Study Methods vs Brain Training – which is best, and why?


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.

Dr. J (Lieb) Liebenberg has been the CEO of ITSI since 2006. He has been involved in learning research and development since 2006 and has delivered academic papers on e-learning as well as published on the subject in peer-reviewed journals.

His first mobile learning project was MobiMath which provided Grade 10-12 Mathematics learners with videos and assessments on mobile phones.

As Project Director for the University of Pretoria’s Health Information Systems, Data Capturing Training for the National Department of Health, he was also responsible for the introduction and use of mobiles for post-training support to more than 2500 learners throughout South Africa.

Since 2010, Dr. Liebenberg has been involved in the conceptualisation and development of the ITSI Solution which allows teachers and schools to optimise teaching and learning for the 21st-century. The solution is used by more than 220 schools and thousands of teachers and learners from both the private and public sectors.

He is passionate about connecting technology and the learning brain, making learning visible and removing fragmentation from the classroom in an effort to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st-century.

He is a member of the International Association for Mobile Learning and regularly participates in conferences internationally and locally.

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