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Strategies for Learning Student Names


Student: “Hello, Professor Smith!”
Professor Smith: “Hello….you!”
Student: “Do you have my paper?”
Professor Smith: “Sure!  Uh, well, what was your last name again?”
Student: “It’s, Smith, remember?  Just like yours?”
Professor Smith: “Oh, right, of course.  Yes, I remember your last name; just remind me of the first?”
Student: “It’s John.  Also exactly the same as yours.”

If this conversation reminds you of any recent, uncomfortable exchanges with any of your students-who-shall-not-be-named, you might be one of the many instructors who find learning students’ names difficult.  Learning students’ names is a worthwhile project and can go a long way toward establishing rapport and indicating that we care about our students, their contributions, and their success in our courses. Knowing each other by name fosters approachability. But learning names can be a challenge for instructors – particularly in large lecture courses.

One easy-to-implement strategy is to study your students’ photographs – either before class, or using them as a reference during class.   Simply log-in to PeopleSoft and access your Faculty Center and your Class Roster.  Selecting “Include photos in list” allows you to page through the students one by one in this display setting.  Selecting “View All” displays multiple students on a page for easy printing. (Simply right-click to print the screen.) As an alternative, some faculty take up-to-date photographs of their students on the first day of class. For more information, including FERPA privacy policies regarding student photographs, see p. 7 this document provided by CSSD.

Remember, you don’t have to learn everyone’s name all at once (or even by the end of the term).  Aim to learn 3-5 student names each class meeting, perhaps taken from a single row of seating.  Learning names takes a bit of effort and commitment, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if undertaken in small steps. Here are some other easy-to-implement strategies for learning names, which can be used separately or together:

  • Ask students to give their names first when they speak (and politely remind them when they forget). Then repeat their names back to them when you respond.
  • Ask students to create “name tents” using card stock and markers and use them for the first few weeks.
  • Create either an impromptu or formal seating chart. If you don’t want to require students to sit in the same place each class meeting, you can still create  chart or partial chart just before class begins, by asking students their names, or during class “on the fly” as you field student comments and collect names.
  • Associate students with the same names as people you know, either personally or in popular culture.
  • Use mnemonics—if the student’s name sounds like a physical object or a concrete concept, connect the person with that object. (Sometimes, the more outlandish the better!)
  • Write a brief description of the student next to his or her name.  It is best to exercise discretion with this strategy.  Even if it’s in your own mind, connecting someone’s name to physical characteristics (flattering or unflattering) could obviously be problematic).
  • Review students’ names after class and try to connect them to specific comments they made during class.
  • In one-on-one conversations, make a point of asking students their names from the outset. If you don’t ask the first time, you’ll probably feel strange asking the second, third, or twentieth time you talk to them.
  • Refer to your name chart with pictures when reviewing student assignments to help you connect their work with the person.
  • Hand students’ work back to them in person by calling out their names.

For a much more extensive list of strategies, visit the University of Nebraska’s resource page for Learning Student Names.

  • Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.
  • Nilson, Linda B. Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for college Instructors. 3rd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
  • Svinicki, Marilla and Wilbert J. McKeachie. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 13th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2006.

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