commonwealth University Institutional Review Board (No. HM20000017) and Virginia State University Insittutional Review Board (No. 1011-37).

The primary investigators on this grant are: Dr Michelle Ellefson (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge), Dr Zewelanji Serpell (Department of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University), and Dr Teresa Parr (Ashley-Parr, LLC). The project is supported by dozens of research assistants, with the core team including: Amanda Aldercotte, Rachel Heeds, Hyunji Kim, Aysha Foster, and Krystal Thomas.