Chess and the Science of Learning


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Today we present the first in a series of guest blog posts by Professor Barry Hymer, on the subject of Chess and the Science of Learning.

Barry is a renowned expert on teaching and learning and is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on the educational aspects of mindset theory. He is now the Chessable Science Consultant.

We are both excited and intrigued to see what Barry’s expertise will bring to Chessable.

Some Thoughts on Chess and the Science of Learning

Barry Hymer Chess and the Science of LearningJoining the Team

Since Chessable was created a few years ago, its founders have been determined to put learning science at its heart. Some of the studies that informed its development are cited prominently on the platform, and every user of every course studied will be benefiting from these. Chessable isn’t resting on its academic laurels though, and it remains committed to staying abreast of developments. Its talented team of engineers, developers and course designers remain hellbent on finding further ways of applying what we know about learning to all Chessable products in a quest for continual improvements in such areas as learning efficiency, enjoyment, retention, and transfer.

Unlike many of Chessable’s course creators, I never came close to making a living out of the game I adored as a child, and have spent my career in education – initially as a teacher, and subsequently as an educational psychologist and academic. I have loved each of these roles, but as I approached retirement and the prospect of devoting some serious study time to chess for the first time in my life, imagine my delight when I was asked to join the Chessable team!

Key Contributions

I have now accepted a part-time position in the organisation, and am looking forward both to supporting and being supported by my new colleagues and our members in our shared enterprise. Since I have the technical skills of a digital alien, I will be relying on tech-savvy colleagues to be doing all the heavy lifting, but I aim to make an initial contribution in other ways:

  • Liaising with researchers across the world who are interested in working with us. We are already engaged in the early stages of collaboration with original and exciting studies looking at chess’s role in supporting mental health (based at the University of California), and the use of targeted prompts to support learning efficiency, metacognition and transfer (based at Sydney and Harvard). 
  • Creating opportunities for Chessable members to inform these studies, and not just to be informed by them. Both the game of chess itself and Chessable as a learning platform are fundamentally democratic in nature and appeal to our sense of autonomy and agency as learners (witness the quality of the courses created by members themselves), and I see a real opportunity to leverage the expertise available in our membership to nurture our future understandings about chess improvement.
  • To write occasional but regular blogs about the implications of learning theory for chess improvement, developing some of the themes GM Peter Wells and I explored in our recent book, Chess Improvement, but also going beyond this to answer questions like this: What do GMs Jonathan Hawkins, Joe Gallagher, and Ye Jiangchuan have in common, and how could the late, great researcher Graham Nuthall have explained this? Answers in the next blog, but feel free to email me with your thoughts and suggestions in the meantime: [email protected]. 

Chess Improvement Cover

The Wisdom of Graham Nuthall

I’ll finish by connecting the aforementioned Graham Nuthall with the sentiments expressed in the opening paragraph of this piece.

In his extensive research on real-life (not just laboratory-located) learning, Nuthall drew a conclusion which on first inspection seems crassly obvious, but which on reflection is rather profound: “… student learning primarily depends on the information they are exposed to. This means that activities need careful designing so that students cannot avoid interacting with this relevant information. It also means being very careful about the form of information that is encountered.”

The next time you’re tempted to take a short-cut on a Chessable course, remember this: “… our studies indicate [the students] need to be taught the concept, or to encounter a full explanation of the concept, at least three times.” (Nuthall, G.; The Hidden Lives of Learners, pp. 79-81).

He is at pains to point out that this does not mean simple repetition, which can be off-putting and boring. It means we need time to process new information. We also need the chance to approach new learning in different ways: “… the single brilliant explanation is not, in itself, enough”. Please therefore treat that grimly insistent “Review” nudge with respect – it has our best interests at heart!

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