Study Methods vs Brain Training – which is best, and why?
September 20, 2018
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg


People are becoming more and more aware of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the many challenges it poses. Learners, schools, teachers and especially parents often wonder what they can do to help kids prepare better for a knowledge economy on steroids. Parents, in particular, are often at a loss when it comes to helping their children prepare not only for tests and exams, but also for a future where they need to be lifelong learners. Two options that often surface when people think about “improving intelligence” and learning skills are “brain training” and “study methods” – but which is best, and why?

Brain Training

Brain training programmes are quite popular because they seem to offer tangible, measurable improvements, are automated and require limited to zero input from parents. But what precisely are they? According to Wikipedia: “Brain training … is a program of regular mental activities purported to maintain or improve one’s cognitive abilities…in an analogy to the way physical fitness is improved by exercising the brain.”

It is important to note that the “exercise analogy” plays a very big role in brain training tools and programmes. The idea behind this is that the more you practice at a brain skill, the more proficient you become at it, in a similar way to exercising a muscle. Brain training programmes typically focus on specific skills like working memory and devise ways or exercises which aim to improve this over time. Unfortunately, the brain does not quite work like a muscle and – different to muscle exercises, brain training exercises do not transfer from one domain to another – which then begs the question as to why bother with them in the first place.

So, despite its popularity, there are serious questions about the value of brain training programmes. Other than the entertainment value they may provide, they hardly ever add sustained, transferable skills that will be of value in the 21st-century.

Study Skills

In contrast to brain training, study skills are a range of strategies and tools which can be used to master knowledge and skills and which can be applied to a range of subjects and contexts. This is very different from brain training exercises.

Unfortunately, mastering study skills is often not as exciting and entertaining as some brain training programmes. Like so much to do with learning, it takes effort, grit and application to master a set of study skills, and students need time to figure out for themselves which of the many tools and strategies work best for them and when. However, in a world where one’s ability to thrive and succeed will increasingly depend on being a lifelong learner and the skills which go hand in hand, like critical thinking and creativity, its value cannot be stressed enough.

A good study methods course will consist of a mixture of theory and practice, providing students with a basic understanding of the brain, neuroplasticity and memory. Students should be introduced to tools for retrieval practice like flashcards, self-tests, exit tickets, mnemonics, etc. with ample focus on metacognition, stress, exercise, sleep and good eating habits.


The choice between brain training and study methods is simple – brain training has limited value, but a proper study methods course – done correctly – is an investment which will yield dividends – literally for decades to come. However, herein lies the biggest challenge for the “digital native generation”. They may be so used to a world of instant gratification, that they struggle to commit to the levels of mastery which are required to be the critical and creative thinkers that will thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.