Psychology · Science

Understand how to learn better – book review


I read this book a month before my final exams, A2 – Biology, Chemistry, and Maths. It was recommended to me by one of my dear teachers when, overwhelmed by the amount of material I had to learn, I felt I was on point of breaking. I didn’t know whether I was learning any more, and I felt stupid.

I went through this crisis because, I found out while reading this book, that I am not efficient when it comes to learning and problem-solving.

A long story cut short, that helps to explain why I read the book.

My personality resembles the spirit of a bull when it comes to maths. I see an exercise and I begin (used to, at that time) straight away, without devising a plan. This means that I start with the first exercise on the page, exercise one, no matter the difficulty, and that I begin by throwing equations on the page – the equations I write are not at random obviously, but as you all know there is always a better way of solving the problem – The method I used was often the slower one or the one that would bring about more mistakes. And I would not quit, I would not look away from the problem until I was so stressed that I would tear off the page from my notebook.

This is a brief description of the book by Amazon, which, if you want, you may skip

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!

About the book and how it was useful

Barbara Oakley, the author of the book “A mind for numbers,” talks to students of all ages about different ways of improving our learning. Among many others, the most important thing I learned is when to quit. Well, not actually quit but stop for a bit. Let me explain.

I take you though one of the things I learned, briefly

We, humans, have two types of thinking. One is the automatic autonomous thinking that takes care of all the tasks that involve rapid actions. You use this type of thinking when you see 1+1 or the colour red at a light stop. Your brain gives you the answer before you consciously do anything.

The second type of thinking is the conscious, manual thinking. This you use when you calculate 231 x 45 or you try to answer “what would you do if you saw a bear running at you?” You also use this manual thinking when you devise a strategy for solving a problem. You disengage from the automatic mode and get into the manual mode. Now, you switch between modes all the time but for the time being you don’t allow the automatic mode to function fully. And this means you are focused on a single thought which you cannot dismiss. A method you cannot stop applying.

To best exemplify this I will have you recall the feeling of having a word on the tip of your tongue. The word you want to say does not come out because another does. The manual mode is working but the automatic is not – a key, the word, has been inserted in the lock, the brain.

Back to the book

With this in mind, the key in the lock model, I began to grasp why I should stop when I could not solve a problem. I allow myself to disengage from the manual mode, and enter the automatic mode. This frees the lock and allows for a new key to be inserted. It allows the brain to look for a new method. Keep in mind that this does not happen consciously, so, while you take a 30 min walk or you do something less challenging (mentally) you might actually find a solution to the problem.

I learned when to take a break from the problem.

There are many other things to learn from this book. Barbara Oakley illustrates a set of tips and tricks which she explains thoroughly so that anyone can understand.

I recommend this book to all those who feel like they are unable to cope with a subject at school. Any subject.

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