How to Excel at Math and Science
By Barbara Oakley, PhD
Find it on Bookshop
Whether you’re a college student or a lifelong learner, this book is chock full of tips and tricks for learning new things, memorizing, productivity, self-improvement, and just life in general. It is geared towards people trying to improve their science and math skills (especially if you get anxious when you see numbers), but there’s something in here for everyone.
Dr. Oakley is a self-described language and art person. When she joined the military, she noticed that her most competent colleagues always had some technical skills, no matter what their primary responsibilities were. Their technical inclinations served them well in that environment. So she decided that she was going to go against her inclinations and learn more numerical skills. She never looked back.
This book represents the most useful lessons she has learned in how to use your brain to its full abilities. Anyone can do math when they put their mind to it. Dr. Oakley provides hacks to get you there a little more quickly and easily, illustrated by whimsical examples.
Your brain has amazing abilities, but it did not come with an instruction manual. You’ll find that manual in A Mind for Numbers. — Terrence J. Seijnowski, foreword
The Einstellung effect is when an idea that is already in your mind prevents a better idea or solution from presenting itself. When presented with a bogus “scientific” claim, be aware and do a little research. Check the numbers and their sources before you believe what you read.
Your desire to figure things out right now is what prevents you from being able to figure things out.
Balance focused thinking with diffused thinking.
When learning something new, it is important to focus on it for a while, but just as important to take a break and let your brain learn in the background. This idea is present in Deep Work, Rest, and many other self improvement books. Your brain has two modes of thinking, an attentive mode and a resting mode. They work best when they are alternated so they can help each other.
The harder you push your brain to come up with something creative, the less creative your ideas will be.
Pomodoro over procrastination.
If you find yourself scrolling social media when you should be working, try the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer for twenty-five minutes, put your devices away, and work on a task. When the timer is done, you can reward yourself with whatever you like to do. The important part is process over product: that you spent the time working, not that you finished a task.
A healthy form of procrastination entails learning to pause and reflect before jumping in and accomplishing something. You are learning to wait wisely. There is always something to be done. Prioritizing allows you to gain big-picture context for your decision making.
Chunk new concepts.
Chunks are groups of information that are related to each other by meaning. Chunking concepts helps you summarize all the little details into an overlying understanding— the big picture. When done correctly, chunking can help with understanding and memorization, especially when combined with metaphors or stories.
Metaphors and physical analogies form chunks that can allow ideas from very different areas to influence one another.
Enlist your habit zombies.
We procrastinate on things that make us feel uncomfortable. You are more likely to do those things anyway when you make them a habit. You have a very limited amount of willpower, and don’t want to use it all up on overcoming procrastination. Again, focus on process over product: worry about doing the work, not finishing it. The finishing will happen naturally. (You can read more about making good habits in Atomic Habits).
It’s normal to sit down with a few negative feelings about beginning your work. It’s how you handle those feelings that matters.
It is easy to believe that rereading material is a good studying method. You recognize the concepts you are reading, and feel your brain lighting up, so you think you know the concepts. But the truth is revealed when you are left without the material in front of you. This is when you see how much you really know. Testing should be used immediately after learning, which will help with recall later, as well as when the learning is finished, to cement concepts.
You can do it.
Learning math and science is hard. You might be discouraged by the difficulty, and feel like everyone else is getting it when you don’t. Some people have a built-in easier time than others, but any inherent disadvantage can be overcome with perseverance.
“Deficiencies of innate ability may be compensated for through persistent hard work and concentration. One might say that work substitutes for talent, or better yet that it creates talent.” —Santiago Ramón y Cajal
- Resist Einstellung (keep an open mind)
- Balance focused thinking with diffuse thinking
- Pomodoro over procrastination
- Chunk new concepts
- Enlist your habit zombies
- Test yourself
- You can do it!
Dr. Oakley translated the concepts in this book into a Coursera course. If you learn better by watching videos of someone talking with intermittent testing, check it out!
Want to read more? Find A Mind for Numbers here: Bookshop
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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You might also like my notes on:
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown
The End of Everything (Astophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack