Random sampling and ambush mentoring

The teacher I had when I was seven or eight had a great approach to teaching us our multiplication tables. Sure, we did some rote learning and some whole-class recitals of the tables, but her favourite method was to surprise us with (seemingly) random questions. The class would be in the middle of an English lesson, or making Easter cards, or enjoying quiet reading time, and she’d suddenly bark “[Name]: what’s seven times eight?”, expecting that kid to answer in front of the whole class. It certainly kept us on our toes.

My PhD supervisor enjoyed using similar tactics. You’d be innocently passaging cells in the tissue culture room only to jump out of your skin as he sidled up behind you and suddenly asked you to summarise your principal hypothesis or your most recent results; you’d pop into his office late on a Friday afternoon to show him your latest Western blot, only to get thoroughly grilled for an hour or so about your grasp of the literature and/or proper experimental design. Again, the value of the exercise was well worth the stress of always being on your guard.

One of the PIs I work with has just started doing something similar. In the middle of grilling one student during a lab meeting presentation this week, he suddenly turned to a different student, who wasn’t expecting to have to contribute, and asked them to describe how the large T antigen transforms cells. It took everyone by surprise, especially the student in question, who couldn’t remember the right answer from their undergrad lectures. But I bet everyone’ll be more prepared from now on…

…including me…

I think ambush mentoring is great – even when I don’t know whether I’m a likely target!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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19 Responses to Random sampling and ambush mentoring

  1. KristiV says:

    One of our dental school faculty has a coffee can full of slips of paper with a student’s name on each. During lecture, she chooses names from the can and asks the student a question. It’s actually very effective – dental school lecture attendance is better than that for the medical school in any case, but the questions keep students on their toes.

    Re: rote memorization – one of the student evaluations chosen to represent the need for curricular reform, particularly in the neuroscience course, groused on and on about “rope memorization.” I know a thing or two about the neuroscience of learning and memory, but I haven’t heard of rope memorization. ::snark::

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Maybe they were confusing the neuroscience course with their lectures on string theory?

  2. ricardipus says:

    Cath – can you believe that, in this silly Province at least, kids don’t learn their multiplication tables by rote any more?

    Ridiculous. I remember doing this in Grade 3 (~8 years old) and guess what? I still know them now, 30-something-odd years later.

    This new schooling is lame, I tells ya.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Lame indeed! When I were a lass, this were all fields rote learning!

      (not that rote learning is always a good thing, but it is in some cases. Multiplication tables being one such case, IMO).

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Ahah! So I see that my finely honed “ambush mentoring” is no longer patentable. And I thought I could become a millionaire…

    However, the idea of “decoy-ambush” mentoring, as you so nicely depict, will be a welcome new addition to the repertoire. If any of my students are reading this, watch out on Monday!

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Sorry I spoiled your IP claim! But glad to hear you’re going to take out the frustration on your students!

  4. Wow… I’m intimately familiar with this method, though I’d never heard it called “ambush mentoring” before. It has advantages, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily a good stand-alone technique…

  5. ecogeofemme says:

    I *heart* the image you put with this post.

    • cromercrox says:

      me too. Clever kitteh.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Kittehs are always good. Mine cheered me up no end with their silly antics and cozy snuggles during the last stressful grant push, and I thought they might be calming to the nerves of ambushed students, too!

    • Amelie says:

      Me too!
      I don’t have any experience with ambush mentoring yet, but I’ll be on my toes just in case… also, I had never heard of rote memorization, apparently we don’t have a word for that in German.

      • Hmm – so what would you call learning by memorisation?

        • Amelie says:

          Auswendiglernen — learning by heart (or memorization). It’s not that we don’t learn multiplication this way, but we don’t have a word for this. (And consequently I didn’t know other languages would have one…)

  6. We used the abacus in 2 grade to the multiplication tables. Never learned well, indeed use the calculator. If you say at me: ¿Alejandro how much is 7 X 3?. I would respond him: – allows me to think , please!, thanks.

  7. Dr. O says:

    Great technique for learning; not as great for a healthy heart.

    And that cat is really freaking me out – I’m going to be looking over my head every time I walk out my door in the morning for weeks. 😉

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