Learn your students’ names. No, really.

I have a thing about learning my students’ names. And it’s not a good thing.

I think I have a fixed mindset when it comes to learning people’s names: I believe I can’t do it. So whenever someone introduces him- or herself, a piece of my brain shuts off for a couple of seconds and the name go in one ear and out the other. That’s really annoying when I can’t call them by name just 5 seconds later!

The first step is admitting I have a problem, right? These days, I deliberately “activate” my brain when I’m about to meet someone: Okay, here comes somebody new. Listen for their name. Listen…listen…listen…got it! “Nice to meet you, [insert name here]”

Of course, I ignore all this advice when it comes to students in my classes. I used to teach introductory astronomy with 200-300 students. I mean, c’mon, what am I supposed to do, learn all their names? Bah, forget about it.

A Critical Moment

Then something happened last summer. I was observing a class at UCSD taught by one of our Summer Graduate Teaching Scholars — Ph.D. students selected to teach a course in Summer Session  with support from the Center for Teaching Development. David was teaching an anthropology class about multiculturalism to about 50 students. His goal was to regularly spark discussion in class, getting students to share their own diverse cultural experiences. At first, David easily called on about half a dozen students by name, most of whom sat near the front of the room. “Uh-oh,” I thought to myself, “he knows the names of the enthusiastic students, potentially excluding the others from the ‘teacher’s pet’ club.” Someone else put up a hand and then David did something that still sticks in my memory: he looked right at the student, said, “Yes…uhhh…” and looked down at his classlist with student photos and names, found the right person, “…John*, what would like to add?” [*it wasn’t John, I don’t think. I wasn’t listening. See above.] David made it clear he wanted to learn their names and they saw the effort he was putting into it. Later in the same class, he called on someone at the back of the room, by name, who he remembered had written something about the event they were discussing.

Even though the room was narrow and dark, with the studnets on one end and David on the other, it felt like a community. They were all  learning together. People engaged all over the room, not just the front rows. Wow. I believe that David knowing his students’ names was a critical factor in that success.

Fall 2013 – My Turn

When it was my turn to teach again, a class for 40 grad students and postdocs about teaching and learning in higher ed, I vowed to learn their names. I made a print-out of their names and photos (pro tip: alphabetized by first name). When they were working in small groups, I took the time to deliberately look at each student and recall his or her name, consulting my cheat sheet only when necessary. Honestly, it didn’t take long before I was comfortable calling them by name. And it was great, especially since I was able to link their blog posts with their faces and could say, “Amy, you wrote about that on the blog. Could you share what you wrote with us?”

Winter 2014

I’m about to teach this same class again, this time with 64 students. As I spent a precious holiday afternoon sitting at my computer downloading and formatting students pictures into a class list, I wondered if it was really worth the effort. Wondered on Twitter, that is:


What a thrill to open Twitter a few hours later and see my timeline full of responses. Almost everyone agreed that it’s crucial but more difficult to accomplish, the larger the class:










Some were clear that it’s not easy in really large classes:


  On the other hand, class size doesn’t bother @raulpacheco:


  @bfwriter noticed that @kellecruz says she learns the names of her engaged students:

To which Kelle elaborated




The last words, for now, go to @ProfNoodlearms for viewing name-learning as a consequence, not a catalyst, of learning

…and to @DRPicardHIS for using names to build these connections amongst the students, too:


Is it worth the effort?

In a word, yes. Learn as many names as you can. Even if you only learn half of them, it may seem to the students that you know them all. And that feeling of connection and community might be enough to get all of your students engaged and learning.

How do YOU do it?

Do you learn your students’ names? If you have a good method, would you leave a comment to share it with us? Thanks!

Update: January 24, 2014

Writing this post motivated me to learn my students’ names, all 60 of them. I made a PPT deck with 1 slide for each student’s name, program (“grad student, Biology”) and photo. I printed these slides as 9-up handouts and cut them, to get a stack of index cards I carry around and continually flip through. I worked hard at it and within a few days, I could name each student.

I mades cards, one for each student, giving their names, programs and pictures.
I mades cards, one for each student, giving their names, programs and pictures.

I’ve been teaching my class for 3 weeks now and knowing my students’ names and faces is working great in both directions, faces-to-names and names-to-faces:

  • when a student walks into the classroom, I can say, “Hi, Bob. How’s your week going?”
  • when a student asks a question or makes a comment, I can say, “Yes, Bob, you’ve got something to add?” and “Thanks, Bob, that’s really interesting.”
  • when they write blog posts (and they wrote some good ones), I read the author name, and picture the student in my head. Later, when I see that student in class, I can say, “Great post, Bob, I really like how you wrote…”
  • similarly, when I’m teaching and remember something relevant that I read in a blog post, I can look around the room and say, “Bob, you wrote about that. Would you tell us about it?”

On the first day, I’d see them coming up the hallway to class and could have said, “Hi Bob, great to meet you in person.” That felt a little creepy because we’d never met. Instead, I stuck out my hand, “Hi, I’m Peter” and then listened very deliberately to make sure the name they replied with matched what I was expecting. That gave me a way to check the pronounciation, too.

The students sit in 3’s and 4’s at tables in my classroom and I notice they often introduce themselves when they do group work. As Danielle writes in the comments, the students benefit from knowing each other’s names, too.

Update: February 21, 2014

“Oh sure, I learned their names,” I convinced myself. I stopped quizzing myself with my stack of index cards. And the next week, drew a blank on student after student! I guess it’s no surprise I’d forget the names of people I see only once per week in a group of 20 but it’s really frustrating to forget students’ names when you know you knew them.

So, I’m back to quizzing myself with the index cards. Before each class, I flip through the cards, slipping the ones I get wrong back into the deck. Seems to be working because this week, I didn’t make any mistakes.

4 Replies to “Learn your students’ names. No, really.”

  1. Because I find learning names so important, especially in a discussion-based course (< 25 UG Ss), I spend the beginning of the class telling my students that my goal is to have all of their names memorized by the second class and that, because the course is a discussion class, I expect that they learn their peers names. This occasionally brings on wide-eyed panic, but they survive.

    I do cheat a little by having a picture roster in front of me and having already scanned over the sheet the few days prior. Simply having the first and last names memorized with a vague recollection of "Male student, hipster glasses, dark hair" helps get the ball rolling. I ask the students to introduce themselves with their name, class year, and why they're taking the course (this proves enlightening from a pedagogical standpoint of understanding some student assumptions and motivations coming into the course). As the students say their names, I write them down in seat order for use for the rest of the day's discussion. After about 5-6 students, I ask a volunteer to repeat the names we've heard so far. This repeats until we get through all the students and 2-3 students and I can name everyone in the room. I actively encourage the students to not say their own name when someone stumbles, but invite another
    student to help out or I say "starts with a 'H'" or "title character in a book about wizards and muggles." Awkwardness and laughter help form an initial community and function as an ice breaker.

    When we're finished with that, I thank them for helping me learn names and remind them that the purpose of learning and using names is to help build community in the classroom, and that I expect that they use their classmates' names when acknowledging their ideas and when they see each other in the university dining hall. (The latter part is a holdover from my working in student affairs/reslife as an undergrad.)

    During the next class, I start with asking a volunteer to go through the names again after the students go around and say their names once. Then I do it…mind you, I was pouring over the photo roster in the 15 minutes before class. For every class meeting we have, I continuously use names to call on students who have raised hands or to reflect back what a student said (i.e., "Lizzie made a good point about X, but I wonder how that fits in with the discussion we had earlier when Christian said Y. Are these ideas mutually exclusive? John?" This not only helps me with names, but also the students. Plus, student attention and participation typically increases with name use. For pride or fear, I'm not sure.

    The final way that really helps me when teaching much larger classes is having students meet with me in groups or individually during office hours – typically to discuss group projects, a research paper, or, more quickly, to hand back a small assignment – especially if it's a minor reflection piece that the students are asked to write about themselves. Personal information helps me connect a name more easily ("Jordan is from a UK-born Jewish family taking my WW2 course, which is why he talked about the Kindertransport in his reflection piece").

    This does take a lot of time and sometimes two people with vaguely similar physical features and generic names are blurred when I only see them in group settings ("Are you David or Matt, dark haired hipster student?"). I've grown really accustomed to apologizing for messing up names in the beginning of the semester or making a joke of it – most of the time, the stunned student just says "That's okay. I'm terrible at names. I don't know anyone's name in the class."

    1. Thanks, Danielle, for the detailed description. I really like your practice of wrapping their names into the discussion

      Lizzie made a good point about X, but I wonder how that fits in with the discussion we had earlier when Christian said Y. Are these ideas mutually exclusive? John?

      It reminds me of a Law instructor I heard talk about teaching and learning law. He said an important learning outcome is that students be able to summarize other’s arguments. He said he’ll often ask for a point-of-view and then to the next student he’ll say, “Christian, summarize what Lizzie just said.” That teaches listening and summarizing. And that you all need to know everyone’s name.

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