The Importance of Learning Students’ Names

student raising hand on class

Names … why do we have such trouble learning them? For those of us who struggle with names, it never gets easier, no matter how many tricks we try. It can be embarrassing—to ourselves and to others. I remember once visiting a mall while out of town and hearing someone calling my name. Soon, a vaguely familiar person was greeting me with enthusiasm. “I am so happy to see you! It’s been so long? How are you?”

Who is this?, I’m thinking to myself. Course rosters roll through my mind. Nothing. No associations. No connections. Finally, in embarrassment I admit. “I’m terribly sorry but I can’t remember your name. When did you take my course?” “Maryellen! I’m Simone Beck. We went to college together.”

Teaching Professor Blog Learning students’ names is regularly recommended as good instructional practice. Less often is the recommendation accompanied with advice as to how, or what’s proposed is some convoluted approach that isn’t going to work for most of us. If the course is small, learning the names is possible. But as the numbers increase so does the challenge, until it becomes impossible. In a study exploring the use of names in large biology courses (reference below or see the June-July 2017 issue of The Teaching Professor for a summary of this research), of the 157 students who were in a biology course with 50 or more students 80% reported that it was “unlikely” the instructor knew their name.

So, if students aren’t expecting it, does that take us off the hook? Not really. In the same study, more than 85% of the students said it was important to them that their instructors knew their names. When asked why, they responded with a convincing set of reasons, among them these. It positively affects their attitudes about the course. They feel more valued and invested in the course. When the instructor knows their names, they say they feel more comfortable getting help. It’s easier to talk with the instructor. They think it improves their performance. Finally, they said it affects what they think about the course and the instructor.

We need to work on student names. Perhaps there are some different approaches and ways to think about the task.

Name tents – That’s what they used in a study of a course with 185 students. And yes, the students initially thought the idea was “silly” and “childish.” But their attitudes changed. The teachers (two of them) moved around the room a lot and addressed students by their names as they did. Interesting, when the course ended, they asked students if the teachers knew their names and 78% of the students said yes. But when looking at a picture roster without names, the instructors correctly identified just under 53% of the students. Bottom line: the name tents helped these teachers create the impression that they knew more student names than they in fact did.

Learn some of the names – It’s easy to get at least a few of the names—those who sit up front and regularly contribute, those who drop by during office hours, those who talk with us before and after class, those who communicate with us electronically, etc. Use the names you know and no, that isn’t preferential treatment. Read on.

Share the responsibility with students – Most of us shoulder all the name learning responsibility. Why? Isn’t it in a student’s best interest to have the teacher know his or her name? And aren’t the ways teachers learn students’ names (see above) opportunities available to every student? Tell students you want to learn their names, why it’s to their advantage, and then explain how they can help you.

Challenge students to learn and use each other’s name – None of this, “I agree with him.” Who is he? What’s his name? Someone, please, introduce him to the rest of us. When you give students an activity like think-pair-share, always remind them to first introduce themselves to their partner. Several faculty members have told me about a favorite first quiz they like to give in their courses. They make a big deal about the quiz and most everyone comes prepared only to discover there’s just one quiz question: “List the names of everyone you know in this course.” Yes, there’s usually some guessing. Is that any different from what normally happens?

How do you learn your students’ names or encourage them to learn each other’s names? Please share 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.

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