A Mind for Numbers

By Engr. Carlos V. Cornejo)

Although the title of the book says, “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)” this book by Barbara Oakley, a math flunker in her early years, is more about learning how to learn so that whatever is the subject matter you are trying to learn, even if it’s a tough subject such as Math or Science, there are some learning techniques we can make use of that makes a tough study easy.

By the way, that’s the essence of a technique, it is supposed to make something that is hard to do, easy or less hard.  Here are the main points of the book.

Learning Technique #1: Focus and Diffuse

When learning something, engage in mental interval training:  a short period of intense focus followed by a period of subconscious mental processing (force yourself to step away and stop thinking about the problem or concept). Extended periods of conscious learning and problem solving are counter-productive. Instead use the cycle: think…don’t think…solve…day-dream…focus…diffuse. You can adapt the 25-minute study and 10-minute break cycle as a start.

I use this technique whenever I am stuck of not knowing what to write next after writing a paragraph or two with my articles. I take a 5 to 10-minute break, sit on my favorite couch, take a bit of a power nap, and let the subconscious wander on the topic. After the break, more often than not, I would be able to complete my topic because of the fresh stream of ideas, courtesy of the subconscious mind. Making use of the conscious and the subconscious mind together to generate ideas or solve problems is analogous to the lethal one-two punch combination champion boxers use to bring down opponents.

Learning Technique #2: Fighting Off Procrastination

The author coined a word “Procrasti-pain” in the book, to mean that we usually would procrastinate anything that is hard to do or gives us pain, such as studying math or science. But scientific study shows through brain scans, that the pain only comes from the “act of anticipating”. The source of pain is psychological rather than physical such that when we start engaging on the tough task, the pain as the brain scan study would show, disappears. It’s a lesson that if we face our fears, they would disappear.

Another thing that enhances our pain, that makes us procrastinate, is focusing on the product instead of the process. The author calls it “P vs. P” or process vs. product. When we think so much of the result, such as “I should be able to solve this math problem” instead of “I will put in 25 minutes to solve this problem” then you are focusing on the hard part, which is the result, instead of the easier part, which is putting in the effort of solving. I’ve mentioned this technique in my other articles. This is similar to my advice that we should focus only on doing our best in whatever we are engaged in, because that’s the only thing we can control. We don’t have much control on the output. But if we give it our all in anything that we do, then you will be at peace regardless of the outcome. When I was in college studying engineering, I would usually put in 3 hours a day solving calculus problems with 10-to-15-minute rest intervals for every 30 minutes of study. The discipline of sticking to the regular 3-hour study per day helped improved my solving skills overtime.

Learning Technique #3:  Overcoming Stressful Situations

This technique is for taking exams.  For those of you who get stressed taking examinations, you should try to use the author’s “I’m Excited Method”. It’s a mental approach of turning things around when you are in a big psychological threat of taking an exam (or presenting a report). Instead of thinking “I’m scared with this exam, I might choke and have a mental block” think instead that “this body reaction of mine to stress, such as sweaty palms, runaway heartbeat means my body is kicking in, it wants me to give my best, so let’s do this, because I’m excited to demonstrate my skills.” It’s applying reverse psychology to our fears and cultivating that biology of courage in fight or flight situations.

Learning Technique #4:  Recall and Retell

The author advises us to do a mental recall of the key points of the material we have studied without looking at our notes on a regular basis. The practice reshapes our brain in storing information making it unique and more likely to stick. In a 2007 study, Dr. Karpicke at the Purdue University found that “retrieving knowledge improves one’s ability to retrieve it again in the future. Practicing retrieval does not merely produce rote, transient learning; it produces meaningful, long-term learning.”

And if you want to take that recall method one step further, try to explain to other people what you have learned. Explaining the material you’ve learned to another person, not only helps fuel and share your enthusiasm, but also clarifies and cements the ideas in your mind, so you will remember them in weeks and months to come. This is very true since I have a first-hand experience on this because of my teaching profession. A 2-hour seminar on Love, Courtship and Marriage for example that I have been giving numerous times to young people, feels to me like I could retell it by heart without looking at around 50 power-point slides that I use for my lecture.