Study smart! Leverage focussed and diffuse modes of thinking to help you learn math & science!

Hey everyone, this video series is for anyone who wants to succeed in their math and science courses.  I’m sure everyone can think of a classmate or that friend who seems to have an easier time understanding stem concepts.  How do they do it?  Are they just naturally smarter than their peers?  Or, maybe you already get fantastic grades in your STEM classes and you’re thinking about pursuing it in post-secondary education, where the classes are much harder than in high school.  How can you make sure that you keep succeeding?

Well, in this video series, I summarize some excellent advice from a book I read called “A Mind for Numbers” by Barbara Oakley.  This is a great read, I highly recommend it.  I’m also going to provide some examples and anecdotes from my own experience as an online math tutor.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Clara Tong, I tutor math online to students ages 11 and up.  Sometimes, parents find me as a resource for their kids who are taking a difficult math course in school.  Other times, parents find me to improve their kids’ math ability so that they are equipped when they encounter these tough courses.

If you would like to know more about me, you can visit my website or get in touch by email and let me know what you or your child is struggling with in math.  Of course if this video is helpful to you, give it a like and subscribe to my channel for more content.

In Part 1 of this video series, I go over the focused and diffuse mode of thinking, how each of these modes are required to study math and science, and how to use them to your advantage.

In thinking, the brain has both a focussed and diffuse mode

The brain has two modes of thinking: focused mode and diffuse mode.

Focus mode helps you concentrate on the task and refuse distracting thoughts.  It’s the mode you engage when you learn a new concept for the first time, memorize definitions of key terminology, or execute a procedure you are already familiar with correctly.  Seems like a useful thinking mode when learning math and science, right?  Yes, but, there’s another thinking mode that’s important.

Diffuse mode is associated with creativity.  Wait a minute, you say.  Isn’t math and science all about following a bunch of rules?  Isn’t that the very opposite of creativity?  Well, we commonly associate creativity with art, where artists of all disciplines come up with original ideas by looking at something familiar from a different perspective, or by combining 2 or more ideas that are not usually found in the same piece of work.  Believe it or not, problem solving in math and science requires the same kind of creative skill.  

Have you ever encountered a problem in math and science where the usual procedure for solving the problem doesn’t work?  Maybe some information seems missing, some aspect about the problem is changed, or the brute force method would take an absolute eternity?

And then when you look at the answer key, you think to yourself, “I understand this, but I would not have thought to solve the problem this way?”

In problems like these, diffuse thinking might help.  When your brain is in diffuse mode, your mind is relaxed and allowed to wander and make connections between concepts that don’t seem related.  When your diffuse mode comes with an idea that can solve a problem, it feels like an “aha” moment.  That aha moment sure beats randomly typing numbers in the calculator hoping for the best, doesn’t it?

So, how should we leverage focused and diffuse modes of thinking to solve problems in math and science?

When you first start learning a topic, your focused mode helps you concentrate so you can understand terminology, learn the overarching ideas, understand the examples, and try a few similar problems.  When you work on a problem, focused mode helps you understand what the problem is asking and what information is given.  But it doesn’t take much for the problem to seem different compared to the examples.  This is where students often first get stuck.  So, what you do is you load the new problem in your mind with focused mode, and then you stop thinking about it.  Do something else.  It’s only when your focused mode turns off that you are able to let diffuse mode take over. 


What sorts of activities help engage diffuse mode?

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein recommends the 3 Bs: bed, bath, and bus.  Think about it.  Have you ever gotten an idea when you were waiting to fall asleep?  Or solved a problem while your mind wandered in the shower or riding the bus?  Or maybe there’s another activity that you prefer, such as taking a walk, cleaning, or listening to music.  Whatever works for you

What are the signs I should switch modes of thinking?

When you persist at a problem too long without success, it gets frustrating.  Once your sense frustration arising, stop the activity, get your brain to relax and do something else, then come back after you’ve had your AHA moment.

Now you might be thinking, diffuse mode sounds helpful, but I don’t have that much time.  I have a test tomorrow.  I hate to break it to you, but learning is more like a marathon than a sprint.  

If you are subscribe to this channel and ring the notification bell so you are the first to know when the next videos in this series are released.  I will be covering study skills and procrastination, how to study math and science so that you understand it, and test taking and test anxiety.  Hope this video has been helpful for you.  I will see you in the next one.

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