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How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)

Check out Barbara Oakley's new book A Mind For Numbers.

Helen Smith


July 19, 2014 - 11:00 am


I have been reading Barbara Oakley’s new book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) this week. It’s a fascinating and fun read if you want to learn math, science, or, like me, just want to improve your memory.

I was actually pretty decent at math as my father was a mathematician and I grew up learning to love numbers. However, I had no natural talent, just no fear, which is important in learning math. Oakley makes this point throughout the book as she believes most people can learn math (and science) with the right tools and mindset. She is an engineering professor who failed her way through high school math but tackled these skills as an adult. Here is more about the book:

In A Mind for Numbers, Dr. Oakley lets us in on the secrets to effectively learning math and science—secrets that even dedicated and successful students wish they’d known earlier. Contrary to popular belief, math requires creative, as well as analytical, thinking. Most people think that there’s only one way to do a problem, when in actuality, there are often a number of different solutions—you just need the creativity to see them. For example, there are more than three hundred different known proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem. In short, studying a problem in a laser-focused way until you reach a solution is not an effective way to learn math. Rather, it involves taking the time to step away from a problem and allow the more relaxed and creative part of the brain to take over. A Mind for Numbers shows us that we all have what it takes to excel in math, and learning it is not as painful as some might think!

Relaxing while trying to learn math sounds counterintuitive but it works, according to the book. One of my favorite chapters is called “tools, tips, and tricks” and it gives the reader positive mental tricks to use to their advantage in learning. She tackles procrastination and gets tips from experts regarding their student, such as “No going onto the computer during their procrastination time. It’s too engrossing,” “Before procrastinating, identify the easiest homework problem,” and “Copy the equation or equations that are needed to solve the problem onto a small piece of paper and carry the paper around until they are ready to quit procrastinating and get back to work.”

All this seems to lead to being a bit more creative and perhaps a bit more relaxed. Come to think of it, the above tips would be helpful in writing a blog post except the writer has to use the computer and cannot avoid it. Anyway, the book is great and goes into more detail about how to increase your memory with metaphors and visualization. Pick it up if you want to know more about how to succeed at math and science or if you just need to improve your memory and learning ability.


Cross-posted from Dr. Helen’s blog

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.

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All Comments   (4)
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And then one can go to and really get a handle on math.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
A technique that I've found very useful on occasion has been to try to explain a problem to someone else. If you have to describe a problem to a stranger who doesn't know your situation, you tend to have to give him a lot of the background to the problem, how it first presented itself, and what you've done to solve it. Very often, the act of explaining the problem to someone else in detail clarifies your own thoughts for you and helps you see what you've missed. It's a sort of step back and gives you perspective that you were missing earlier.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Y, creativity is very important in doing more advanced math such as word problems, proofs, etc. In any multi-step process, the way forward seldom jumps up and shouts to you "Here I am!" You gotta LOOK for it, and in looking forward you have to be willing to try different things until you find one that is promising. Just sitting there and saying "I can't do this, time for some TV" won't work.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nothing wrong with walking away from a problem and letting it percolate in the background. I'm the analytical type of math solver and have done quite well with it Every once in a while I would have to walk away from a problem because I was stumpted and my method of attack wasn't working. Did other things and came back and the light came on to how to solve it.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
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