Adventures in Ethics and Science

Learning student names.

Today was the last day of the semester for students to add courses, and the last day to drop a course without it showing up on one’s transcript was a week ago. (The order of these two dates, it seems to me, should be switched, but I don’t make the rules around here.) In any event, enrollments for classes have more or less stabilized.

Which means that I’m poring over iPhoto trying to learn each of my student’s names.

See, my students all know who I am, although there is the occasional confusion about the right way to address me, not to mention the panoply of variant (mis-)spellings of my surname. And I feel like it’s not fair for them to all know who they’re looking at each class meeting unless I have the corresponding knowledge.

With small classes (20 or fewer), I usually do a “name game” in class the first couple of class meetings. The most effective one, in my experience:

*the first person says her name,
*the second person says the first person’s name, and then his name,
*the third person says the first person’s name, the second person’s name, and then her own name …


*the nth person says the names of persons 1, 2, 3, …, (n-1), and n

Usually, I’ll be the first person and the last person, so I get to say all the names. This kind of name-learning arrangement has the advantage of making the students learn each other’s names early on, too.

But with classes the size I have now (two sections of around 50 each), the name game is too time consuming, so I do “picture day” and then study the faces until I have a reasonable recollection of which names go with them.

If only my memory were better!

Do you other folks who teach (especially to large enrollments) have good tricks to share for learning (and remembering) student names?

Do the students reading appreciate the effort when those teaching you learn your name early in the semester? Or would you be just as happy as an anonymous student in the classroom?


  1. #1 Jen
    February 11, 2008

    As a student, I do like it better when the professor knows my name. It’s even better when it’s not because I have a card on the desk with my name on it.
    I don’t think I’d be equally happy to be “you” see as when I did have a large class with about 100 people, I participated more than average, and mine was one of the names the professor knew. Participating more than average wasn’t something that was typical of me until I was put in to situations in which I had to do so in order for my name to be known.
    My professors this semester remembered the names of most people in the class very quickly, though it is a smaller class than what you have, maybe 20 people at the most. Still, we were pretty impressed at how quickly they did it. They claim they do so by associating something about us with our names. I’m not sure though if they meant by some characteristic, or something we said in our introductions.

    Also, I hate that game where you have to say the names of everybody before you. If I can recall more than 3, I’ve done very well for myself, and it does absolutely nothing to help me remember the names of my classmates. Instead, I have a list of names of classmates, but I have no idea which name goes with which person.

  2. #2 Ewan
    February 11, 2008

    My students certainly seem to appreciate it (and be surprised). Yale has an online photo service for faculty to aid in this, although many students resemble their pictures only slightly :). I actually printed out pictures and played ‘match the face to the paper’ with the first couple of quizzes and exam, which got things pretty well tied down.

  3. #3 Andy
    February 11, 2008

    When teaching human gross anatomy, the students usually have name tags on their lab coats (believe me, it’s nice in a classes of 30-100 people!). This, coupled with the printout of the pictures for the classes, allowed me to be pretty good with most of the names from the class by mid-semester (which is the point in the semester where most of the students quit wearing name tags anyhow). I certainly recognize this doesn’t work well for non-lab settings, though. . .

  4. #4 Todd
    February 11, 2008

    In the high school setting, learning names is complicated by the additional fact that there are multiple sections of each class. I typically have 18 to 20 students per section and 5 or 6 sections. I ask the students to right their names, any nickname they’d like me to use and one or two things about themselves that they wouldn’t mind sharing with a teacher on an index card. I then arrange the index cards on my desk to match their seating arrangement. After using the index cards to call roll for 3 or 4 classes I’ll know every name pretty well. The cards give me four ways to remember the students (name, nickname, interesting tidbit and handwriting). For a class of 50 students, this method can still work if you run through the cards as the students are filing in and during quiz and test times.

  5. #5 Lab Cat
    February 11, 2008

    My students definitely like it when I use their name. They are surprised at first, but pleased. It adds to the fact, and impression, that I respect them.

    I learn their names, by 1)sitting them in assigned groups – it narrows their names down to four/fifty and 2)by calling attendance at the beginning of every class until I can do attendance w/o calling out names. Initially, when I don’t call out a name, that student will check I know that they are present. This further reinforces their name! Another tip is to use their name back to them, so whenever a student asks a question or makes a comment, I try to say “as X said…” at the beginning of my response. This obviously comes later in the learning their name phase. If talking individually to a student, I will ask what their name is…”just remind me again who you are” and then I will say, “Thank Y, have a good evening” (or words to that effect) after we finish talking.

    I also will not let any one add my classes w/o permission, so that I know who is adding and where I am sitting them. Our drop/add period ends on the same day.

    I found the photo id didn’t work for me. I seem to have a very poor visual memory

  6. #6 Laelaps
    February 11, 2008

    I was actually never a fan of the “name game,” but that’s probably because I’m not good with names. I actually am usually impressed when a professor knows my name by the 2nd or 3rd class, and I do appreciate it. I don’t know how most of them go about it, but I know one that took photographs of each student next to their name the first day of lecture so he could look it over later. (Ultimately it didn’t help him much in my case, tough, being that I dropped the course immediately after the first lecture.)

    From what I understand Rutgers now includes a picture of students with their names on rosters, too, so that seems to be a useful tool for professors and TAs. In the larger lecture classes it doesn’t matter (the professor is there to deliver the lecture only and if you have a problem you’d better hope the TA is able to help you), but in smaller classes I feel much more plugged-in when I professor doesn’t stare at me blankly and snap their fingers going “What’s your name? Wait don’t tell me, it starts with a ‘P’ right?”

  7. #7 Kim
    February 11, 2008

    On the first day, I ask students to tell me something about them (usually where they are from) as I call out the names. (I have an excuse – I use that information to ask students to tell me about the landscape or climate of their hometowns later in the semester, and knowing the geographic variability helps me decide who to ask for descriptions.) And then I call roll until I remember the names. And I do in-class exercises that involve me drawing a name from a hat (for example, to get examples of things that students consider “old” to put on a geologic time line).

    None of this works, however, when my one lab section a week is cancelled twice in a row because of heavy snow, and I spend three weeks without seeing any of the students.

  8. #8 Brian
    February 11, 2008

    I spend a lot of time in lab the first few weeks, since the labs are smaller than the lecture. I usually know 95% of the students by name within the second week of class. Handing back quizes and exams in lecture helps set the names in memory for me.

  9. #9 JYB
    February 12, 2008

    I have about 150 students throughout the day (middle school). I usually learn all their names within the first couple of weeks. I stand at the door and shake their hands as they come in and have them introduce themselves. I repeat (“Good morning Maria”). If they’re doing seat work I walk around as much as possible and practice their names. Usually you learn the really bad kids in the first day or two and the really good kids in the first week. It’s those quiet, middle kids that take a little longer.

  10. #10 Stu
    February 12, 2008

    I often have lectures of between 100-300 first year students, so I don’t learn all their names, but in their tutes of up to 30 I go to an effort. I always call the roll at the start, and during the tute I’ll ask questions of individual students by picking their name from the roll, after a few times I tend to learn their names, also when their assignments come back I’ll hand them back to each student (some tutors just leave the pile on the front desk and the students help themselves). I also make use of the photos too (and feel sorry for those students who are stuck with a really bad photo for their entire degree). I think the students appreciate having at least someone know who they are when they’re in these big first year courses.
    For higher level courses, with smaller classes, I learn all the students in the lectures – I remember one student in a class of about 50 being quite shocked when I handed back some assignments to them one by one in their last lecture (they normally got them from their tutors, but tutes had finished in the course) and said “how do you know everyone’s name?”.

  11. #11 deang
    February 12, 2008

    My bad memory for names is one reason why I ultimately didn’t go into teaching. I could remember the names of some of my students, but I could never figure out what made me remember the ones I did, other than that I seemed to remember more unusual or complicated names better than more common, simpler ones.

    Because of this, I was impressed by teachers who learned all our names, but I didn’t mind if they didn’t, and in some classes I preferred to be somewhat anonymous and let my work speak for itself. Also, as a very shy student, I hated to be asked to give personal information about myself on the first day of class. I always turned bright red. It never occurred to me that it could have been a mnemonic strategy for the instructor.

  12. #12 Natalie
    February 12, 2008

    I hand back assignments at the beginning of class – it helps me learn not only what the students names are but also where they sit (to improve my chance of remembering their name). However, with more than 25 students it takes a lot of class time to hand back papers.

  13. #13 Super Sally
    February 12, 2008

    Brings to mind the movie The Paper Chase where Professor Kingsfield struck terror in the very souls of the Harvard 1L’s by going to his picture seating chart to select his next unwilling victim for cross-examination on the point of law under discussion. [It was on PBS here a couple of Saturdays ago.]

    Hopefully you get respect for identifying students by name without striking terror.

  14. #14 Ben
    February 12, 2008

    I had an organic chemistry professor who learned every student’s name in a lecture course with 100+ students by the mid-term. No picture day, no name game… To this day, my friends and I can’t figure out how. And from what I understand, he still teaches the same course and learns everyone’s name every year (for 8 years now). It may have been the only thing about his teaching style that was intimidating.

  15. #15 Abel Pharmboy
    February 12, 2008

    My aging brain has always needed more than a simple name introduction to remember my goal of 80% or more of the names of my 90-130 students per year. To do this, I offer an optional assignment on day one to ask students to tell me briefly their life story and how they ended up in this major, what they’ve liked and disliked about previous professors, and what they would do to change the school if they were [dean, chancellor, provost president].

    Most are happy to tell you their likes and dislikes and put down their life story just as a sidelight (it helps that it is question #1 also). Combined with our class photos, it’s their personal description that makes it much easier for me to get to know them by name. Plus, they seem to dig the fact that I actually care to learn their likes and dislikes.

  16. #16 Donalbain
    February 12, 2008

    Todd: What does a “section” mean in the high school setting?

    I am a high school science teacher and teach *counts in head* 10 groups of 30(ish) along with one group of 10 and one of 5. I also have another group of 30 who are my form group (I think you call this “homeroom”, if my memory of Saved By The Bell is correct). This is my first year of teaching, so I knew NONE of the names. I am just starting to be able to give them names when they are not in the classroom. Inside the classroom, I rely on my positional memory, which is far better than my visual memory and have them all in a specific seating plan. When I talk to a colleague about a kid, I almost always have to imagine I am in my class, point at where their seat would be, and THEN I can name them. For parents’ evening, my laptop with seating plans saved my life!

  17. #17 Donalbain
    February 12, 2008

    Another secret I have is that I use my digital projector a great deal and I have a VERY cool gyro-mouse. One of the buttons on the mouse brings up the Random-Student-Generator. I have an excel spreadsheet that pulls out a student from the list of those who havent yet been chosen and displays their name on the board. They have to answer the next question. Thus I achieve a couple of things; I learn another name and I spread out my questioning to avoid the same kids answering all the time. I can also record if the student got the question right or wrong which is nice. Schools like statistics!

  18. #18 Jim Thomerson
    February 12, 2008

    One of my colleagues at another institution taught introductory biology lectures to 350 students. He would go around to the labs with his polaroid and get photos of all the students. He would post these on a bulletin board in his office and memorize the faces-names. Then he would call on students in class by name. I was impressed.

    I took introductory chemistry in a lecture section of 180. A year or so later, I met the professor in passing on campus and said hello. He looked at me, said the section, row, and seat where I sat. Right? Yes, then he said hello. Again, I was impressed.

  19. #19 WiseWoman
    February 13, 2008

    I heard a cynical idea on this that actually works quite well: Call all the guys by the most popular male name and the gals by the most popular female name, until you learn their names. In my courses there are usually 5 Daniels, 3 Kat(h)rins and 3-4 Ste(ph/f)anies, so I have at least a 10% rate of correct names from the start.

    I tend to have a wierd twist in my head and switch the names of two students in every group – they don’t look alike, the names are different, but I always call Daniela Silke and Silke Daniela. I just accept it.

    Name tags are a wonderful idea….

  20. #20 ChemStudent
    February 13, 2008

    As, a student I have always been impressed with teachers that can learn names (including the principal of my small high school. 800-900 names at a time, 150-200 freshmen and transfers every fall) and disappointed in those that cannot learn names within about a month of class (for a class size of 40 or fewer). This is even before I realized how hard it is as a tutor to learn names. 35 students last semester, and I’m still connecting faces with papers I graded, as some of them are now in my senior level classes. I suppose I can excuse myself by saying that I never taught and only attended class a few times… The poor students and the students that wish to excel so badly that they visit office hours every chance they get are easy to remember; middle-of-the-road uninterested students, not so much.

  21. #21 LO
    February 13, 2008

    I think the photo seating charts that Super Sally saw in the Paper Chase are fairly standard in law schools at least; we had some in the Stanford Law School Archives made using the photobooks and templates that were available for each classroom.

    I had one large class in undergrad where the teacher did not learn names and I did not expect her to (although I expected it in every other class I had, hmmm). One day she called on me “Yo, in the University Virgin sweatshirt” (it was University of Virginia, we’ll say she was being “funny”). After that I wore a sweatshirt from our school so that there were always a half dozen or so of us wearing the same thing. It was a class where you wanted to remain anonymous. I regretted taking the class as most people were there to satisfy a requirement, but I wasn’t, I was just interested. The teacher treated us all as stupid since we were obviously not going to be majoring in her subject.

  22. #22 udo schuklenk
    February 16, 2008

    I have give up on learning students’ names. It’s simply a fact of my life that my memory (as far as names, dates and such things are concerned) is terrible. It would take me very long to learn those names and associate them correctly to the right faces. I simply ask students to put up signs with their names in front of them, and that’s pretty much it. It’s nothing personal really, it’s simply a mater of valuable time spent on things slightly more productive.

  23. #23 Liz Ditz
    February 16, 2008

    I suffer from two congenital inabilities (1) to reliably associate faces with names; and (2) once I’ve learned a name, to reliably retrieve it. Shoot — sometimes I call the dog with my daughter’s name, and vice versa.

    One of my work-arounds: when I teach a group, one of the first things I tell them is about (1) and (2) and ask them not to take it personally. I give a little show-and-tell spiel: “When I’m talking to you, and give you this signal [raised eyebrows, hands circling around my open mouth] will you please supply your name?” and “If I call you by the wrong name, will you please say, ‘I’m X, not Y’, and then I’ll say, ‘Thank you, Y’ and finally, “We each have little neurological glitches like this. If you discover one of your own, please let me know, and we’ll proceed together to work around it, just as you are working around mine.”

    Works a treat with the k-8 set, which is where I usually teach.

    Were I to be lecturing to a group of kids in grades 9-12 or adults, I’d use udo schuklenk‘s idea. I like it.

  24. #24 Michelle Crowbars
    February 19, 2008

    I wanted to say it made me more comfortable when a professor knows my name, but that isn’t really the right word. In larger classes, if a professor knows my name it is a little intimidating, but in a good way. It’s almost as if I have a subconscious need and desire to do better in the class of a professor who recognizes me on sight and knows my name.

    As a recent example, I’m taking a class on mammalogy this quarter as an elective for my major. The class probably has about 40 people in it. Definitely on the small end (most of my classes in my major have upwards of 100 students in the lecture) but by no means an intimate setting. I came down with a really rough cold virus and had to miss a week of class right before the midterm. I met with my professor after lecture on my first day back to let him know I was very concerned about my level of preparedness for the exam, he greeted me by my first name, even though this was my first time speaking to him.

    I knew that he had done something similar to your photo day, but I still didn’t expect him to remember my name. It was jolting and made me even more convinced that I had to do everything I could to prepare myself. It was a nice feeling to know he knew my name, but it also put me on the spot. Now that he knows who I am, he’s going to know if I do well on the test or not, and that somehow makes it personal to me.

    I’ve gone way off track with this, but my original point was to say that it is very possible that the simple act of knowing a student’s name can spur them to work harder and do better in your class.

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