"I'm terrible at names," complained my friend Steve. He's a respected professor of entomology who is fascinated by ugly bugs that make many of us shudder. "Really?" I asked. "How many species of beetles can you identify by name?" "Thousands," he said."

Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#752 Learning Your Students' Names


The posting below looks at how you can learn all, or most, of your students' names. It is one of the best things a professor can do. The article is by Dr. Mary McKinney of Successful Academic Coaching. Feel free to visit her web site at http://www.successfulacademic.com for additional tenure track tips and dissertation writing strategies. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Making Teaching and Learning Visible

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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Learning Your Students' Names

What's Your Name Again?

"I'm terrible at names," complained my friend Steve. He's a respected professor of entomology who is fascinated by ugly bugs that make many of us shudder. "Really?" I asked. "How many species of beetles can you identify by name?"

"Thousands," he said.

Obviously, he can remember some names.

Like Steve, many of us struggle to remember the names of acquaintances, despite being able to remember a great many names or details in our field of interest.

What about you?

* Do you forget the names of people at parties five minutes after they've been introduced?
* Do you dread making introductions for fear of drawing a complete blank, even if you know the people quite well?
* Do you have trouble keeping track of student names even at mid-semester?

Psychologists find that anxiety often interferes with people's ability to learn and remember names. At parties, we're often pre-occupied with the impression we're making. When teaching, we may be worried about the content we're about to teach or how well we're presenting the material. But whatever the context, be it cocktail party or classroom, remembering names indicates respect and concern, and can be essential to building a relationship.

I still remember the charismatic Professor Banchoff who taught my freshman calculus course in college. On the first day of class, he went around the room and asked each of us our names. When someone mumbled, or had a name that was difficult to pronounce, he asked us to repeat ourselves and then repeated the name himself. There were over 100 students taking the course so this initial roll call took a significant portion of the first class.

>From that day on, when we raised our hands to ask or answer a question, Professor Banchoff called on us by name:

" Yes, Miss McKinney?" he would ask formally, when I raised my hand to answer a question. And when returning quizzes he might accompany my paper with "Good Job, Mary."

We were all awed by Professor Banchoff's memory (although we sometimes wished that it was less sharp when we skipped class or neglected homework assignments.). He regularly won awards for teaching excellence and received high marks for his clear and dynamic lectures. But I'm sure his impressive recall of our names also boosted his ratings. It always felt great to know that he knew who we were.

Do you know all of your students' names? If not, and your class doesn't top 40 students, learn them. Even if you teach a large lecture class, you can still learn many names - especially those of students who participate regularly.

I'm currently coaching a junior professor - I'll call him Jim - who is concerned about getting tenure, in part because of below average teaching evaluations.

During one of our early sessions, I asked, "How large are your classes?"

"About 30 students," he said.

"Do you know their names?"

"Well, some of them," he replied sheepishly. "I'm terrible at names."

"Let's change that," I said.

This year, even before the first day of class, Jim had downloaded the names and school I.D. photographs of each student enrolled in his courses. By the second class of the semester he'd memorized every name.

" What a difference," he said. "I can tell they're impressed that I've learned their names so quickly. And I feel much more confident during class discussions. Knowing their names has even been helpful outside of the classroom: I used to feel embarrassed when I ran into students in the hall, or they came to office hours, and I didn't know their names."

How To Learn Student Names:

1. Make it a priority. Focusing on any goal is the first step towards making it happen.

2. Read the registrar's list before the first class. Pay attention to the names that may be difficult to pronounce.

3. Take roll call on the first day of class. Take your time, pay close attention and repeat each student's name. Make sure that you have the proper pronunciation. If a student's name is unfamiliar be sure to ask explicitly if you've got it right. Students who are shy, or from cultures where greater deference to authority is the norm, may hesitate to correct you unless prompted and yet will still find it grating to be referred to incorrectly the entire semester.

4. Ask the students what they prefer to be called and be sure to write down nicknames on the class roster. You may want to preface your roll call with a request for nicknames: while you are likely to wonder whether Elizabeth whether goes by "Liz" or "Beth", you'll have no idea that Amy Jones goes by "A.J."

5. If you have access to students' photos, use them to familiarize yourself with names as part of your preparation in the first weeks of class. My client Jim had been unaware that he had access to student I.D. photos via the "Facebook" until he checked with the registrar.

6. If there are no photos available, consider taking your own photographs. In Tools for Teaching, Barbara Gross Davis suggests taking Polaroid shots of students and pasting them on index cards with the students' names and other personal information. Creating class "I.D. cards" is even easier with access to digital cameras.

7. Often it is most difficult to remember foreign students' names, which may be unfamiliar to Western ears. Be sure to write a phonetic version of the name if needed. For example, in one of my classes the name of a Chinese student was transliterated as Xiou - but pronounced something like "Shaw."

8. A common memory trick is to link the name with something or someone else - thus my student Xiou became the unforgettable George Bernard "Shaw" in my mind.

9. Think of another person you know who has the same first name as the student. Then make a link using a visual image. For example, I imagine my short-haired brunette student Susan with the wild grey mane of my cousin Susan, who hadn't changed the style of her coiffure since the late 1960's. The incongruous image cements the student's name in my cortex.

10. Use humor in your associative links to make a lasting impression. I kept getting confused about whether a student was Egla or Elga until I imagined her with a hard-boiled Egg of a head.

11. Find a rhyme to create mental associations: Is Jim slim? Or an adjective that tips you off about the name's first letter: Is Thomas tall? Can you visualize Sarah in a sarong? Again, humor helps. Thus Slim Jim becomes a life-size stick of dried beef sausage. And Sarah, well, sarongs fall off easily, right? (Need I admonish you that the mnemonic devises should be kept to yourself?)

12. Use your students' names frequently both to call on them to participate and to refer to previous points made in the discussion. Davis points out that this technique can be used in even very large classes: Ask students their name when they make a comment and later refer to it as "Jeff's point" or "Audrey's contribution."

13. When you take roll, consider creating a map of the seating arrangement labeled with student's names. I'm always surprised at how consistently students sit in the same seats, or at least the same quadrant of the room. In my small classes, we sit around a large table and for the first few classes I write down who chooses to sit where as students arrive. Writing the names down also helps commit them to memory. Some professors ask students to sit in the same seats for a few classes, a request that communicates their earnest efforts to learn names. I prefer to keep my mnemonic methods mysterious. Either way works.

14. Using name tags for the first few class sessions can help students learn one another's names at the same time it helps you. I ask my students to write their first names in very large letters so that I can read them from the front of the classroom.

15. When teaching very large classes it is tempting to give up. Resist the temptation. Try learning five names per class and try to use those names.

16. Use name tags or cards. One professor I know uses name cards for her large classes. Students pick up the cards as they file into class and place them at the front of their desks. This United Nations style name card strategy is also useful because the tags that aren't retrieved indicate absent students.

17. With any sized enrollment, between classes, look at registrar's list during week and see how many faces you can recall.

18. Make sure you know the names of students who visit you during office hours. Take a few minutes to ask the students about themselves, their major, where they are from, etc. Personal contact is one of the ways you can increase the effectiveness of your teaching.

Becoming an expert at memorizing names is a small but respectful step toward demonstrating personal investment in your students' well-being. Building a mutually respectful relationship with students is as important as having an organized lesson plan, giving a dynamic lecture, or encouraging enthusiastic class participation. Positive student-teacher relationships foster engagement and achievement.
Learning your students' names quickly and well may also provide a small boost of your end-of-term evaluations. The positive effects on your teaching reputation, departmental reviews and chances for tenure - vis-a-vis evaluations, future class enrollments, etc. - are secondary fringe benefits that may provide pragmatic motivation to invest your energy in the task.

Learning student names is just a minor, obvious task among the multitude of steps required to become an excellent teacher. However, like many basics of good teaching, it is often neglected. Being able to identify a student by name may be the first step toward cultivating a level of rapport that will make a difference in your students' lives and your own career.

Do you have any additional tips for remembering students' names? Let me know and I'll share them with other readers.

NOTE: This article first appeared in the on-line journal "Inside Higher Education". Click here to read that version and see the many helpful comments and responses from readers.