Archive | January, 2018

Learning Students’ Names

23 Jan Decorative Image - Stack of name cards.


A couple of days after posting this Tuesday Teaching Tip, I’ll be meeting my group of 20-some students for the second of our weekly 3-hour class sessions. I think that I can align correct names – even correctly pronounced names – to about a quarter of the students. When I review the class roster and memory, I can identify four reasons for knowing these particular students’ names:

  • We interacted in question-answer emails before class began.
  • I could align individuals’ names with someone from my extended network of friends, former students, or family.
  • In responding to the “What else would be helpful for me to know about you”? student information survey, a couple of students included stories about their names.
  • Another couple of student personalized their 1st day name tag through choices in lettering or flourishes or doodles.

Working to learn and remember names is a social act, an effortful act of beginning to make connections within a group of people who will be working together over time in a particular space – here, a learning community space that may unfold in person, online, or in multiple other locations. These social acts move from teacher to student, and as importantly from student to teacher, and among students.

As much as I want to get their names right, I want them to use my preferred naming, as well as to respectfully use their classmates chosen naming. And I want them not only to understand that the process of learning names requires attentive time, I want them to understand why and how this matters, and that we can help each other out in this as well as other shared learning efforts.


The three resources gathered in the January Resources Folder:

1. “The Importance of Learning Students’ Names,” by Maryellen Weimer for the Teaching Professor blog.

Drawing on a survey at the heart of this piece, Weimer notes that students generally don’t expect that teachers will learn their names, and that 85% of students surveyed said it was important to them, for reasons such as the ones listed below, that instructors knew their names:

  • positively affects attitudes about the course
  • springboard for feeling more valued and invested in the course
  • activates feeling more comfortable seeking out help with course learning
  • reduces awkwardness of interactions, making it easier to talk with the instructor

In closing her post, Weimer offers five name-learning strategies, each of which benefits both teachers and learners.

2. “How We Say Our Students’ Names…and Why It Matters,” by Jennifer Gonzalez for the Cult of Pedagogy blog.

Gonzalez offers framework for how we might think of ourselves as learners in this process of learning names, and she does this by personalising and analysing the facets of marginalization that emerge that are wrapped up in willfully, regularly, arrogantly mispronouncing names.  Beyond the arrogant name manglers, as she names this group, Gonzalez reminds teachers how to move in the places we often find ourselves in learning new names: sometimes we’re fumbler-bumblers and at other times we continue as calibrators:

She offers this glimpse of fumblebumblers – which many of us are as name-learning teachers – working with her growing up name, Yurkosky: “They’d mispronounce the name, slowing down and making their voice all wobbly, not trusting themselves. They’d grimace, laugh, ask me how to say it, then try again. But then they sort of gave up. Over the next few attempts, they’d settle into something that was a kind of approximation, and that would be that. What made me not mind these people was that they put the mispronunciation on themselves—their demeanor suggested the fault was with them, not me or my name.”

Like the fumblers, the calibrators show their work: “They asked me to pronounce [Yurkosky], tried to replicate it, then fine-tuned it a few more times against my own pronunciation. Some of them would even check back later to make sure they still had it.”

3. “On ‘difficult names’,” by UyênThi Tran Myhre, a Perspectives essay for the Improving Campus Climate website.

Names matter. Those of us who love our difficult names – difficult to say, to spell, to place in a context – will meet effort with effort. Here’s how UyênThi characterises this at the end of her essay, a place from which to start a new journey as you visit the January Resources Folder to read her full essay:

I’ve started overly enunciating my name everywhere I go, and giving an explanation of the pronunciation, whether at meetings where most of the people already know me, or in spaces where I am brand new…My name is Uyenthi, wing like a bird’s wing and tee like the letter T…

3 Strategies

Being honest with students helps.  We might be honest about troubles we have in remembering names (“I remember names after I’ve written or typed the name three times.”), or about what we generally remember during and beyond the course (“I’m good with first names and remembering topics of papers, and I’m lousy with last names.”), or about how much we appreciate their patience as we remember, fumble-bumble, or calibrate name learning. While an online search will turn up suggestions numbering in the thousands, we’re sharing three here that emerge time and again in research- and praxis-based writing.

  1. Learn a few names at different points in the term, not worrying if you don’t know the names by the end of week 2. And ask your students to join you in this effort: One of my colleagues aimed to learn 3 new names during week 3, four during week 4, and so on until she had found her way to remembering a chosen or preferred first name for each student – and she asked her students to do the same internalising of new names each week as they talked with one another before and during class sessions.
  2. If you’re thinking that week 2 or 3 is too late for asking students to respond to information surveys, it might be just the right time to distribute a shorter survey to each student. This survey might open with a request for their university email address, followed by a short answer space to list the name they’d like you and peers to use in class. (Several of my mentors asked students to address them via courtesy titles with surname, and did the same in addressing their students, asking students for the title and surname combinations to use.) Below this naming a longer response block will allow students to write a sentence or two to share something unique to them: a favorite quote, a hobby that engages them, a significant geographical place, or an observation about how they learn or are stretching to learn. Matching the information gathered here with pictures available with class rosters helps personalise the naming process.
  3. Name Tents can be created using 5×8 note cards or from heavy paper stock (two tents per sheet), and heavy-duty markers in a variety of colors. These do work best in classrooms with tables, moveable tablet chairs, or in fixed seating theatres designed for moderate enrollment courses (50-60 students). Have students be the name scribes – some may prefer to write their own names in big block letters, others will ask a classmate to complete the lettering. Places names on both sides of a tent is an even better strategy, making it possible for teachers and peers to see names from multiple vantage points in a room. As bonuses, students often continue to embellish name tents during the semester, and name tents not picked up can serve as places for marking absences, a reminder to both student and teacher to follow up. Not meeting in a classroom, or also meeting with students in virtual learning spaces? An online version of name tents would require students to develop their individual profiles within school’s Moodle or Canvas site.

Finally, it’s possible that basic meta-communication strategies can work to help everyone learn names. For example, during discussions, a basic exchange script like this can be helpful for all who are in the room:

“I am ____. And you are ____?”

“Thanks, ____, I’d like to follow up on a point you made…”

Ideas? Suggestions?

Share your strategies and resources with other teachers via CEI’s Twitter account, and Facebook page.

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