“Here’s what the critics have asked for,” said Jason M. Chein, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Temple University Neurocognition Lab in Philadelphia. “They have said these studies don’t translate into real-world benefits. But in the hands of these scientists, the effects look positive.”
Even one of the most outspoken critics, who has published critical studies of training in academic journals and opinion pieces in The New York Times, offered muted praise for the new study of first graders.
“This is a step in the right direction: a study looking at whether this stuff actually transfers to academic performance,” said D. Zachary Hambrick, professor of psychology at Michigan State University. But because the study of first graders had methodological weaknesses and statistical oddities, he added, “It has to be replicated. I don’t find the results to be compelling.”
The study involved 111 impoverished first-graders living in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina. They were taken out of their classrooms for 15 minutes at a time, up to three times per week, for 10 weeks, to play either ordinary computer games or specially designed games intended to increase attention, planning, and working memory. Children who attended school regularly saw no significant gain on their school grades associated with the training. But those whose school attendance was erratic, presumably due to disordered home environments, improved enough in language and math for their grades to catch up with their classmates’.
“With very brief training, we improved the language and math grades of children who have problems at home,” said the senior author, Andrea P. Goldin, a research scientist at the Integrative Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Buenos Aires. “That’s what we are very excited about, because we are helping to equalize a bit the opportunities these children have.”
Psychologists familiar with the study shared Hambrick’s concerns about its methodology, particularly the lack of statistical measures demonstrating the strength of the training effect, but also welcomed the attempt by Goldin and her colleagues to demonstrate real-life benefits.
“It’s a really problematic paper, but I hope that they go on with this and replicate it in a much larger sample, using much better experimental procedures,” said Douglas K. Detterman, editor of the journal Intelligence and professor emeritus of psychology at Case Western Reserve University.
“If the result gets replicated, then it will be very important,” said Earl B. Hunt, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. “But I want the replication.”
The psychologist whose 2008 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences first showed that brain-training games can increase fluid intelligence—thereby setting off an academic debate that has yet to be settled—agreed that the new study had flaws but was an admirable attempt.