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?”
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’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.