All Those Students’ Names to Learn . . .

learning students' names
As new courses begin, there’s another batch of students and lots of new names to learn. A few among us manage to learn names with, what appears to rest of us, considerable ease. Others have developed surefire methods that work for them but not anyone else. Learning all those new names is a daunting task for most teachers.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s new courses begin, there’s another batch of students and lots of new names to learn. A few among us manage to learn names with, what appears to rest of us, considerable ease. Others have developed surefire methods that work for them but not anyone else. Learning all those new names is a daunting task for most teachers. For Those Who TeachIs it worth all the effort it requires? Does it matter to students if we know their names? It does (Cooper et. al., 2017) and for lots of different reasons. Names identify us. Being known by your name adds legitimacy and authenticity to any interaction. They’re how teachers establish relationships, with individual students and the class as a whole. Even our embarrassing attempts, forgetting the names, using the wrong name, those continuous efforts show students we care, that we’re trying. Some things we do make the task harder. We own it, all of it. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to learn the students’ names. Yes, it is, but why are we the only ones making the effort? It’s very much in a student’s best interest to be known by the teacher. When students are willing to share the responsibility with us, they can help us learn their names. They can chat with us before or after class. They can stop by the office or note us electronically. They can hail us on campus and challenge us to greet them by name. They can participate in class and offer helpful hints as we try to remember their names and pronounce them correctly. And it isn’t just that teachers and students should know each other’s names. There are also good reasons why students should know the names of others in the course. If they miss a session, it’s nice to have somebody they contact about what happened. They might benefit from studying with others. If there’s group work, things go better when the students know each other. The use of names in a course creates a climate that’s more conducive to learning. For all these reasons, learning names in the course should be a shared endeavor. Here is a creative way to reinforce the importance of names. Announce with great fanfare the first quiz of the semester is next week—it could be questions from the reading, the first day of class, who knows? When it’s time for that 10-point quiz, have students write down the names of 10 students in the course—and a bonus point for the teacher’s name, maybe two if the name is difficult to spell. Sure, there will be some wild guessing, but I love how convincingly this makes the case that names “count” in the course. Secondly, we seem convinced that we have to learn all the names in short order. Let it be a process and one we work through without embarrassment. So, maybe there’s a hand raised and you don’t know the student’s name. Speak with a student you do know, “Marcela, that person in front of you whose hand is up, I can’t remember her name. Can you introduce me to her? You can’t? Can someone else help us? It’s Brittany. Thanks, Victor.” I devoted an article (May 18, 2017) to highlighting results from a study of names conducted in a class with 185 students. No, the teachers (there were two of them) didn’t learn all the names and students reported that they didn’t expect that in large courses. The interesting thing was that these teachers used the names they’d learned (those of students who regularly participated, who talked with them, who came for help) and surprisingly the students perceived that the teachers knew a significantly larger percentage of names than they actually did. A month into the course a teacher can wander around the room before class and speak with students still unknown. If the student takes no initiative, maybe that absolves the teacher of some responsibility for learning the name, although those are likely the students who will gain the most from a teacher connecting with them. Names matter. We should do our best to learn as many as we can, and students should be part of the process. We can be shameless and gift ourselves with patience. I’d love to hear your ideas. What’s your go-to-strategy for learning students’ names? Please share in the comment box below. Reference: Cooper, K. M., Haney, B., Krieg, A., and 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.