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

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!


  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: TarcherPerigee; 1 edition (July 31, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039916524X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399165245
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (488 customer reviews)
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4 thoughts on “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)”

  1. I think that this book potentially has a lot of value to offer to the reader. I came to it as someone who’s going to be taking some fairly high level math/science courses in the near future, and I’ve been working on refreshing my mind on the subject matter and updating some of my thoughts on study techniques in hopes of making the transition a smooth one. I’ve been looking at a lot of materials for this, and also for some other learning-related projects I’ve done over the past year.

    Because of that background, a fair bit of what came up in this book was familiar. Some of the historical anecdotes have popped up in other books, like Moonwalking With Einstein. The author really isn’t pretending to have invented everything she’s talking about, because she makes reference to research results and has endnotes leading to more information. I don’t think that this takes away all of the value of the book, though, because it’s a compilation of bits of information you could otherwise gather in many different places. Basically, you’re spending a few dollars to have someone sum it and try to put it into a sensible order for you.

    I think the target market here includes fairly sophisticated high school students, but it’s overall more suitable for adults who are already reasonably educated. The author is currently running a free course (there’s a paid certificate, but that’s optional) through Coursera called “Learning How to Learn” where it basically says that the book and course were designed to go together. That seems about right to me, because most of the people who participate in Coursera courses regularly are those who have at least some college background.

    My feeling is that there’s enough value in here to quite easily justify buying and reading it.Read more ›

  2. This book has been brilliantly and lovingly constructed from the ground up as a guide to ‘how to think and integrate new information.’

    I know that sounds a bit dauntingly broad, but I’ll tell you, after just six days and four chapters, I’m thinking so much more clearly, and integrating new information faster than I ever have before.

    Speaking as someone who has ADHD, I’ve always had difficulty concentrating for long periods of time. I thought it was the only way to learn. This book not only shows simple solutions for the issues that I have, but it provides methods of working with the difficulties I have and STILL being able to learn effectively. I was so overwhelmingly relieved when I started reading that there were a couple of instances where I downright cried.

    But in all seriousness, this book isn’t just for helping with Math or Science! It also outlines simple and effective methods for:
    Organizing new information
    Improving your information recall
    Avoiding procrastination
    Accessing your creativity
    Avoiding “Illusions of learning”
    and many more, all in a read that somehow manages to be entertaining while it teaches you.

    As a self help connoisseur, I haven’t found a text that’s so obviously filled with love in a long, long time. Barbara Oakley obviously cares a great deal about bringing the science of learning to be able to take so much time to bring it down to a level that even I, with my organizational difficulties, can understand.

    In short, BUY THIS BOOK!
    It’ll help you with literally EVERYTHING in your life, from tackling Calculus problems to washing your dishes!

  3. Let me spare you the disappointment and $10:

    If you’re buying this book because you think it’s going to teach you mathematical insights that people who have “a head for numbers and excel at math” know – like specific revelations about math techniques, math ideas, math intuitions, math concepts, things about numbers, what math actually is and means, how to interpret and understand specific math ideas, etc – then DO NOT buy this book.

    (For these things: I recommend “Algebra Unplugged”, “Mathematics for the Non mathematician”, and “Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction” and http://www.felderbooks.com/papers/ to name a few resources.).

    If on the other hand you want tips on how to study, tips on how not to procrastinate when it comes to studying, motivational comments from professors, and general advice like the following found in this book “exercise will help your general ability to learn” then buy this book.

  4. “How to excel at stuff” books have always clogged the self-help shelves. They usually contain five or ten logical thoughts that have been bloated into a full book.

    On very rare occasion, however, something comes along that’s “the real deal”, that contains no “filler”, that actually, truly, and tangibly boosts our learning abilities and human potential; that shows us how to think with a razor-sharp mind; that offers us a clarity that we should know but that nobody ever teaches us directly. This is it.

    This book beautifully and brilliantly outlines strategies, and presents practical and easy-to-understand mental tools that really work, to literally rewire the brain for a rich and comprehensive understanding – not only of math and science, as the title would suggest, but of any content – through approaches more creative and effective than anything I’ve seen anywhere. It is engaging to read, worth its weight in gold, and has certainly sharpened the way I approach thinking optimally and solving problems.

    Full disclosure: Although I have never met the author in person, I was fortunate enough to have been contacted by her and sent an early draft of this work for review and feedback. I recognized immediately that this work was not only significant and meaningful, but also incredibly well put together, and deserving of a place on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in learning theory, education, psychology, andragogy, or just plain self-improvement. The final published version is even more powerful and masterfully crafted. I plan to re-read and re-absorb its invaluable lessons periodically.

    This book is the real deal.

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