August 2nd, 2017

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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  • Bob C

    Here in the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences we have pictures of each new student in a large composite, a few weeks after the academic year begins. I primarily teach our first professional year students. Pictures and working with student groups outside of the classroom help me a great deal in remembering names.

  • Jackie Dwyer

    I was happy to read that I am not alone in feeling embarrassed and somehow deficient when I can’t remember student names. I have taught in physical therapy education programs for ten years. I have 40-50 new students each semester that I teach, compounded with the 10 new patients I work with each clinic day throughout the year. I finally gave up this year, admitted my weakness to the students and asked them to tell me their name when they come to talk to me. I also schedule half the students for practical lab exams with me and half with my teaching partner then switch for the next set of practical exams. By doing this, I have one on one time with each student individually for that 20 minutes.
    I am interested in hearing others’ strategies as I start my eleventh semester with new students!
    Jackie Dwyer, DPT

  • Angela McGlynn

    Index cards: I taught psychology at a community college for 35 years. During the fall term, I taught the Intro class with up to 220 students whom I would meet in seminars throughout the week in 20-22 people. (The spring term I would teach revolving advanced classes of 35-40 students). The large lecture was more challenging for me to learn all the names.

    In seminar classes, I gave students 3 X 5 index cards and asked them to put their photos on one side of the card, and the other side should include their names and anything they would like to share with me about themselves. (I did this so I would have something to associate their names to in addition to their photos). Before class, both large lecture and seminars, I used the flash cards to review names and faces. I made my large lectures interactive so I often called students by their names. Although on any given day in the large class at the beginning of the term, I might have remembered only a small percentage of students’ names, I knew enough names to give the impression that I knew them all.

    By the way, my own research shows that near the top of the list, if not number one, students say their want their professors to know their names.

    • Catherine Ingrassia

      Like Angela, I use index cards but I create them myself. At my university, we an print out class rolls with photo IDs. I create cards with the picture and the student’s preferred first name, writing their formal name on the back of the card. I also use them in class.

  • Françoise Breton

    I teach online courses at postgraduate level. At the beginning of the session, every student post their pictures and a description of themselves and their interests. Then I copy their names many times making chechking lists, excel list, forum group discussions, evaluation sheets. Each time they ask a question, I begin answering writing down their names so, after one month of activities I mostly know each name of my students.

  • Bethany S.

    When I can’t recall a student’s first name, I ask them to remind me of their last name. That usually was enough for me to remember their first.

  • AJ Petto

    I used to know ALL my students…until I came to my current position. My one course enrolls 1000-1200 students per year. We do get to know the small majority who come to class or who give us special paperwork.
    In the summer,of course, things are different. I teach 24 graduate students and know them individually.
    In smaller classes have used tent cards; and some of our students are in programs with patient contact, so they have program-issued name tags.
    All this helps…but institutions that regularly herd students into lecture section with more than 400 students in them…and THEN ask instructors to handle at least 2 of these…are setting up an environment in which even minimal individual contact with students is nearly impossible.
    Everything we know about teaching says that this is the wrong way to do it…something I have told my administration for 14 years. And yet we still do.

    • Hi AJ, maybe your administration will listen to published research that shows that large classes are bad for learning?
      Cuseo, J. (2007). The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. The Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), 5–21. Retrieved from
      Something we intuitively know, but it is still nice to have the data.

      • AJ Petto

        If it were a matter of the pedagogic research, then this would be a powerful argument.

        However, the issue here seems to hinge on budgets, program size, and infrastructural resources…and not on pedagogic outcome.

        At the same time, of course, there is a HUGE commitment of resources to student retention…which might easily be improved dramatically by making class sizes small enough so that instructors could learn all the student names and have meaningful interactions with them on a regular basis.

        Anj Petto

  • The first day of class, I introduce myself and then ask the students to introduce themselves by giving their name, major, and, if they want, an interesting fact about themselves. This is how I check attendance on the first day. After these introductions, I give a short group activity and require students to introduce themselves to each other before beginning the activity. During the sharing portion of the group activity, the students must say their names before sharing with the class. I also create a seating chart and check attendance with it so that I can put a face with a name to learn their names quickly, as well as to check attendance quickly and quietly while they complete their “warm-up” assignment. (I don’t require assigned seats, so once I know their names, the students can move if they want to without the risk of being counted absent.) I’m fortunate that my classes are capped at between 25 and 30 (I teach composition and literature), so this multi-step approach to learning my students’ names and my students learning each other’s is possible and efficient.

    • Laura Shulman

      I have sometimes had students get into groups of three and introduce themselves to each other: name, where they live, major, something unique… then each student in each group is asked to introduce the groupmate to their right, repeating the name often: “this is john, john lives in.. John’s major is… something unique about John is…”

  • sherriclowe

    For the past 20+ years of teaching college math courses, I have the students create an index card the first day of class. After that, I retreat to my office, read the cards, and reconstruct the classroom with those cards. I then make a seating chart in my own handwriting which I take with me to class every day. It is amazing how quickly I learn names with that seating chart as a visual aid each class period.

  • Leslie Fedorchuk

    On the first day of class I ask students to text me their name and a selfie. This lets me remind myself of who they are. It also gives them my permission to text concerns and questions about assignments – rather than showing up and saying they “didn’t understand.” I also encourage them to text me if they will miss class. (class sizes are 18 – 24) In five plus years of using this system it has shown itself to be extremely helpful to all of us, and it has never been abused.

    • Rebecca Dunn

      How many texts do you generally get about questions in class?

  • s ci

    Learning names became a renewed high priority for me after 21 years. At first, I just flat out memorized everyone. After a few years of exhaustion, I gave up. I’m back now to prioritizing this due to its effectiveness. I went back to something old fashioned and perhaps boring. I call the roll at the beginning of class. I found it has several benefits in addition to forcing me to learn names. It communicates to students that prompt attendance is noticed (in an age where punctuality is a lost virtue). Roll call helps each student learn other student’s names. It’s true this may not work for large classes, but I’ve found it helpful.

  • Anne Tabor-Morris

    I give a homework assignment in the first week comprised of the same number of short questions as there are students in the class (I have about 24-25 students/class). In the second week I have one student read the first question and ask another student what the answer they wrote is. For example, I will say to Sally: “Sally, ask your question to someone else in the room.” Sally then says, “Hey Roberta, (the question)” and Roberta is then instructed to say to Sally, “Hey Sally, (her answer)”. Then Roberta is instructed to ask the question to another student. [If the student does not know the other student’s name, s/he asks it from that student s/he points to.] Within one period I get to know the students names, usually memorably, AND so do all the other students, which is great for classroom community!

  • N Didicher

    In a class of under thirty students, I play a name game at the beginning of the class: person one says their name, then person two says person one’s name and then their own, all the way around adding one each time. People can ask for help any time they need it. By the time it gets to me, I can do the whole lot. And the next class I start at the other end.
    In a bigger class (e.g. large lecture) I ask students in the first few weeks to say their name before they ask a question or make a comment, and that lets me learn the regular contributors quickly. When someone new contributes after that, I ask “and what’s your name, please?” with a friendly grin.

  • Debbie Carambat

    If you are a visual learner this will help you.
    I learn student’s names by first telling them a story. I tell them about a Dr. that I worked with in cases (for over 5 years) at the hsp who could never remember my name, he would call me “nurse”. I told him that my name was “Debbie” like the “Little Debbie” snack cakes. Girl with curly brown hair. He hadn’t heard of that before (he is from another country) so I went out that night and brought some oatmeal pies. After that he remembered my name. Mostly he calls me Debbie, but sometimes he called me “Debbie nurse” or “Little Debbie” when he sees me walking around the hospital.
    Then I tell them, the students, to think about a way to remember their name. That I am going to go around the room and ask their name, write it on the board, and a way to remember it. One of the funniest I received was, “My name is Jeffery, and it rhymes with handsome”. Of course, I never forgot his name (haha). I have gotten things to associate like the color of hair, or reads a lot, sports, cheerleader, smiley, or freckles. I always write their real name in black on the board and their hint in another color. I leave each class of names on the board the entire 1st day and then write it on a piece of paper. The next class I write them again on the board. It not only helps me (with the repetition and the visual cues), but helps each classmate to remember each other’s names. I do this for the first 3 to 4 classes with them. By the end of a week I am usually about 80% on names, by the second week I know them pretty well. To this day, a student I taught 8 years ago, Aunjenee’ (pronounced On-je-nay) I remember her with a french laugh “hon hon hon” to remember it was pronounced with a French accent. And lastly a student that had pity on me murdering her name Aurelie (pronounced “Orally”). This method works for me.
    I have used this for 10 years and plan on using it for many, many more. 🙂 Hope this helps at least one instructor out there.

  • Joseph M. Incandela

    I email students before the class begins and ask them either to send me a photo of their own or their college ID photo. I then assemble a class list with photos next to them. On the first day of class, I’m able to greet students by name as they walk in the door. I’m rarely 100%, but I’m almost always over 90%. Even those I miss still know that I tried. Plus, it’s almost always the case that when I mess up on someone’s name the first day, it stays (especially firmly) with me for the rest of the semester. Then about a quarter of the way through the semester, I give students a quiz with everyone’s picture on a page. They have to write the names. It’s one of the few extra credit opportunities I give, and the vast majority of students score 100% on it.

    • Laura Shulman

      Interesting extra credit quiz for students. But how about modifying it to be a “getting to know you” exercise. Early in the semester – maybe even the first day, since you get their pictures ahead of time – give each student the page with everyone’s picture on it. Have them go around the room meeting as many as they can in a given period of time, fill in info for each picture: name, hometown, major, hobbies, etc…

      • Joseph M. Incandela

        Thank you. That’s a very good idea.

  • Paul T.M. Hemenway

    Great topic for every one who must connect with students (especially public speaking instructors)! I began seriously tackling this topic twenty years ago, and I have one technique that works (some of you do similar things):
    1) Embrace the key to learning — repetition and redundancy (Ebbinghaus, et al.). On the *third day (of my performance classes) I pair students up to interview one another (five minutes each), then introduce each other. After EACH pair introduces one another, choose a characteristic mentioned in those 2 introductions, and anchor it to the name of those students for the class.
    2) Next, after each intro’d pair, everyone MUST repeat out loud all the names they’ve learned so far (I call this “the name game”). At the end I randomly choose 2-3 students to repeat ALL names. Make this fun! ALWAYS works!
    2) Everyone (yes, you too) MUST repeat all names out loud, while looking at each individual student. (This is a 2-channel aural/visual technique; Kodak has shown we are hard-wired to remember faces.)
    3) Ten minutes after class is over, go spatially through your class in your mind and repeat names in order (another visual memory “trick”). Refer to your class roll if necessary. Do this again before bed that night.
    4) Rinse, repeat (practice): Have other students re-introduce everyone else by name the next several class days, while you do the same as they go through the class. Ask other students for “help” IF they forget–no punishments, just rewards for success!
    5) Finally, I try to ask every student by name something in the classes that follow, even if it’s just a rhetorical Q, or a simple no-answer-is-wrong Q. It’s amazing–no one will notice that you are “making your way” around the class by name.

    This is the same technique used by “memory experts” you may have seen on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show years ago. I’ve found this works pretty well for up to 22 students; with larger classes I succumb to brain farts (can’t say why!). Of course, if you fail to continue to use names in class (or students are absent) your recollection of their names goes out the window. Without any personal connection in online or huge classes, these are a wash out.

    *Third class day: The first day of class students are forming (stage one of groups–see Tuckman and Jensen), and are very reluctant to reveal anything, let alone stand up and talk about themselves. Give ’em some time (a few class days) to “get to know” their neighbors before you start the name game. And I’d never put them into groups until they’ve had the chance to norm (stage 3 of groups).

  • Laura Shulman

    I learn student names by making a seating chart when I take attendance the first day of class. Students introduce themselves by going around the room – front to back, right to left. I ask them to give their names, the town they live in, program of study, maybe something unique about them or a special interest. That way classmates might take note of someone from the same town, in the same major, with the same interests… On the seating chart I note first and last name plus distinctive visual characteristics (hair color, length, texture, wears glasses or a cap, race, age…)
    Typically, students will just give their first names so I have to ask for the last name as well to match with the class roster. I also have to ask/hope that they sit in the seats for a few weeks unil I get to know them by face. Most students do tend to naturally sit in the same seat without being asked. But there is usually one or two students not there the first day who take someone else’s seat when they do show up on day 2. That then forces others to shift seats a bit.

    Another approach that takes longer is the “name game”.  We start with the first person giving their name which I then repeat. Then the next person and I repeat that name plus the first name, then the third poerson, repeating the third, second and first names… by the time we get to the last student’s name everyone has heard most of the names repeated up to 25 times (the first name). Sometimes some of the students join in the chanting of the names. Drawback to this process is that the last names have not benefitted from as much repetition. The value in this process is a lesson for students about using repetition as a study strategy!

    I also might take a picture of each student (or areas of the whole class). Of course ask permission before taking pictures. At home I use the pictures along with my seating chart to match names with faces (like flash cards). Review the pictures with names periodically before second class meeting.

  • Deborah Rice

    I’ve adapted a SIOP strategy called the Inside Outside Circle. Over 2-3 class periods, I sort students into:
    1st day: 2 groups. One group forms a circle facing out (inside circle) and one group forms a circle facing the other group (outside circle). I give them 2 minutes to introduce themselves and chat, then the outside circle rotates. I repeat this until everyone has a chance to introduce themselves to the opposite circle. If there are an odd number of students, I join the circle. I tell students to remember whether they were in the inside or outside circle for the next class.
    2nd day: The inside and outside circle groups make two groups each and form two inside outside circles. Repeat the procedure from the last class. Then we form 4 small groups of each circle.
    By the end of the procedure all the students have introduced themselves and shared information about themselves. This has helped students become more willing participants in class discussions and helps me learn something about my students in addition to their names.

    • Dr. Jagadeesh Rajashekaraiah

      I build a consolidated record which contains the names of the students along with a photo and create a handy size note. By frequently reading through this list, I can remember more than fifty percent of the names. A group photo and seating arrangement chart are also quite helpful to serve the purpose. I thank all the group contributors for sharing their ideas.

  • Wan Zuhainis Saad

    I’m teaching Microbiology undergraduate students. In the first class, I gave them a link in Padlet, and asked them to Selfie or Wefie and introduced themselves. This way, everyone shares the same screen synchronously and all of us can go back and access the Padlet to recall and remember their names. Another exercise that I used to do is to ask them on the first day of class, to submit a 1-minute video, introducing themselves, use KWL strategy to get feedback on their prior knowledge about Microbiology and compile the videos in TesTeach (formerly known as Blendspace).

  • julianne Johnson

    In my Music and Musical Theater Courses, on the first day we do a musical activity. First, I admit that names are a challenge. I ask the student to state their name and then I sing it back to them to the tune of a theme song or commercial or even a classical piece that fits their name. We then, after a series of 3 names go back to the first person and ,in sequence, state their name and sing each persons jingle . By the time we reach the last person, almost everyone in the class knows at least 1/2 the students names in the room. I encourage them to use their given name and then the nick name can be shared.

  • Cheryl Lee

    Each semester I have a class of 30-32 nursing students. They all know each other from having been together last semester. I wanted to share a few things I do that help me to remember their names. On day one I have them create a tent name care and to also draw something that tells me a little about them. The students then go around the class and share their name, where they are from, and explain their picture. I take notes to review after class. I look through their name tents and pictures and try to memorize names as well as look at a printed roster that has their picture that is about two or more years old. Then on each class period I try handing out the name tents as they come in the classroom. It really helps.