A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D.

A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) Barbara Oakley book review

A Mind for Numbers is written for students of math and science, but Barbara Oakley’s perspective, interviews, and recommendations are very useful for everybody who wants to be a SMART 21st Century lifelong learner.  It is a practical book that reflects the best knowledge about how our brains process things – both logically and creatively, from the details up AND from the ideas down.  I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn better – or who wants to help a scholar who wants to excel and LEARN in school.

Oakley uses good teaching/learning approaches in this book. It is peppered with stories and even pictures that bring lessons to life. The stories are from very successful scientists – many of whom struggled to learn or were even written off by their teachers.  They are stories that say – “persist, be smart about how you learn, and you will succeed.”  This, of course, is the learning mindset that is so crucial for discovery and living an unstoppable life.

Oakley also distributes insights about her core topics – building up and reinforcing the key ideas throughout the book.  Ultimately, she concludes that 10 practices are critical (she calls them “Ten Rules of Good Studying.”  They apply to lifelong learning as well as to learning for school – especially to information and processes you want to remember:

  1. Use recall. Don’t just review what you want to remember. Actively pull your insights out of your own brain.  This, of course, is a key practice in my Unstoppable You.  Oakley offers many reinforcements of this important way to support learning
  2. Test Yourself. This is something anyone can do about any topic you want to remember.  For kids it’s flash cards, for adults it might be asking yourself what you know about a topic before a meeting or reading, and then doing it again afterwards.
  3. Chunk information. Organizing ideas and facts into categories, pictures and diagrams, songs, and other mental files can help you remember and understand at a deeper level. Connecting ideas to what you know and to each other creates more neural connections and thus more ways to find what you need when you need it.
  4. Space repetition. Oakley practices this by revisiting and enhancing these 10 rules throughout this book. The lesson is to work on something for a shorter period of time (30 minutes?) and then do something less demanding. When you return to the learning project later, you will be fresher and your automatic system (she calls it your “diffused processing mode”) will have done some undercover work to process your initial learning.
  5. Alternate different problem-solving techniques. She talks about how this works in math – work on equations for a while, then on verbal problems, then do a test, etc. The point is, don’t get stuck on one way of learning something. Get a variety of perspectives – some big picture, some detailed.  This “interleaving” is a pretty valuable approach for any topic.
  6. Take breaks. When you are stuck or tired from focusing on solving a problem/learning, stop and do something that isn’t so taxing. Your automatic (diffused) processing will continue to work on the problem unconsciously and you will be able to have a new perspective when you come back to it.
  7. Use explanatory questioning and simple analogies. Try explaining what you are learning in a simple way – preferably to someone else.  Tell them what it is “like” (an example she gives if that the flow of electricity is like the flow of water). This more deeply engrains the knowledge in your brain and may get you some clarifying questions.
  8. Focus. This is a very important and often broken rule.  It is clear that your brain can’t work on more than one complex problem at a time.  So, as many others suggest, turn off the phones, text messaging, loud music, and create a space where you can concentrate.
  9. Eat your frogs first. That is, do the hardest things first when you have the energy.
  10. Make a mental contrast. This is equivalent to the imagination quality presented in Unstoppable You:  see where you want to be and compare it the where you are.  Let this be motivating.

There are many specific tips and encouraging comments in this book.  And for students, there is a lot of good help related to working with teachers, studying with others, dealing with procrastination, taking tests, dealing with anxiety, letting go of the need to be perfect in order to be open to insights and to correct errors in thinking, remembering facts and methods, and more.

Oakley is a very respected educator who came to the sciences by accident when she was in military service.  We should be glad that she discovered math and science and became curious about how to be a master learner and teacher in these areas.  We all benefit from her perspective, examples, and tips.

Get a copy of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)