A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)

A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)

4.7 7
by Barbara Oakley

View All Available Formats & Editions

The companion book to COURSERA®'s wildly popular massive open online course "Learning How to Learn"

Whether you are a student struggling to fulfill a math or science requirement, or you are embarking on a career change that requires a new skill set, A Mind for Numbers offers the tools you need to get a better grasp of that intimidating…  See more details below


The companion book to COURSERA®'s wildly popular massive open online course "Learning How to Learn"

Whether you are a student struggling to fulfill a math or science requirement, or you are embarking on a career change that requires a new skill set, A Mind for Numbers offers the tools you need to get a better grasp of that intimidating material. Engineering professor Barbara Oakley knows firsthand how it feels to struggle with math. She flunked her way through high school math and science courses, before enlisting in the army immediately after graduation. When she saw how her lack of mathematical and technical savvy severely limited her options—both to rise in the military and to explore other careers—she returned to school with a newfound determination to re-tool her brain to master the very subjects that had given her so much trouble throughout her entire life.

In A Mind for Numbers, Dr. Oakley lets us in on the secrets to learning effectively—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. 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. The learning strategies in this book apply not only to math and science, but to any subject in which we struggle. We all have what it takes to excel in areas that don't seem to come naturally to us at first, and learning them does not have to be as painful as we might think!

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Unlike many other authors of math and science books, Barbara Oakley (Evil Genes; Practicing Sustainability) can boast no claims of being a childhood prodigy; in fact, she almost consistently failed courses in both subjects throughout high school. Then, realizing that she was booby-trapping her own future, she taught herself to turn things around. In this accessible, reassuring book, she describes her own self-teaching methods and explains how new insights based on cognitive psychology and neuroscience can help even math-phobes to excel. A trade paperback and NOOK Book original. (P.S. Books like this are needed: Two-thirds of American high school students lack proficiency in math.)

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Penguin Group
File size:
9 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Thomas Edison is one of the most prolific inventors in history, with over one thousand patents to his name. Nothing got in the way of his creativity. Even as his lab was burning to the ground in a horrific accidental fire, Edison was excitedly sketching up plans for a new lab, even bigger and better than before. How could Edison be so phenomenally creative? The answer, as you’ll see, relates to his unusual tricks for shifting his mode of thinking.

Shifting between the focused and diffuse modes

For most people, shifting from focused to diffuse mode happens naturally if you distract yourself and then allow a little time to pass. You can go for a walk, take a nap, or go to the gym. Or you can work on something that occupies other parts of your brain: listening to music, conjugating Spanish verbs, or cleaning your gerbil cage The key is to do something else until your brain is consciously free of any thought of the problem. Unless other tricks are brought into play, this generally takes several hours. You may say – I don’t have that kind of time. You do, however, if you simply switch your focus to other things you need to do, and mix in a little relaxing break time.

Creativity expert Howard Gruber has suggested that one of the three "B’s" usually seems to do the trick: the bed, the bath, or the bus One remarkably inventive chemist of the mid-1800s, Alexander Williamson, observed that a solitary walk was worth a week in the laboratory in helping him progress in his work.(Lucky for him there were no smartphones then.) Walking spurs creativity in many fields; a number of famous writers, for example, including Jane Austen, Carl Sandburg, and Charles Dickens, found inspiration during their frequent long walks.

Once you are distracted from the problem at hand, the diffuse mode has access and can begin pinging about in its big-picture way to settle on a solution. After your break, when you return to the problem at hand, you will often be surprised at how easily the solution pops into place. Even if the solution doesn’t appear, you will often be further along in your understanding. It can take a lot of hard, focused mode work beforehand, but the sudden, unexpected solution that emerges from the diffuse mode can make it feel almost like the "Ah-hah!" mode.

Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“A good teacher will leave you educated. But a great teacher will leave you curious. Well, Barbara Oakley is a great teacher. Not only does she have a mind for numbers, she has a way with words, and she makes every one of them count.”
—Mike Rowe, creator and host of Discovery Channel’s "Dirty Jobs" and CEO of mikeroweWORKS

“If you struggled through math and slept through science, there’s hope. In A Mind for Numbers, polymath Barbara Oakley reveals how to unlock the analytic powers of our brains so we can learn how to learn. This book should be required reading for students—and for my mother.”
—Adam Grant, New York Times-bestselling author of Give and Take

"Superb not only for those who are struggling or who are expert at math, but for readers who wish to think and comprehend more efficiently."
Library Journal

“An ingeniously accessible introduction to the science of human cognition—along with practical advice on how to think better.”
—James Taranto, The Wall Street Journal
“In my book The Math Instinct, I described how we have known since the early 1990s that all ordinary people can do mathematics, and in The Math Gene, I explained why the capacity for mathematical thinking is both a natural consequence of evolution and yet requires effort to unleash it. What I did not do is show how to tap in to that innate ability. Professor Oakley does just that.”
—Keith Devlin, NPR Weekend Edition’s “Math Guy”

“A wonderful book! How do you come to love math and science, and how do you come to learn math and science? Read A Mind for Numbers. Barbara Oakley is the magician who will help you do both.”
—Francisco J. Ayala, University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine, and former President and Chairman of the Board, American Association for the Advancement of Science

“Being good at science and mathematics isn’t just something you are; it’s something you become. This users’ guide to the brain unmasks the mystery around achieving success in mathematics and science. I have seen far too many students opt out when they hit a rough patch. But now that learners have a handy guide for ‘knowing better’ they will also be able to ‘do better.’”
—Shirley Malcom, Head of Education and Human Resources Programs, American Association for the Advancement of Science
A Mind for Numbers is an excellent book about how to approach mathematics, science, or any realm where problem solving plays a prominent role.” 
—J. Michael Shaughnessy, Past President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
“I have not been this excited about a book in a long time. Giving students deep knowledge on how to learn will lead to higher retention and student success in every field. It is a gift that will last them a lifetime.”
—Robert R Gamache, Ph.D., Associate Vice President, Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and International Relations, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
A Mind for Numbers helps put students in the driver’s seat—empowering them to learn more deeply and easily. This outstanding book is also a useful resource for instructional leaders. Given the urgent need for America to improve its science and math education so it can stay competitive, A Mind for Numbers is a welcome find.”
—Geoffrey Canada, President, Harlem Children's Zone
"It's easy to say 'work smarter, not harder,' but Barbara Oakley actually shows you how to do just that, in a fast-paced and accessible book that collects tips based on experience and sound science.  In fact, I'm going to incorporate some of these tips into my own teaching."  
—Glenn Harlan Reynolds, Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law, The University of Tennessee
A Mind for Numbers is a splendid resource for how to approach mathematics learning and in fact learning in any area. Barbara Oakley’s authoritative guide is based on the latest research in the cognitive sciences, and provides a clear, concise, and entertaining roadmap for how to get the most out of learning. This is a must-read for anyone who has struggled with mathematics and anyone interested in enhancing their learning experience.”
—David C. Geary, Curators’ Professor of Psychological Sciences and Interdisciplinary Neuroscience, University of Missouri
“For students afraid of math and science and for those who love the subjects, this engaging book provides guidance in establishing study habits that take advantage of how the brain works.”
—Deborah Schifter, Principal Research Scientist, Science and Mathematics Programs, Education Development Center, Inc.

“A Mind for Numbers explains the process of learning in a fascinating and utterly memorable way. This book is a classic, not only for learners of all ages, but for teachers of all kinds.”
—Frances R. Spielhagen, Ph.D., Director, Center for Adolescent Research and Development, Mount Saint Mary College

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
AmyAlkon More than 1 year ago
This book IS a book on how to excel at math and science -- even if you previously flunked them. However, it is also much more. It's a book that is transformative for anyone who does creative work that requires writing and thinking and taking in information and creating something new out of it.  The science on how to do optimal work in “A Mind For Numbers” has transformed my writing life from hellish to a tough job I love. Through what I learned from about diffuse mode thinking, I’m careful to put in daily work in reading, researching, and writing, especially on tough concepts.  Our minds, as Dr. Oakley explains in the book, seem to do a lot of work in the “background” while we’re sleeping and doing things other than working. Each day, I find that I’m enjoying my work so much more because it isn’t a struggle; I, piece by piece, simply pull together tough concepts into a coherent and far better whole.  Dr. Oakley’s book ultimately helped me enjoy what I do in a way I never could before, when I procrastinated and was stressed out and then tried to shoehorn a bunch of information I hadn't processed into something coherent. This book was a life-changer for me.  --Amy Alkon, syndicated columnist and author, "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck" (St. Martin's Press)
Technophobe More than 1 year ago
Twice in my life I discovered a book that was really life-changing. This was one of the two. I am struggling to find enough positive adjectives to describe it. IT FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGES YOUR APPROACH TO LEARNING, making the process easier, more concrete, more pleasurable/less stressfull and more creative. The contents are based on hard science, explained in layman's terms. To top all that Barb' (she is far too friendly to refer to as Dr. Oakley) has a pleasant engaging style, making reading easier.
aravistarkana More than 1 year ago
If I had read this book before starting college, my life would have been very different. Technophobe put it perfectly "IT FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGES YOUR APPROACH TO LEARNING, making the process easier, more concrete, more pleasurable/less stressfull and more creative." I spent a lot of time reading my textbooks, feeling that I had to memorize each word and picture in biology, chemistry and physics but what I really should have been doing was working on problems more. Ditto for learning a new language. You can read the book all you want but there is nothing like conjugating verbs to really reinforce learning.
4wheelsandachair More than 1 year ago
This is a valuable tool for learning how to learn pretty much anything, not just math and science. Great research is gathered and transformed into easy to understand concepts. The author has a great casual come across, allowing the reader to digest the information without feeling overwhelmed by facts and data. She has a good sense of humor, I never thought I'd be chuckling while reading a math and science 'how to'.   
ArchSanchez More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. It´s a wonderful tool for a teacher like myself, now I have more confidence in my teaching. GREAT WORK! Dr. Oakley!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the book fairly quickly, and have been using a lot of the tips on a daily basis and found them very useful. I could have done without the zombie references, but if that helps people understand some of the principles, that's fine, just not my cup of tea.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I haven’t read the book as yet, since I just bought it, but I took a class with Dr. Oakley recently and I’m sure this book will inspire me to do better in Math as I did when I took her class.