Including U: The case for learning your students’ names
“Who knows the answer to question 1/b? Ah, over there, the young lady in the blue shirt.” This is a scenario all too familiar to those of us who attended large classes in college. Identifying students by their clothes, their hair, their location in the room (the gentleman in the back!) or worse, just pointing (You, yeah you, over there!), are strategies used by instructors across the globe to get around the fact that they don’t know their students’ names.
And who could blame them!? In this era of “efficiency”, class sizes seem to be growing by the semester (Hornsby and Osman 2014). Instructors teaching large, introductory undergraduate classes could conceivably meet hundreds of new students in a semester, depending on the size of their institution, the popularity of the class and their teaching load. And even if they are dedicated to learning all their students’ names during the semester, it is easy to see how one might burn out in this effort over the course of a few years, having to start over and over again.
Yet I propose that learning your students’ name is not merely a nice thing to do, it can make an enormous difference for many of your learners. And, it’s doable! Techniques and tricks to make the process easier follow later.
When humans are born, that’s pretty much all there is to know about them: their name. Many parents think long and hard about what to name their offspring, and from the time we learn to say it, it is the first thing we share whenever we meet a new acquaintance. Names are important: they often encode lots of information about a person: gender, cultural affiliation (Sercombe et al. 2014), religious background, family history, or the parents’ aspirations for their child. People attributed magical powers to names since ancient times: spirits were called upon by speaking their name, or else, names were not to be spoken lest their owner came knocking (He Who Must Not Be Named, anyone?). But one need not to think of such grand examples to recognize how important names are; think of the last time someone called you by the wrong name or mispronounced your name horribly. Now flip it: think of a time when someone unexpectedly called you by your name in a situation where you had no expectation of that: at the doctor’s office, perhaps a friendly maintenance person in your building, or your favorite barista. How did that feel?
The benefits of calling students by their name
Smith (2011) describes advantages of learning students’ names both for students and instructors. Learning and using students’ names in a classroom helps build rapport with students and create a classroom atmosphere that is friendly and welcoming. Establishing such a climate fosters learning in any classroom (Quinlan 2016), but it is especially important in classes with vulnerable populations, such as large undergraduate classes with a record for high failure and withdrawal rates. Learning someone’s name is a form of pedagogical caring (Hult 1980), a criterion of which is that “the teacher recognizes and understands the student as a unique individual self.” This works by reducing the psychological distance between student and teacher (Bohnstedt 2011), which has a clear impact in the learning process.
Smith (2011) further claims that referring to students by their names allows students to assert their identity, and moves them from anonymous observers to active participants in their learning. Especially in large classes where students often feel like just another brick in the wall, being called by name can help ease the feeling of invisibility. Cooper et al. (2017) studied students in a high-enrollment biology class and found that being known by name mattered a great deal to students. The researchers identified three distinct dimensions on how names mattered (quotes from Cooper et al. 2017):
- students’ attitude improved markedly: they felt more valued and invested in the course,
“A professor knowing your name makes you feel as if you’re a part of the process, rather than just being swallowed by it.”—Elaine
“When I feel that personal connection with the instructors it makes me want to do better in the class as well, it’s almost as if I’m extra accountable.”—Lloyd
- students reported increases in behaviors directly tied to better learning outcomes,
“[An instructor knowing my name] makes it easier to motivate myself to come to office hours/get help with concepts if I know the professor on a level higher than just ‘my professor.’”—Jorge
“[An instructor knowing my name] makes me feel more comfortable asking questions/getting help on subjects.”—Whitney
- students perception of the course and the instructor changed for the better.
“The instructors knowing my name was important because it made me feel like they cared. If they cared enough to remember my name in such a large class, it showed me that they cared about my experience in the class and education.”—Kaylie
“[Instructors knowing student names] indicates that more personalized one-on-one interaction has occurred which will likely lead to greater mutual respect.”—Steven
Students, however, are not the only beneficiaries of a more collegial atmosphere in a course. Smith (2011) cites multiple sources describing how knowing students’ names enhances an instructor’s morale and effectiveness. It is easy to see how knowing who’s who can change the dynamic in a large classroom from teaching to a sea of faces to a more personable, enjoyable environment. Students’ report that they are more likely to participate in class activities (Bohnstedt 2011), volunteer answers for questions and thus help instructors engage and motivate their audience. Praise from instructors also comes across as more sincere, if it is addressed to a person specifically (Great question, Zoe!) (Turrill 2008). Zakrajsek (2007) asserts that even disruptive behavior can be better managed by knowing students’ names, a clear win for all. Students are also quick to remark on the fact that their professor knew their name in evaluations, finding them more fair and effective (Bohnstedt 2011), evidence of better satisfaction with their learning experience.
Learning names becomes ever more important in distance education, given that the psychological distance between student and instructor is larger due to the lack of physical closeness (Bohnstedt 2011). Given the popularity and number of online courses offered at Georgia Tech, learning names may be a way to further enhance the experience for online students.
Getting names right
If you find yourself convinced that learning your students’ names may be a worthy endeavor, here is the fine print: it will work even better if you learn them correctly. Humans are particular about their names: they don’t just want to be called by a name instead of “lady in the blue shirt”, they want to be called by the name they prefer. Chaohua Ou, Assistant Director of Learning and Technology Initiatives at the Center for Teaching and Learning, remarks on her journey as a student:
“When I was a student, many times instructors had difficulty pronouncing my name. They would be like: ‘Uh, this is a difficult one, let me try: Cha… Chao…’ [looking at me sheepishly] until I helped them out. I understand it is difficult for people in the US. I wish my name could be easier, but that’s my name. It’s also not unusual for instructors to avoid calling on students because of their difficult name. It certainly happened to me. But I don’t feel connected to an English name. I order coffee and food with an English name, or the name of a friend. But I would hope that people I work with longer term will learn my name, instead of the ‘Chinese lady working in CTL’. “
Chaohua refers to a practice not uncommon among Chinese students: some introduce themselves by an English name even though the roster has their Chinese name. Edwards (2006) described how Chinese students are often encouraged to choose or are outright given an English name by their language teachers, partly as a way to make themselves more memorable to foreigners (a.k.a. Westerners), partly stemming from a belief that this will help them learn English. Then, after getting accepted to American universities, they often use their English name as a form of “cultural accommodation” for non-Chinese speakers. Edwards also points out that this practice leads some instructors to falsely deduce that Chinese students use English names because they have a weak sense of identity, prompting them to use simplified versions of students’ Chinese names or giving them a similar-sounding English name. Chaohua’s example neatly demonstrates that the truth couldn’t be farther from this, and Chinese students can feel just as connected to their name as everyone else.
But one need not have an unusual name to experience difficulties. Kate Williams, Assistant Director of TA Development and Future Faculty Initiatives at the Center for Teaching and Learning remarks on the challenges with her own name:
“My parents named me Katherine, but always called me Kate. As a shy child, the first day of school always filled me with that embarrassing dread of having to correct the teacher when they called roll. ‘Katherine?’ ‘Here. I go by Kate.’ ‘Ok, Katie.’ ‘No, just Kate.’ When I graduated college I thought of using Katherine professionally, so I sent out a round of resumes with my full name. The call-backs started coming in … for ‘Kathy’. I quickly switched back to Kate.”
Kate goes on to describe how it feels when despite her request, she is called by the wrong name: “Now as a GT employee, my full name appears in my email. Even though my signature line says Kate and I introduce myself in person as Kate, people still call me Katherine. I find it dismissive to be called by the wrong name. To me, Katherine, Katie, and Kathy are completely different names — none of which are my name. Using my preferred name may not seem important to the message sender, but when they get my name wrong, I feel like I’m not important enough to get it right.”
So, learn the names and learn them right. But how?
The way to play the name game
Before you abandon all hope thinking you cannot possibly remember all five hundred names of your students, don’t worry: many have faced the same challenge before and developed strategies to conquer this Herculean task.
Step 1: Investigate what their name really is
The class roster will only take you so far. Depending on class size, you have options to investigate what your students prefer to be called. In smaller classes, you can simply ask as part of your first class session, taking notes about the ones who introduce themselves differently than what is on your roster. This avoids you calling out unfamiliar-sounding names incorrectly, and it also protects students who have chosen to identify themselves with a different name, such as transgender students. For them, it is a matter of personal safety that they are called by their chosen name, rather than what appears on the roster (read more on LGBTQIA+ students at GT here).
In classes where a round robin is not feasible due to time constraints, you might want to solicit information from your students ahead of class. Make it a pre-class assignment that they submit a brief introduction on Canvas of themselves, including their preferred name. Canvas now integrates Padlet, so you can also ask each student to add a post with their name and a picture they like (not necessarily of themselves). This is a great way not only for you to learn about them, but also for them to learn about each other, and create a sense of community in the class. Another great feature of Canvas (not yet integrated at GT) is Name Coach, which allows each student to make an audio recording saying their name, which will then be available for all their instructors using Canvas.
You can embed the request for their preferred name in your pre-class survey, as well, along with questions about their previous exposure about the topic and goals for the class. This is a great tool to take the pulse of the class and to gauge the diversity in your classroom.
Step 2: Start crammin’
“When I taught a language class, I learned all my students’ names in a week, using their pictures in T-square. The second week I started calling them by their names, since language requires practicing. Students looked amazed and one student even commented in front of the whole class: ‘Oh, you’re really good!’ “ – shares Chaohua.
Using your roster (with your notes), or your Padlet-collection is a convenient way to learn your students’ names. Some instructors make it a pre-course assignment that students submit a slide with a photo, their preferred name and a fun fact, then generate a slideshow and memorize the names in their coffee break (Smith 2011). It helps to chunk the learning process: set a target for number of names learned per day, instead of attempting to learn them all at once. Another good strategy is to split up your task by location – pick a corner in your classroom and learn the names of people who sit there together regularly, then pick another corner the next time.
Frontload the tough ones: learn the unfamiliar names first, and make sure you address these students in your class by name. I argue that learning the unusual names in the classroom is crucial, because students with unusual names are more likely to belong to a vulnerable group and thus establishing a trusting relationship with them can potentially have a larger effect on their college trajectory.
No cutting corners: avoid giving students “English” names or nick names modified for easier pronunciation. The instructor is in a position of power, so students might feel like they have no choice but to smile and nod when you offer to call them by a “simpler” name.
Step 3: Tips and tricks
While you are absorbing the roster, you can use some smart strategies to address students by name in the interim. Provide a desk name card or name badge for each student during the first class session (Hawk and Lyons 2008) – ask them to write their preferred name on the card with a sharpie. Keep using the cards until you are confident using students’ names.
Be transparent with students: share that you are in the midst of learning their names, but you might get them wrong sometimes. They will appreciate the effort!
For more strategies to remember and incorporate names into your teaching, visit this post by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Strive for more, but be realistic about your expectations: you may not be able to learn literally all of your students’ names. Despair not! Cooper and colleagues (2017) showed that instructors don’t actually have to know 100% of the names in their class for students to perceive that their instructor knows their name, and thus for the beneficial effects to kick in: you just have to learn enough names to give that impression.
To sum up
Learning your students’ names is a cheap and efficient way to address a host of challenges instructors face, especially in large introductory classes: you might see improvement in your students’ learning outcomes, student attitudes to the course, retention rates, visits at office hours, your teaching evaluations, you name it!