Learning Students' Names

Do you consider yourself "name-learning challenged?" Do you find it difficult to think of a student's name when the two of you meet? Or is it harder for you to match faces with the names of students on your class roster?

Despite the feelings of anxiety associated with learning students' names each semester, many instructors believe that knowing exactly who each student is helps to improve the classroom climate. But many instructors find learning students' names difficult and frustrating. If the classes are large lecture classes, the problem may seem insurmountable.

Take heart! There are ways to achieve what seems impossible.

When it comes to new students, there are numerous tools you can use to "jog your memory." Some methods work better for smaller groups, while others may be used with large classes. Finding which works best for you will take some trial and error. You'll need to experiment to find "the one" which helps you the most. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Have students sit in the same seats for the first few weeks until you are able to match names with faces.

  2. Have students give their name each time before they speak. This can be continued until everyone (instructor and the students) feels they know the people in the room.

  3. Use students' names as often as possible.

  4. Have a short quiz at the beginning of class over students' names.

  5. Have students make name tags on the first day of class. 5" x 8" cards work well for this. Students use heavy black or blue markers to write their names on the bottom half of the card and then fold the card in half, creating a tent name tag. Students keep the name tags with them and can then place the tag in front of their seat during the following class periods.

    — Have instructors collect name tags at the end of the class. Instructors hand out name tags at the beginning of the next few classes. As nametags are handed out, the instructors try to match the name with the student, and then check to see if their guess is correct.
    — Have students wear name tags for the first two weeks of class.

  6. Spend some time during the first day of class taking snapshots of all of your students (a work study student could also take the photos). These photos can be glued to the class roster next to the proper names. Or a collage of pictures and names can be assembled on the door of the instructor's office to help memorize names. Make sure to get permission before you take anyone's picture.

    — Some schools have web pages where students' pictures can be posted. This is a quick access way for instructors to test themselves.

  7. Have students prepare a "Passport" for your class. Students glue a snapshot on a notecard for the instructor. Instructors may want to encourage students to use photos which showcase other personal items of the student (i.e. a picture of the student with his/her pet). Additional subjects in the photos help make the person memorable.

    Beside their snapshot, students are asked to write a variety of information to help the instructor get to know the student. Information about the students' likes and dislikes, background, and goals are especially helpful memory hints.

  8. Some instructors draw their students to help them remember who is who. The sketches can be quick, 20 second scribbles capturing the most prominent features of the student. These sketches can be placed in the class roster next to the student's name for quick identification.

  9. Strive to memorize a row of students per day. In the few minutes before class begins, review what you've already memorized and then add another row of students to that list.

  10. Students with the same name as another person the instructor knows can be associated with that person in the instructor's memory. This association is a good memory-jogging tool.

  11. Have a few students introduce themselves. Then stop the introductions and ask another student to name all the students who have been introduced. Once the first few names have been recalled move on to a few more, and so on until everyone has been introduced.

  12. Have students sit in a circle. Each student must say his/her name and give one identifiable characteristic. The next person has to give his/her name and characteristic and repeat what the person before him/her said. And so on around the circle until the person "unfortunate" enough to be last (perhaps the instructor) must recall all of those before him/her.

  13. On a notecard, students write the name they prefer to be called in class. Below their name, they are asked to write one sentence which will make them memorable. The sentence could be used in a variety of ways: to share a favorite quote, to describe a hobby, to tell about where they grew up, or to let the instructor know something about their classroom "style."

  14. Have students sit in the seats of their choice. Then, in order, ask the students to go around the room introducing themselves by adding a descriptive adjective to the front of their names which begins with the first letter of their name. (i.e. Quiet Quincey, Awesome Alicia, etc.) The next person must give his/her expanded name and then repeat all the names given before him.

  15. Work your way around the students and have the students introduce themselves. After a student has given his/her name, ask him/her to give one "outstanding physical feature" that distinguishes him/her from the rest of the group. Restrictions: the features must be consistent over time and visible from the front of the room. Students may give examples like "big feet" from a person who likes to stretch out in the front row or "I smile a lot" from a very self-assured person.

  16. Have students pair up and introduce themselves. After a fair amount of time, the partners are asked to introduce each other to the class. Special points to address in the interview could be: the partner's name, major, background, future goals, etc.

    After 1/3 of the people have been introduced, ask the class to do a quick recap of the people who have been introduced and then continue with introductions.

    — Each student introduces his/her partner by giving the partner's name and identifying one trait of the partner's that "no one can forget."

  17. Students interview each other using questions such as unique traits, unusual hobbies, proudest moment, most prized possession, most unusual accomplishment, etc. Students then introduce their partner to the class.

    After everyone has been introduced, it's time for a little memory test. The instructor begins by stating his/her name as he/she holds on to the end of a string from a ball of yarn. The instructor tosses the ball to someone and says something like, "I'm tossing the ball to Greg because I remember that Greg wrestles alligators in his spare time." The pattern continues until everyone in the class is connected.

    The class members then do the same thing in reverse as they untangle themselves and talk about the person immediately before them.

    (Option: While all class members are connected, the instructor may want to use the connected students as a model to explain how the class will grow from a collection of individuals to a network of educated students over the course of the semester.)

  18. Make up a sheet of fairly off-the-wall traits with blanks lines beside them. Such as "Is wearing shoes that don't require laces," "Likes spaghetti with clam sauce," or "Was born west of the Mississippi." This sheet is handed to every student. Students are asked to wander around the room, find a person with that trait, meet them and record their name. The one rule is that a student can use a person only once to complete his/her sheet.

  19. Put students in groups of four. Then challenge the group to come up with five things they all have in common. Five is a nice odd number that will require some discussion to achieve (if you require four things in common, each member may just choose one and present it on behalf of the group). The one restriction is that the students can't use school- or work-related items. Personal items such as favorite music, books they've read, where they've traveled to, etc. work best.

  20. Ask students to get into groups of 2 or more. Each student must find something in his/her wallet that would help the group understand who they are. Although pictures are a satisfactory option, encourage the students to search for the most creative things they can find.

  21. A tip for large classes: dividing the entire group into smaller "working groups" will help facilitate name recall. Classroom time can be used to give small projects for each group to work on. Only having to remember 8-9 people in a small group is much easier than looking at 250 faces. Work on visualizing which faces sit in which seats. Then work on memorizing every name from a particular group.

    All 250 names may not be memorized during the semester, but this method may help you to learn more than you normally would.

  22. On the other side of the argument, some instructors believe personalizing the atmosphere by learning everyone's name is not required for a positive classroom climate.

    In large lecture classes, where students may feel overwhelmed by speaking in front of the huge number of people in the room, anonymity may help. The instructor may tell the students from the beginning, "I don't know any of your names, and I couldn't possibly learn them. So I don't want anyone to feel any inhibition about asking a question." This helps to assure students that their remarks will not be permanently held above their heads because others don't know who they are.

Name learning exercises not only help instructors and students learn about each other, but some of them can end up being extremely lighthearted and funny. Try some of these suggestions for learning students' names. It's also a good way to break the ice on the first day.

If, after struggling to learn your students' names, you find yourself forgetting your own, remember:

  • It's OK to not know everything! Instructors are human too, and they can make mistakes just like anyone else.

  • Roll up your sleeves and dive in! Learning a large number of names and the faces that go with those names is a tough assignment. Be willing to put extra effort into this one.

  • Think positively! A good attitude will help anyone. Most of us can remember 5-6 names at a time. Keep reminding yourself that you CAN learn a few names at a time, and work to build on this skill.

  • Be honest with your students! Let them know that you may have trouble remembering who they are. Ask them to be patient. Most students will be happy to help you learn if you are up front with them from the beginning.

Do you have some strategies or techniques that work well for you and that you're willing to share? Let us know and we'll pass them on to your colleagues.