TED’s Book Review: A Mind for Numbers – How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)

30 Sep 2022 8:36 AM

A Mind for Numbers is a book written by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. for students who struggle to fulfill a math or science requirement or for established professionals embarking on a career change that requires a higher level of math competency. As an engineering professor who flunked her algebra in college, the author takes on a path of discovery and experimentation on how to acquire mathematical and technological skills that will help students in the future overcome the same challenges she had faced without having to go through so many attempts filled with trial-and-error methods. She infused insights from neuroscience and cognitive psychology to come up with several easy-to-do tips and tricks to effectively study math and science and to maximize their learning in written exams or practical applications.

As an engineering student who graduated a decade before this book was published, I have realized that I could have thrived better in my studies should this book have existed earlier. I have seen a few of my personal methods in this book, but the psychological basis for such methods explained in the book is impeccable. The techniques presented may require a big deal of your daily routine before getting used to, but the rewards for following them are very fulfilling. My valuable takeaways after reading this book are as follows:

    1. The modes of thinking: Focused vs Diffused. The focused mode is required in learning math and science as it involves a fine focus on the topics. The diffused mode is a big picture mode of thinking and is essential in developing creativity and multi-faceted knowledge. Both are integral in studying math in order to avoid Einstellung, a phenomenon where an initial idea you have in mind gets you stuck and prevents a better idea or solution from being found.
    2. Chunking information rather than memorizing it. Chunking is the act of wiring neurons together as one big chunk to perform a task, such as solving a math problem, as a way to help your brain run more efficiently. Avoid Illusions of competence in learning such as memorization, especially when one has an access to the solution manual where reading somebody else’s solution to a problem is mistakenly perceived as studying or practicing.
    3. Re-wire your habits to arrange a routine for more optimal brainwork. This includes a well-planned daily routine for allocating ample study time, eating a well-balanced diet, and having enough sleep. Writing a planner-Journal as a personal lab notebook for using learning strategies that work may also be integrated into the habit to maximize time management.
    4. Creativity boosts your visuospatial memory. There are various ways of enhancing the memory and of developing an analytical mind, some of which are presented in the book. You may use creativity and artistry to draw a landscape of your own memory palace. This helps you remember items that go together and tasks that are chunked similarly in your memory map.
    5. Value the habit of smart deliberate practice. The habit of deliberate practice is often overrated and overlooked. Some work hours on end, but still encounter difficulty in understanding important concepts. Others just work a couple of hours each day and still manage to excel during exams. Seek to understand the fundamental topics more before heading into the difficult or more advanced ones. Take practice tests and identify mistakes as areas for improvement. People who work smart outperform those who work hard.

Regardless of your prior background, this book is very helpful in getting you into the habit of understanding your learning curve and enhancing it to accommodate more skills in math and science. Learning and studying is very satisfying and enjoyable especially when the learning strategies you use work to your advantage. Even if you have reached the point where your brain runs on automatic when solving problems, just do not forget to take time to pause and recall. This is also essential when choosing to take on a big new endeavor such as pursuing a career with math or science as your main tool.  As Barbara Oakley has found out, “over the past decades, students who have followed their passion, without rational analysis of whether their choice of career truly was wise, have been more unhappy with their job choices than those who coupled passion with rationality.” So, work smart and have fun learning.


Who is Ted?
Engr. Ted finished his MS Electronics Engineering degree from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) and is currently pursuing his PhD in Electronics Engineering in Mapua University. He is a former Assistant Professor of the College of Engineering and Technology in the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM ). He is the current S&T fellow of DOST-ASTI.