Can Brain Training Improve ACT Scores?

Open Letter to College Admission Offices:

The Contribution of Cognitive Training to Improved College Entrance Exam Performance

Research has shown us again and again that cognitive skills correlate with standardized math and language arts test scores, and that IQ scores are significant predictors of performance on college entrance exams. Thus, it is not only plausible but probable that strengthening the individual cognitive skills that comprise the composite IQ score can contribute to increased performance on standardized tests. Cognitive skill deficits—especially deficits in working memory, processing speed, and executive functions—are common among struggling students. Because cognitive skills are significant predictors of academic performance, interventions that remediate cognitive deficits are critical to maximizing a student’s academic success.

Cognitive training programs like those offered at LearningRx brain training centers are a prime example of how an intervention can target and remediate weak cognitive skills through repeated engagement in intense mental tasks. By isolating weaknesses in cognition and exposing a student to concentrated remediation exercises targeting those weak skills, cognitive training can improve not only the trained skills but related ones as well. Unlike tutoring, cognitive training does not re-teach content but, instead, enhances the individual underlying learning skills such as working memory, long-term memory, processing speed, reasoning, attention, and visual and auditory processing—all skills that contribute to an individual’s ability to think and learn efficiently.

What evidence do we have that cognitive training can help improve achievement test scores?

Thanks to the amazing plasticity of the brain, we can document the malleability of cognition with changes on standardized measures of intelligence and by using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to illustrate changes in neural connectivity following an intervention. What’s more, those neural changes have been shown to correlate with changes on cognitive test scores. LearningRx measures student progress by administering both cognitive and achievement tests prior to beginning cognitive training and immediately after completing a cognitive training program. Among the 9,959 cognitive training clients who completed a reading intervention program between 2010 and 2018, the average gain in reading skills was 3.5 years, with the largest gain of 6.3 years in Sound Awareness following training. All changes were statistically significant. Among the 3,521 cognitive training clients who completed a math intervention between 2010 and 2018, the average gain in math skills was 3.2 years, with the largest gain of 3.6 years in Quantitative Concepts following training. All of those changes were also statistically significant. These same clients averaged a 15-point gain in overall IQ score along with statistically significant changes in individual cognitive skills—changes that have also been documented in multiple controlled trials and published peer-reviewed studies.

How, then, can cognitive training improve scores on tests that measure knowledge of content?

The need for multiple strong cognitive skills for effective test-taking applies across content areas and is independent from the content except for the ability to encode and recall prior knowledge. For example, a student needs strong sustained attention skills to focus on a test, particularly a lengthy one. He also needs strong memory skills. Not only must he be able to recall prior knowledge, he must have the working memory capacity to keep information in mind while using it to answer test questions. The Math section of the ACT requires recall and application of memorized mathematical formulas, without which a student cannot perform well. A student must also have strong reasoning skills, both inductive and deductive, as well as rapid processing speed. Tests like the ACT and SAT are notoriously fast-paced. He must be able to quickly but effectively read each question and the answer choices while using reasoning skills to determine the correct responses before time runs out. Improvement in information processing speed skills should fundamentally impact one’s ability to attack a college entrance exam with finesse. Finally, auditory processing skills are a key component of language arts exams—the ability to manipulate language codes and sounds is the cornerstone of reading ability. The Reading, English, and Science sections of the ACT are text-heavy, and the ability to rapidly skim and comprehend passages is critical for success.

Cognitive training can strengthen all of these skills to maximize the student’s chance for effective test-taking. At LearningRx, clients also learn specific test-taking strategies if they are enrolled in the StudyRx program, an optional add-on program to cognitive training. The StudyRx curriculum gives students key methods for narrowing test answer choices and effective test-taking techniques. But the most important contribution above the improvement in cognition from intense cognitive training is the development of grit, perseverance, and self-efficacy for academic performance that is developed during the months of interaction with a cognitive trainer who gives dynamic feedback, coaching, and encouragement. The number one reported training effect by both clients and parents of clients at LearningRx is increased self-esteem. We know the critical role that these soft skills play in a student’s ability to perform in school and on tests of achievement. Collectively, the intervention hits on key elements that can contribute to heightened performance in the classroom and on standardized tests including college entrance exams. It is not surprising, then, to see students who have improved dramatically on a college entrance exam when he or she has seen an equally-dramatic improvement in cognition after completing intense cognitive training with LearningRx.

For detailed research results and client outcomes following cognitive training with LearningRx methods, please visit the entire list of peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations at

Amy Lawson Moore, PhD
Educational & Cognitive Psychologist
Research Director at Gibson Institute of Cognitive Research

For further reading:
Alloway, T.P., Rajendran, G., Archibald, L.M. (2009). Working memory in children with developmental disorders. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(4), 372-82. doi: 10.1177/0022219409335214

Carpenter, D., Ledbetter, C., & Moore, A.L. (2016). LearningRx cognitive training effects in children ages 8-14: A randomized controlled study. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30(5), 815-826. doi: 10.1002/acp.3257

Finn, A. S., Kraft, M. A., West, M. R., Leonard, J. A., Bish, C. E., Martin, R. E., … Gabrieli, J. D. (2014). Cognitive skills, student achievement tests, and schools. Psychological Science, 25(3), 736–744. doi:10.1177/0956797613516008

Hannon, B., & McNaughton-Cassill, M. (2011). SAT Performance: Understanding the Contributions of Cognitive/Learning and Social/Personality Factors. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(4), 528–535. doi:10.1002/acp.1725

Koenig, K., Frey, M.C., & Detterman, D.K. (2008). ACT and general cognitive ability. Intelligence, 36(2), 153-160. doi: 0.1016/j.intell.2007.03.005

Jedlicka, E. (2017). LearningRx cognitive training for children and adolescents ages 5-18: Effects on academic skills, behavior, and cognition. Frontiers in Education, 2(62). doi: 10.3389/feduc.2017.00062

Ledbetter, C., Faison, M.O., & Patterson, J. (2016). Correlation of cognitive training gains and resting state functional connectivity. Presented at Society for Neuroscience, November 2016, San Diego, CA. Retrieved from

McQuade, J. D., Tomb, M., Hoza, B., Waschbusch, D. A., Hurt, E. A., & Vaughn, A. J. (2011). Cognitive deficits and positively biased self-perceptions in children with ADHD. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 39(2), 307-19. doi:10.1007/s10802-010-9453-7

Moore, A.L., Carpenter, D.M., Miller, T.M., & Ledbetter, C. (2018). Comparing Two Methods of Delivering ThinkRx Cognitive Training to Children Ages 8-14: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Equivalency. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. (Online first version).

Moore, A.L., Carpenter, D.M., Ledbetter, C., & Miller, T.M. (2018). Clinician-delivered cognitive training for children with attention problems: Transfer effects on cognitive and behavior from the ThinkRx randomized controlled trial. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 14, 1671-1683. doi: 10.2147/NDT.S165418

Rohde, T. E., & Thompson, L. A. (2007). Predicting academic achievement with cognitive ability. Intelligence, 35(1), 83–92.