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Easy ways to learn students’ names

You may have heard my colleague Peg speak about the “4 Connections,” four evidence-based principles that have been shown to increase student-instructor interaction and reduce the drop-out rate at two-year colleges. Believe it or not, one of these “Connections” is simply learning the name of every student in your class and then using it when speaking in class or privately with the student. So instead of pointing to a student who raises her hand and asking, “Do you have a question?” you might instead say, “Do you have a question, Mona?” That simple and seemingly trivial difference can actually have a remarkably large effect on students’ sense of belonging and connection, which in turn influences factors like student persistence in academic settings.

Name tag with a question mark written under the text 'Hello my name is'What could be easier than learning all of your students’ names on the first day of class? Well, if you’re like me that is actually a fairly daunting task, especially if there are more than a handful of students in the class. Remembering names has always been a “growth area” for me — meaning that in my past teaching it always took me what felt like a very long time to remember the names of all my students.

So although this list comes a few days too late to be of use for the first day of the spring quarter at EvCC, here are three easy ways to help you learn students’ names, now or in the future:

  1. Name placards or “tents”: Distribute 5 x 8″ index cards to students in the class and ask them to fold the cards in half, along the longer axis, to form a “tent” that can be placed on their desks or tables. Then have students write their names in large letters on both sides (using a dark marker will help ensure names are visible from a distance across the room). This makes it easy to begin referring to students by name immediately, and if you have students bring their placards to each class session for the first week or two of the quarter you’ll soon find you can remember everyone’s name.
  2. Annotated class roster or seating chart: Ask students to introduce themselves briefly on the first day of class. As they do, make notes on your class list. You might jot down a student’s preferred nickname, a pronunciation key for if the student’s name is one you might not know how to pronounce, or a brief note about something you find memorable from  the student’s introduction — anything that may help you recall the student’s name in the future. Ask each student a brief follow-up question of some kind, using the student’s name, to provide some immediate reinforcement. (You might even turn this into a version of attendance questions to prompt a lively discussion about a topic related to the course on the very first day.) Another related strategy, which I learned by observing a professor when I was in graduate school, is to draw a chart showing where in the room each student is sitting. The act of writing the names, rather than just seeing them on a list, can dramatically improve your ability to recall them later.
  3. Confession time: Admit at the outset that you have difficulty remembering names, but tell your students that you will work hard at it. Assure them that knowing all of them by name is something that matters to you — then request their help in accomplishing that goal. You might, for instance, ask your students to start off with their name whenever they speak during the first week of class: “I’m John. Can you explain the Hessian matrix example again?” or “I’m Suzie. I’m wondering if anyone has ideas about why  Faulkner would give one of his characters the last name ‘Christmas’?” Whenever you respond to a question or comment, use the name you’ve just heard. Encourage other students to do the same. Before you know it, you (and your students) will know everyone’s name.

I’ve used versions of all of these, and while none of them will magically result in immediate and perfect recollection of every one of your students’ names, they will help. They’ll also help your students learn the names of their peers in the class, which is an important step in establishing classroom community. Instructors aren’t the only ones to struggle sometimes with names!

If you don’t like any of these approaches, or want to find others that might suit you better, there are many resources online that catalogue other options: two that I have found helpful are Tips for Learning Students’ Names (from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation) or Learning Students’ Names (from the University of Nebraska’s Office of Graduate Studies).

What strategies for learning names have you perfected or seen work well in other contexts? Share your ideas and suggestions in the comments, and I’ll update this post accordingly.