Should You Learn Their Names?

Most teachers think they should. Almost all make an effort and feel guilty when they fail. In the literature, learning students’ names is widely advocated as a good teaching practice with claims made that it builds relationships with students and creates a positive atmosphere in the course. In addition, it is taken by students as an indication that the professor cares. However, have any of these important benefits been documented beyond anecdote and experience? “We know of no research literature that actually links student perception of their names being known to affective student outcomes” (Cooper, Haney, Krieg, & Brownell, 2017, p. 1). That’s the observation of a group of faculty researchers who decided that the effects of knowing (and not knowing) students’ names might be worth exploring systematically.

Their research site was a 185-student upper division biology course taught by two of the study’s authors. They used an active learning format—students answered clicker questions, discussed those questions with peers and worked in groups to complete worksheets. They all attended two class sessions and one recitation section with 60–70 students. Students in the course completed both a pre- and post-course survey and were able to earn a small amount of extra credit by participating in an interview during which they provided course feedback anonymously.

The instructors used name tents in the course. On the first day, each student was given a piece of brightly colored card stock and a marker. They wrote their first names on the tent and were asked to bring them to class. Extra tenting materials were available each session in case students forgot theirs.

Of interest to the researchers were students’ prior experiences in courses enrolling 50 students or more. Did their instructors learn their names? How often did that occur? The researchers also explored the use of names in this particular course. In a post-course survey, students were asked whether the instructors knew their names, how they thought the instructors had come to learn them, and whether it was important to them to have their names known. At the end of the course, the two instructors were given a photo roster of the class with the names removed. They identified as many of the students as they could.

Some of the findings were what we might suspect. Of the better than 90 percent of students who had previously take a 50-plus student biology course, just under 80 percent reported that it was “unlikely” that the instructors in those courses knew their names. They also found that female students were significantly (2.9 times) less likely than male students to report that it was “likely” the biology instructors in those courses knew their names.

In contrast, in this course, close to 80 percent of the students in the class who completed the post-course survey (94 percent of those enrolled in the course) reported that their names were known by the instructors. Despite what the female students reported about their names not being known in other large biology courses, “they were just as likely as male students to perceive that their names were known in this course” (Cooper et al, 2017, p. 5). Even more interesting, despite 80 percent of the students thinking their names were known, the two course instructors were only able to name just slightly more than 50 percent of the students. Twenty-eight percent of the students who thought the instructors knew their names were not identified by the instructors.

Is having the instructor know their names important to students? In this student cohort, 85 percent said yes, and they gave on the survey and in interviews a compelling list of reasons. When the instructor knows the student’s name, it affects the student’s attitude about the course. Students feel more valued and invested in the course. When the instructor knows them, it affects some important behaviors. They report it makes them feel more comfortable getting help, makes it easier to talk with the instructor, and makes them feel more confident about the material. Finally, knowing students’ names affects the students’ perceptions of the course or the instructor. Students feel like the instructor cares, and that sensation builds better student–teacher relationships, makes the class feel more like a community, and makes students more likely to ask the instructor for a recommendation or for mentoring.

Perhaps the most encouraging part of this study was how well the name tents worked. They enabled the instructors to use student names, and that created the impression that they knew the names. Students reported at first they thought the name tents were “silly” and “childish.” They were used to being unknown in large courses, but their attitudes changed when they saw how the instructors used the tents. There was also an added benefit: Students used the tents when they were interacting with each other. In addition, they used them to learn names and referred to them when they didn’t know a name.

In a thorough and systematic way this work confirms what we’ve long thought about the importance of learning student names. It matters—or at least it did to this large cohort—and for a variety of important reasons. Learning names is not easy; it’s especially hard for some. The name tents used here offer hope, even in large courses, provided the instructor can move around the room. Even without them, it’s possible to learn some names and use those. It’s also possible to make learning names a class responsibility. Isn’t it to a student’s advantage to have the instructor know his or her name, and aren’t there a variety of ways students can make their names known to their instructors? Students in this study correctly reported the ways teachers learn student names: by answering questions in class, dropping in during office hours, communicating electronically, and talking with the instructor before or after class. The classroom environment also benefits when students know each other by name.

Reference: Cooper, K. M., Haney, B., Krieg, A., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrollment biology classroom. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 16 (Spring), 1–13.

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