Book Review- A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)

I have been working with Engineering students for almost five years now, and working as an academic advisor for close to eight. Every year I would hear the same refrain: “This is the best and brightest group of students we have ever seen.” I would look at each new student’s record and see almost an entire academic career of AP or PSEO Math and Science courses. Yet, when the students would get their grades back, they would perform at level that did not match their academic ability. The most common things that I would hear would be: “I don’t understand. I do great on the quizzes and homework, but I bomb the exam,” and “We had never seen any of the stuff that was on the exam before.” Somewhere, there was disconnect between our students ability and their performance.

I stumbled onto a book over winter break called A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), by Dr. Barbara Oakley. Dr. Oakley is a former military officer, who studied languages as a college student. She thought, “I am a right-brained person. I don’t get Math and Science.” However, as she progressed in her career, she had to learn Math and Science in order to properly do her job. She had to retrain her brain in order to understand the complex Math and Science that was required of her. She was not only successful in doing so, but has gone on to get an undergrad, Masters, and Ph.D. in Engineering.

Her book uses some very basic understanding of neuroscience to explain how the brain operates, and how you can use that processing to understand very complex subjects. The most important concept for me was what Dr. Oakley calls the “Illusion of Competence.” This occurs when you know one way to do something, but when you are given a different set of circumstances, you find out what you really don’t know, because you haven’t made connections about it why what you are learning is so important. Very few of our students spend time contemplating what they are studying – they are used to learning only for the exam. The irony is that they only study for one particular way the questions could be asked, so when they are required to think critically and analytically about the material, their “understanding” shown to be nothing more than, as Dr. Oakley would put it, and “illusion.”

Dr. Oakley has essentially created a mini-version of the book on Coursera, titled, “Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help you Master Tough Subjects.” She has turned her chapters into videos, none of which are more than fifteen minutes long. If you don’t want to spend the money to read the book, the Coursera course is very good. The book does go into more detail and examples, so it is well worth it.

Overall, this is an excellent book, and useful for anyone trying to get through a difficult subject. The explanations of neuroscience are accessible, and easy to understand. She also uses many real-world examples of how some of the great minds of our time – Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison, for example – actually used some of the techniques she described. It’s a book that you might not be able to finish over a weekend (about 280 pages), but is not exceedingly long. For a book that is rooted in neuroscience, it is not dry or boring at all. It contains a lot of illustrations, diagrams, and practical examples. I strongly recommend this book for anyone working or learning in higher education.

Barry Tolchin