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I have a confession to make: I have a very difficult time learning students’ names. I know that research shows it is really important for building a supportive and inclusive classroom, and I know that it makes discussion and other interactions with students much easier. And I remember being impressed with the outstanding teachers who learned every student’s name on or before the first day of class. But it still takes a long time for me to remember who’s who. It can be embarrassing and anxiety-producing to have to ask for a student’s name multiple times, especially later in the semester, and learning a student’s name is indeed an important and worthwhile task. If you are looking for some tried and true techniques for overcoming the name barrier, here are a few quick tips for those of us who could use a little extra help putting names to faces:

  • Print your Online Photo sheet. At the University of Notre Dame, all individuals listed as an instructor for the course have access to Online Photo through InsideND. You can print a sheet that lists students’ names and information alongside a photo of them. Study the sheet ahead of time, and make flashcards with the students’ photos if needed. If you are a teaching assistant and do not have access to your course’s Online Photo, ask the primary instructor to print one off for you. With this sheet, you might take roll for at least the first few classes (either formally or before class begins).
  • Use name tents. On the first day of class, bring paper and sharpies and have students make a name tent to place in front of them. You might ask them to continue using the nametag for the first few classes, but try not to become too reliant on the paper to do the job for you! (There will come a point in the semester where a student will not have a name tent in front of them.) Instead, combine this technique with one or more of the others listed to commit the names to memory.
  • Break the ice. Icebreakers are a common way to start the semester, and for good reason! They set the tone for a collaborative classroom environment, and they also help with learning names. Try an icebreaker that will reveal an interesting detail you can associate with that student. Or try a variant using the students’ names: one of the most useful ones for me is the Alliterating Adjectives icebreaker. This exercise asks students to come up with an adjective that describes themselves that starts with the same first letter of their name (example: Friendly Francis).
  • Have your students write their information down. Before students leave on the first day, have them write down some basic information for you to remember them by, including the name they prefer to be called and the phonetic spelling if needed. (This is also a great way to collect any other vital information about your students.) With this reference, you can be sure to have the correct details without worrying about remembering everything from the already-busy first day.
  • Use names often. Ask students to give their name each time they speak, and call students by name in class whenever you can. This allows you to memorize a few names at a time. (This is a good tip for large classes.)
  • Plan to test yourself early on. When we want students to complete an assignment, we give them a deadline. Similarly, set a deadline for yourself to know all of your students’ names. The best way to do this is to pick a day to find each student in class and hand back an assignment or quiz. (Hint: students will help you find where they are sitting to make sure they get their assignments back, so if you do not have every name down exactly, this tends to be less awkward than going around the room to publicly quiz yourself on student names.)

Even if you incorporate all of these tricks into your teaching, don’t expect to be perfect right away. Give yourself permission to make mistakes; in fact, let students know that you may have a difficult time with names, and they will appreciate your hard work to learn them. And while you are learning student names, make sure that the students are learning each other’s names (and how to pronounce them correctly) as well. Soon you will be well on your way to a personal, collaborative, and successful classroom environment!

Additional Resources:

And see our other previous posts on planning for the start of the semester:

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