December 08, 2016

Practice makes perfect. Credit: Jeremy Mikkola / Flickr Creative Commons

For those of us who count on our fingers and never mastered long division, there are certain careers that always seemed out of reach - like engineer and computer programmer. Wrong, says Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University and author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). She argues that even those who struggle with basic math can master the skills necessary for engineering and science careers - and teaches people how in her popular Coursera course Learning How To Learn.

Three Takeaways:

  • Oakley herself always struggled to learn math skills as a student - until she started applying learning strategies she learned from studying Russian. “If you practice enough with verb conjugations they make sense and they come naturally,” she says. “So when I started applying those same ways of learning with language to learning math and science, it actually worked great… As it turns out, it’s a very good way neuroscientifically to gain expertise in virtually any subject.”
  • Oakley thinks that people who learn subjects despite struggling with them actually may have certain advantages over those who absorb them easily. When you learn math through repetition and memorization, she says, “you’re actually using different neural circuitry than the person who’s super good at it. And because you’re using different neural circuitry, you can actually learn it more deeply and more creatively.”
  • Allowing new information time to settle in our brains may be just as important to learning as intense study and concentration. Oakley says that our brains continue to learn when we take breaks after periods of intense concentration, like a roast that keeps cooking when you take it out of the oven. The time off allows our brains to process the information that we just took in.

More Reading:

  • Barbara Oakley’s TEDx talk on “Learning How to Learn.”
  • Quartz on how “failing productively” can help us learn math.
  • “Why Rote Learning Makes Sense” via Edutopia.

Barbara Oakley, NRP, Learning, innovation hub, Kara Miller, WGBH, pri

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