A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley: Summary

A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley

This article aims to bring-out the key ideas in the book “A Mind for Numbers” by Barbara Oakley. A Mind for Numbers lets us in on the secrets to learning effectively. If you’ve felt like you’ve always struggled with math and science – like I have – don’t worry, we all have what it takes to excel in these areas and it doesn’t have to be painful!

6 Insights into improving your math and science skills

1. Prime your mental pump

Before looking at a chapter of any mathematical or scientific book, you should first skim the chapter and look for all the important points (graphics, photos, diagrams, headings, summaries) and most importantly any questions at the end of the chapter.

This helps you “Prime your mental pump” before you even begin learning. This helps you keep on the lookout for the most important points of the chapter, enabling you to digest the most important information and speeding up your understanding.

2. Focused versus Diffused thinking – Use both!


Focused mode thinking is an essential skill for studying any mathematical or scientific subject. It involves tackling problems directly using rational, sequential and analytical approaches. It focuses on a single pursuit, using our entire concentration to systematically solve a problem. Think back to a time when you were completely focused on a task and trying to narrow down options – you were most likely using focused thinking here.


Diffused mode thinking is also an essential skill for studying maths or science. It gives us a “big-picture” method of thinking. It is our subconscious thinking while we are doing other things, for example, taking a shower or going for a walk.

This relaxed method of thinking allows our brain to gather and return valuable insights into problems on our mind even when we are distanced from the problem.

When that new idea or insight comes to mind when you are doing something unrelated to the problem you’ve been trying to solve is most likely diffused thinking doing its work.

It’s important to use both methods!

Both of these types of thinking are necessary if you want to solve problems. It can be easy to trick yourself into working long hours on a problem thinking you are getting somewhere – but sometimes taking a break can be just as effective as working hard.

3. The Einstellung Effect

This is a fancy way of saying you are stuck on a problem. However, it is much more nuanced than that. In this phenomenon, you already have an idea stuck in your mind that is blocking a better idea or solution from being found. It’s a result of letting your focused mode of thinking trick you into believing you have the one and only answer.

To get over this you must have a general knowledge of the subject you are studying. By having this knowledge, you can then let your diffuse mode of thinking take the reigns and allow your sub-concise to come up with a better solution.

4. Recall and retell

To cement things you have learnt, recall and retell is an essential method of learning. Many students trick themselves into believing that by simply reading a book, they can retain and understand what they have read, this is not true according to the author.

To truly memorise and understand what you have read, you must engage in retrieval practice: that is once you have read something, recall what you have read to the best of your ability.

Firstly, write down what you have recalled and then compare it back to what you have read. Practicing this will fix in your mind what you have read.

Secondly, you must test yourself on what you have read. Give yourself a score on your recall and try to improve it every time you come to learn something. Through practice, not only will you see an improvement in your score, but you should see yourself having a greater retention of what you have learnt.

5. The Pomodoro Technique

This is a timed-learning technique aimed at focusing your attention over a short period of time. It helps both your focused and diffused methods of focus.

Set a timer for 25 minutes. Once the timer starts, the task you wish to complete should have your undivided attention, no checking your phone, no going on the internet, nothing but 100% focus on your task. If you happen to feel distracted (you probably will be), take two deep breaths and refocus your task.

In time, you’ll become skilled enough at this method and go the whole 25 minutes with zero distractions.

6. Practice makes permanent

It’s a pretty easy concept to understand, and you’ve probably heard it before. But, to make any of this work, you must practice, practice, and you guessed it, PRACTICE!

By practicing, you’re bolstering the neural links you’ve created, creating “chunks” of knowledge you can instantly recall while focused thinking. You also give your mind the ability to wander and still have immediate access to knowledge base while in the diffused thinking state. It is vital you stay consistent with your learning to achieve your best!

Hopefully these insights are useful – but don’t limit yourself to only applying them to Maths and Science, try to use them for any pursuit!

Make sure to check out the book below and pick up even more insights!

A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley