Learning student names: why & how

I teach a large introductory linguistics class, called Nature of Language (NoL). It's capped at 120, and after the first couple weeks of torment/teaching, it settles down to just over 100 students. I make a point of learning all of my students' names, which surprises a lot of people, including my students. There are two questions that people generally ask: why, and how?

How I learn students' names

I'll start with how. I've heard of other faculty that learn the names of their students in large lecture-style classes, and the strategy that many of them seem to use is to use an app with the photo roster in order to memorize them, often accomplishing this before the semester starts. I think this is amazing, but I've never been very good at memorization, so I don't use this strategy.

I learn their names through the semester, using various simple strategies. First, every time they speak up in class, I ask them to say their name, and I repeat it back to them. If a student asks a question or makes a comment, I repeat it for the whole class to hear by prefacing it with, "X asks whether..." or "Y noticed that...". Similarly, every time I call on a student, I try to recall their name; if I fail, I ask them to remind me. Second, I make a point of talking to my students before class, walking around and learning their names. That is, after I set up my laptop, I walk around the lecture hall as they filter in, and talk with them. I make a point of using the names I remember, and asking other students their names as I talk to them. This is also an opportunity for a bit of small talk, and these conversations also help me with their names. Finally, I refer to the photo roster after class for the first couple of weeks. I don't spend much time—usually just reading through the names as I look at each picture takes about 2 minutes—but skimming the roster this way right after class, when their names and faces are fresh in my mind, helps a lot. For example, a student with a surprising (for me) spelling of their name adds a little detail that can help link the name with the student, even if I don't remember the spelling at all.

The above strategies don't require a ton of extra work or time. It also means that they don't work immediately, and it's true that there are a few students whose names I don't learn very well, either because they're always late, or don't attend, or refuse to participate, etc. But I would say that with this strategy, by the end of the semester, I learn about 85% of the names fluently (that is, I can recall the name immediately in conversation), and the remaining 15% I know well enough that when my TA refers to that person, I can, with a bit of prodding, recall who they're talking about. I'm okay with that success rate.

Before I move on to discussing why I learn their names, I should mention that it's very important to me that I learn to say their names correctly. This can be difficult, though as a phonetician/phonologist I have an advantage here. I find that the most challenging aspect is not learning the pronunciation, but remembering it. This is particularly true of Chinese names, which I am often successful at pronouncing, but not remembering, and so I do tend to spend a bit more time and effort learning Chinese names.

If you think about this in goal-oriented terms (namely, that the reason to put the effort in is to successfully learn students' names in order to be able to X, Y, and Z through the semester), then only achieving this by the end of the semester, just as I'll never see most of them again, is a pretty pointless endeavour. So why do I do it?

Why I learn students' names

Here's NOT a reason: I don't learn their names as a method to keep students accountable. I understand that's why some instructors do it; the thinking is that if you know their names, then it's harder for students to cheat, or fall asleep in class, etc. I suppose this can be a benefit, but I can't get so worked up about my students' behaviour.

Although this isn't why I learn their names, it turns out that it does have this side effect. I was chatting with some students I taught last year and they said that me knowing their names put some pressure on them to have their act together in class. At first they said it was intimidating, but over time that subsided.

It's unfortunate students are intimidated, even for a little bit, because my goal is exactly the opposite. I'm not trying to be friends with my students, but I do care about them. I want to foster an environment that recognizes the individuality of the students, and acknowledges that there is a relationship between the instructor and the students that goes beyond the "I administer tests and distribute grades and you grumble about them behind my back".

First of all, having a relationship with the students makes teaching more fun. Instead of a wall of nameless faces, which can be intimidating and scary for me, I get to teach to people I know. Because of the way I learn their names, I also know a little bit about some of them, which further helps make the environment friendlier for me. Related to this is the fact that the campus is also a friendlier, less isolating place. After sitting at my desk, alone, slogging through some writing or data analysis, it's refreshing that on my walk to get lunch I might see 2 or 3 students who smile, wave, and maybe even make small talk. With many of my students, this continues into future semesters, so the more I teach, the more the campus feels like a true community.

I like to think that my students also get something personal out of it, and that they enjoy class more when they're not simply nameless faces in the crowd. I hope my students understand that I care about them and respect them, and I would like to believe that if one of my students' were going through something and they didn't know who to turn to, they could come to me. Even though it's unlikely that I can help directly, I can point them in the right direction.

Perhaps the most concrete pedagogical benefits of learning my students' names is, in fact, related to accountability: because I know my students' names, and can call on them at any time, they are more engaged in lectures, and higher engagement leads to better learning. But although this might start out with students thinking something along the lines of, "Oh no! She knows who I am – I better not fall asleep!", I think that as the semester progresses, students start to enjoy the fact that the class is more conversational and less lecture-heavy than a large class might otherwise be.

Perhaps more important than actually learning their names is the way I go about it, because it sets a tone for the course. First, because I make an effort to learn student names, so do the TAs. In other words, because I, as the instructor, have decided that it is important to treat the students as individuals, the TAs fall in line with that. That's not to say that I expect that my TAs wouldn't be respectful towards students otherwise, but the tone I set does not leave any room for seeing the students as a nuisance. Secondly, learning students' names, and moreover making an effort to say them correctly, is one way of creating an inclusive environment, one that truly values the diversity that students as individuals bring to the classroom.

Finally, I should point out that I've never considered myself that great with names; in other words, I'm not one of those people who effortlessly learns the name of every passing acquaintance. And, in spite of my efforts, I continue to be "bad at names" while teaching: I've had cases where, even though I've asked a particular student their name over a dozen times, it doesn't stick; in other cases, I systematically confuse two students through the entire semester; other times, I will know a student's name, but then suddenly one time forget. In these cases, I'll apologize, or poke fun at myself, or just ask their names and move on, as appropriate. Students don't expect me to be perfect about this kind of thing, so it's okay that I'm not.

In future posts I'll discuss why I think it's important to turn every classroom into its own little community, and other strategies I use to accomplish this, but a big part of this is trying to learn the names of every student.

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