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A Mind for Numbers

Barbara Oakley
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Beverly Wood
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This book has something for everyone interested in the learning of mathematics. Barbara Oakley defines her audience broadly: students who struggle in math and science, students who do well but want even more, parents of students at either end (or anywhere in between), learners in all phases of life, and instructors in all disciplines. The practical advice given in these eighteen chapters is often more about how to learn than it is about what you need to learn, making it useful to many potential readers.

Chapter one begins with an autobiographical sketch of the author’s own struggle with math and science in school, contrasted with her fluency with language. After college, she was determined to “retool my brain” to gain fluency in the quantitative aspects of life. Her success in this endeavor — evidenced by her doctoral degree in systems engineering — lends credibility to all the assertions and advice given in the remainder of the book.

Twelve pages of references, mostly from scholarly journals, also support Oakley’s descriptions and directions. Drawing from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, educational research, and behavioral sciences, as well as personal experiences of students and professors, they provide a vivid mix of empirical and anecdotal evidence to back the author’s encouragement to the reader that retooling your own brain is possible and profitable.

The summative chapter concludes with lists of “Ten Rules for Good Studying” and “Ten Rules of Bad Studying” that will get nods of approval from instructors of all levels and many subjects. The power of the book, however, is in the journey from Oakley’s math phobia through the attitudes and strategies required to optimize learning of math and science, which are often translatable to other endeavors. Very practical techniques are sprinkled all along that path — my favorite being the Pomodoro technique, which I learned at a workshop for creative writing and never thought to apply to mathematics.

Although the book speaks directly to students, I have a hard time imagining a stressed-out high school or traditionally-aged college student picking up such a long and detailed book at the moment of their greatest need, well into an academic term that they are failing. The summary chapter alone might rescue a strongly motivated student, but it may be of better use following a failure or (better yet) in advance of a semester that the student knows will be challenging. Adults returning to college (or going for the first time) will also benefit from the pep talks and techniques that took “years for practitioners to discover” but are “now at your fingertips” (p. xix).

As an instructor of mathematics, I am glad to have a resource for those counseling sessions in my office where I hear from students how much they study and still fail, or how they were good at math in high school but just can’t keep up with the pace of college work. Now I have a concise list of ten do’s and ten don’ts to help identify the culprits in these cases and a recommendation for them to find future success when a tweak to their studying isn’t enough for present success.

Beverly Wood ( is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Indian River State College, FL. Her research interests include statistics education for non-majors, the preparation of math teachers, and learning strategies of new college students.

The table of contents is not available.