20 Tips for Learning Student Names
Learning your students’ names is important, as it models ideal behavior and provides opportunities for students to learn one another’s names as well. When students engage in activities designed to foster the learning of names, the activity, as well as the larger classroom environment, become student-centered in nature.
Research shows that students appreciate when an instructor makes the effort to learn students’ names, as it helps to promote a positive, inclusive learning atmosphere (Rubrecht, 2006). However trivial your individual effort to learn your students’ names might seem to you, it certainly is not trivial to your students! On the contrary, an instructor’s lack of effort to learn student names can be perceived negatively, and the instructor can be seen as remote and unapproachable. In particularly large classes, it may seem impossible to learn all the students’ names, but even just learning some of the students’ names can help to create a caring and inclusive learning environment for all students.
Some teachers find it easy to learn names, while others struggle remembering names and really have to work to learn their students’ names. The following techniques were adapted from a variety of teaching center resources. This article separates name-learning activities that students can do in class from those that instructors can do in and out of class. The article ends with specific tips for learning names in large classes.
Student Activities in Class
1. Name Tent or Name tag
Have students fold a piece of cardstock or paper in half and write their names (or preferred nicknames) on one side. These name tents or name tags can be displayed on each student’s desk so that you and other students can pair names with faces much more quickly.
2. Scavenger Hunt
Write a list of silly or superficial traits; include as many traits as you have students in the class. Some examples are: “wearing a skirt” or “doesn’t eat meat.” Hand out the list to your students and have them talk to one another until they have found a different person for each trait.
3. Student Interviews
Have students find a partner and “interview” each other. They can include their names, majors, and a “fun fact.” Once introductions have been made, randomly choose students to introduce their partners aloud. After a few of these introductions, point at a student who has already been introduced and have the class name that person. Do this until everyone has been introduced at least once.
For a more guided interview activity, have students get in pairs and provide them with a list of questions for them to ask one another (examples include: name, birthplace, major, favorite TV show, least favorite food, etc.). Emphasize that concentrating on their partner will help them retain the information. Afterward, go around the class and have each pair introduce one another to the rest of the class.
4. Self and Neighbor Introductions
One standard icebreaker begins with an individual introducing him or herself and identifying the person next to him or her. After the students have had a chance to talk to their neighbors, they can introduce each other to the class. For example, “Hi, my name is Anna and this is Andrew.” Then Andrew says, “Hi, I’m Andrew and this fellow next to me is Paul (person next to him).” You can make it even more interesting by having students remember a fun fact about one another as well as their names.
5. The Name Game
This long-term approach creates a classroom environment in which everyone is responsible for learning names. The instructor and students have a set amount of time (for example, three weeks) to learn each other’s names. The instructor should communicate to students that all are responsible for insuring that everyone does it. Ask eight to ten students to introduce themselves. After they have had all introduced themselves, ask one of the group members to name another member of their group. For instance, you could ask, “Susan, which of your group members is named Oliver.” Oliver, please point to Noah.” “Noah, who is the person next to Lucy.” If any of the group members doesn’t know someone’s name, they can ask another of their group members: “Ask Noah!”. This game helps the whole class learn each other’s names since any person may be responsible for answering a question at any given time. It also helps to create a classroom community since if someone doesn’t know a name, there is always someone nearby that can be asked for assistance.
6. People Bingo
Prepare a traditional Bingo card, with 5 columns and rows and a FREE space in the center. In the other spaces, write innocuous traits such as, “plays the banjo,” “loves to skateboard,” or “can speak more than one language.” Students then go around the room, finding classmates who fit the traits. The first person to mark off all the traits on the Bingo card is the “winner.”
Instructor Practices in Class
7. Student Pictures
There are a variety of ways and instructor can use student pictures to help them learn names. The instructor can take pictures of students during class using a digital camera, smart phone, or even a Polaroid. Students can also take headshots of one another and write their names and something about themselves on the back of their photo. The instructor can decide to create a permanent seating chart and attach these photos to the seating chart. Keep in mind that some students may be uncomfortable having their photos taken in class, so make sure to clearly explain that the photos will help you learn their names.
8. Student Teams
Divide the class into teams of 4-8 students. These teams will then help to organize the class: the team members will sit together during class, they complete class projects together, tackle in-class activities, and can even be encouraged to work together as a study group outside of class. The instructor can group these together in the grade book. During in-class work time, the instructor can move around the class and interact with teams. The result is that student names will be learned together by associating one student with his or her team members.
9. Personally Return Assignments
Instead of asking students to find their assignments in a pile, or instead of returning an assignment by Carmen, take the time early in the semester to hand back assignments in class. This practice helps connect student names with faces.
10. Use Names of Students You Do Know
Anytime you call on a student you already know, use their name. For example, saying, “Margaret, did you get the same answer?” can show students that you are working on learning their names.
11. Call Roll at the Beginning of Class
If you take attendance during class, you can begin to put names with faces and reinforce this daily.
12. When Taking Roll, Ask Students What they Prefer to be Called
Taking this extra moment to think about students’ preferences can help cement their names in your mind. It can also help distinguish between students who have the same name. For example, if you have two students named Catherine and one prefers to be called “Katie,” this is a clue that will help you distinguish one student from another.
Instructor Practices Outside of Class
13. Office Visits
If students come to visit you in your office, ask them their names. Another way to both remember students’ names and also to remember what they are struggling with in the course, is to write down their name on one side of a piece of paper, and then make a note about what you talked about during their office hours visit, on the other side of the piece of paper.
14. Association Techniques
Associate any students who have the same name as someone you know to help you remember them. This method of “anchoring” a student with someone else you know can help you establish a system for remembering other students. For example, if you know who Leah is because she looks like your neighbor, you can learn that “the person who usually sits next to Leah is…” and so on.
When calling roll, annotate the class list and take note of any memorable features beside the student’s name. For example, “Stacy has curly blonde hair.” Additionally, using the above association technique can be useful here.
16. Don’t be Afraid to Ask Repeatedly
If you are unsure of a student’s name (even if you have previously asked for his/her name), there is nothing wrong with asking again. This signals that you are actively trying to learn names and that you have made it a priority.
17. Spend Time Testing Yourself at Home
Sometimes when we are in front of a class, the many other things on our mind can make it possible to forget names of students who we thought we knew. Spending some time at home reading student names and picturing their faces (or looking at photos you’ve already taken) allows you to concentrate on names in a low-pressure situation. It can also highlight which names you definitely know, which names you sort of know, and which names you do not yet know.
18. Review Your Roster/Notes Soon After Class
This tip is similar to testing yourself at home, only it accounts for the time-sensitivity of our memories. If you review your roster right after class, students’ faces and names and their unique contributions to the class period will be fresh in your mind and easier to remember.
Learning Names in Large Classes
19. Class Meetings
Divide students into groups or teams, and conduct small group meetings outside of class with each group. (Keep the group size to a manageable number, probably no more than 7 or 8 students.) Have a conversation with each group about the course, and have each student share his/her name. If you’d like, you can take a picture of each group and write down the names of each student in the group.
20. Seating Charts
Create an assigned seating chart, and each day of class, work on memorizing a subset of students (i.e. 3 in front and 3 behind). Then each day when you come to class, make a point of visiting with these students in the new subset and in the subsets you have already learned, in addition to students in general.
The Center for Teaching and Learning. Bowling Green State University. “Learning students’ names.”
Houston, Natalie. (2009). “Learning student names.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Teaching Effectiveness Program. The University of Oregon. “Learning Students’ Names.”
Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University.
The Center for Teaching and Learning. Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.
Office of Graduate Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Davidson, Judith. “Activities for Helping Students Learn One Another’s Name”. Faculty Focus.
Rubrecht, Brian G. (2006) “Reasons and methods for learning student names”.
Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W. J. (2010) McKeachie’s teaching tips : Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.