Activities for Helping Students Learn One Another’s Name

In my early years as a college professor, I dutifully focused on learning student names as a way of building relationships. Students also got exposed to the names of other students in the class, but beyond introductions on the first night, it wasn’t the primary goal of my naming activities.

As I worked harder at learning student names (and increasing time spent on names in various class activities), I noticed that the feedback from those classes with more naming activities included statements like: “In most classes, I don’t want to speak out because I don’t know anyone’s name.” Or “I felt more trust because I knew who people were—I knew their names.”

After many years of teaching, I have come to realize that the naming activities are not just about me—it’s also about them. The learning of the names of their fellow classmates has deep value for students in a class. After all, they are spending 12-14 weeks together in the expectation they will talk to each other about important topics, collaborate, critique, and take risks. Now, how many of us would want to do these things with a roomful of strangers?

Investing time to learn one another’s name pays dividends throughout the term by creating a better environment for learning. A caveat: I am in the enviable position of teaching classes with 25 or fewer students. The techniques I am describing here are aimed at groups of this size, but with a little creativity they can be adapted to large classes by creating sub-groups and enlisting the help of teaching assistants.

Getting Started
Consider these options for helping students learn each other’s name at the start of a semester:

  • Provide students with a list of the names of those in the class. By keeping the list with them in class meetings, they can begin to get a sense of the larger group. I refer to this as their “dance card”.
  • Structure initial introductions to provide verbal and visual cues about the class members. I often ask students to create a quick poster to introduce themselves and their interest or relationship to the topic of the class (8 ½” x 11” or in the case of smaller classes on poster paper). In the case of larger classes, introductions can be made in small groups, and in smaller classes introductions can be made to the full class. The information that emerges in the introductions feeds into the subsequent course content in many useful ways.
  • Funny Facts. In the first class meeting, ask students to fill out a notecard with their name and one interesting fact about themselves others may not know (and they don’t mind sharing). During the next few sessions, you can pull out the cards and see if students can guess who…likes to take drives with their dog in the summer…likes zebras…or has an extra rib!
  • Lock eyes with a stranger. In the first few class encounters, I will often set up a paired activity in this way: “Look around the room. Identify those you don’t know. Lock eyes with one of them. Now go introduce yourself.” It gets people up and moving, leads to focus on a new individual in the group, and gets class members to generate information with people whose ideas may bring variety to them.
  • In the beginning, I continually remind students to introduce themselves by name before they make a statement in class. They are also asked to introduce themselves as soon as they start a small group activity.

Building Familiarity
Continue to provide students with opportunities to get to know one another with these activities:

  • Paired Interviews: I may have students conduct structured interviews using a protocol I have generated relative to the class content. I start the activity off with the “Lock eyes with a stranger” technique (above). After the paired interviews are conducted, the pairs create a four-some and introduce each other and report on what they learned.
  • When you make small group assignments, list the names of small group members on the assignment sheet. This way all students will see the names again and be reminded with whom they are working.
  • Make up ways to choose small groups that rely upon naming. I keep a set of notecards, each with a student name, and use these in different ways to involve more students. I may draw student names when I am asking questions or use the card drawing technique to create small groups. Sometimes, I also have students draw a card and announce the name. That person becomes the next one to answer, join a small group, etc.

Testing Their Learning
At different times throughout the semester you can test students on how well they know their classmates in these ways:

  • Blank numbered sheet. Give each student a numbered sheet of paper that corresponds with the number of students that are in the class (or sub-group of the class). I like to have them sitting in a circle for this activity. Ask them to look to their right and start writing down the names of each student in the circle and to skip a space if you don’t know the name. I give them a time limit of about five minutes (or as long as it takes most of them to reach saturation). Then their task is to note who they couldn’t name and to go and introduce themselves again and get that person’s name for their list.
  • Who is missing? Copy a class list with everyone’s name on it and pass it out to students as they arrive for class. Tell them their job is to take attendance and figure out who is missing. When class starts, ask for volunteers who can name the students who are absent (if any).

The time such activities take is negligible compared to the pay-off you receive as an instructor for having a happy class with greater connection as a community.

I find students helping each other more, acting with more consideration to each other, and spending more time together. Recently, I had an undergraduate class that could be seen hanging out before class for at least 30 minutes and immediately after class they were often together in the campus coffee shop.

Dr. Judith Davidson, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Education, University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

Do you have a favorite activity for helping students learning one another’s name? Please share in the comment box.

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