Monday, March 16, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Say My Name, Say My Name...

An occasional commenter writes:

I have a question about classroom skills rather than the job market or administration.

How do other teachers remember their students' names?  I confess, I am AWFUL with names.  My wife and I have gone to the same small church for 20 years and I still go blank on names of people we've been friends with for all that time.  ("you know who I mean honey, the tall guy who always wears that corduroy jacket.  His wife is in the choir.  You mean Tom?  yeah, Tom!")

This is a real difficulty for me in the classroom, even with a light teaching load.  I have one class this semester (I am an adjunct) and only 32 students and it's still a problem.  In every class some students stand out, for both good reasons and bad.  The one who does all the readings and asks questions is easy to remember, as is the goof-off who texts in class on those rare occasions he manages to stay awake.  It's the middle 80% that I struggle with.

I make little cryptic notes on my roster when I call roll  (WPSwt=always wear pink sweats to class) but that only helps so much and I have to be careful not to make observations that might be interpreted as inappropriate.  I can't see assigning seats in a college classroom, and it'd be a royal pain to enforce.  Name tags seem excessive.  I talk to students before class and that helps some, but so many of them rush in at the last second.  My university has several campuses and students ride shuttles between them so it's not unusual to have half the class arrive in the five to ten minutes after class starts and rush out again when it's over.

I even considered copying a method that I saw in the movie "The Paper Chase" where the professor put little photos (headshots) next to the students name on a seating chart.  However, it seemed a little creepy for a 50-ish professor to ask students for their photos, especially as my class enrollment is a good 75% female.

I thought about trying to schedule a time to meet with each of them individually.  Would that make me look like I'm one of those teachers who is trying to be their "buddy" and not their teacher?  I don't want that.  Nor do I want to look like a weird middle-aged male professor trying to meet with his female students alone.  I remind my students each class that I have office hours and am happy to schedule additional time to meet with them to talk about class material.  I even put a map to my office (it's very hard to find) on Blackboard for them, but to no avail.  I make a habit using the library and eating lunch on campus so students can come up to me to chat, but that only helps a little.

It's very frustrating to me as I want my students to understand that their education is important to me, and if I can't remember who they are it makes it look as if I don't care!

Ideas?  Suggestions??

Been there. And it's worse when you teach multiple sections, each of them full.

(Along similar lines, I'd like to hear pointers for pronouncing names correctly upon calling roll on the first day of class. Flagship U had a substantial influx of Eastern European students when I was a TA there, so I'd get names of thirteen random consonants surrounding a single, exhausted vowel. The occasional “D'Amico” or “Lopez” came as a palpable relief.)

I had a similar experience with faculty when I left Proprietary U for the cc. Deans are relatively public figures on campus, and in a low-turnover environment, a new Dean is immediately an object of scrutiny. But I'm awful with names, and suddenly had to learn hundreds of them. It was probably a solid year before a day went by without somebody I couldn't identify greeting me by name. (“Hi, DD!” “Uh, hi!...”) And while some people don't take offense if you guess wrong, some really do. This is one of the many reasons that I couldn't be a politician.

I've heard of mnemonic devices for names, but I, for one, haven't had much luck with them. And yes, your instincts about photos are probably correct. Several years ago I had complaints from some female students about an older male professor who took pictures of all of his students. He assured me that he had always done that as a way to learn names, but as a favor to me, he agreed to stop. (I couldn't get past the 'ew' factor, myself.)

It's not unheard of to have individual meetings with students, but if you do, try to pick a relatively public place and keep the meetings short. (In my TA days, I used a snack bar on campus, and I always picked a table surrounded by people.) Of course, that doesn't work as well if you have multiple sections, but for one, you might be able to get away with it.

Since I'm manifestly unsuccessful at this, I'll use a lifeline and ask my wise and worldly readers to help out. Wise and worldly readers, have you found reliable, non-creepy ways to learn students' names?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

My answer is simple:

Tell Them.

Tell them that you are bad at names, and that you either need to have a photo of them on the roster, or for them to wear name badges.

Own it, don't hide it. Tell them, and ask which option they prefer.

Or I suppose you could play a name game - get them to tell a story (course related), which links to their name. There's heaps of strategies, but I say own it.

Not remembering names is a normal variant on the human experience.

Being open about that and adopting a work-around is nothing to be ashamed of.
I am also pretty bad at remembering names.

Re: pronunciation a getting to know you exercise or a "what are your expectations of the class" small group exercise in the first session and have each reporter say who was in the group. That way at least you get the students to tell you their names before you call it out on a roll.

Rather than call out names from the roll, I often ask students to pass a blank sheet around the room so that the list of names has a spatial relationship to the class (e.g. I can see from the list who would be sitting where). You can also pull out preferred names more easily. Then in discussion I make sure I use the student's name in speaking to them or asking a question and do a verbal check "Did I say that right?" If I meet someone and don't say their name it vanishes instantly from my brain.

The other strategy is to get them to submit some written work early in the course. Once I've marked a student's work they are more memorable.

Our university makes student ID photos available in class lists through the online learning system, which can help, but I agree that taking photos is creepy and I'd never do that.
In normal circumstances I am terrible with names, but I manage OK in class. I once had two sections of the same class with two sets of twins between them (one pair in one section, the other pair split between the two). Yet I somehow managed.

During an observation, a colleague noticed that I use students' names every time I call on them. Since I've taught a lot of language courses, in which students are called on to participate without having raised their hands, I think it goes back to this type of course. I use it in all courses, however, and I think it must be the way I remember names.

I also have students complete index cards of information on the first day of class. I include normal things like name, preferred email address, etc., but also their hometown (which helps me remember names for some reason) and a random item like favorite color, favorite movie, a band I probably haven't heard of, or something else absurd. It helps lighten the mood in such a boring administrative task and may help you remember the names, too.

Would it really be a sensitive issue to have a required paper conference with every student early on to help them with their writing and help you remember names? Just keep the door open.
I agree with RJ. Honesty is the best policy. More often than not, student appreciate the very fact that you're trying.

On the first day, I had students tell me their names. If a name was difficult for me, I would repeat it and ask how well I pronounced it. Again, students usually appreciated my effort - they were accustomed to having their names botched.

Then, I studied. No tricks, just treated it like there'd be a test. During class work times, I'd look over the roster and try to match names with faces. I would ask students if they were indeed Jane, or Vinh, etc. After that, the hardest names, by virtue of uniqueness, are the easiest to remember.
I also tell them up front the truth -- that the first year I taught, I learned every name -- which was 100+ each semester. After a few years of that, the name-remembering part of my brain just gave out entirely. I tell them I will absolutely know whom each of them is by the end of the semester, but I may *still* be stumbling over a couple of names, especially if they rarely speak up in class.

Then I ask them if they can please try to sit in the same seats every class. They mostly want to do that anyway, it's human nature, and my asking reinforces that.

If there's time in class, say two minutes at the end, I'll do a quick pass around the room, trying to name everyone. I get better each time I do it, and they laugh along with me when I get stuck. That also helps them learn each others' names, which is good for facilitating class discussion.
All good suggestions: as for pronunciations, I always say on the first day, when calling the roll: "Please say if I am pronouncing your name incorrectly, or if you have a nickname you prefer to be called by." This also helps with differences within so-called ethnic categories (ie, some Spanish-speakers use a hard J, others a soft J.)

But for remembering names, if it really matters to you, I think a seating chart makes sense, and I've done it -- many students sit in the same seat every day by habit anyway, and I've never noticed resentment. It allows you to practice using their names by calling on people by name. Or you could create a template that represents each seat in the room (if you have fixed seats) and pass it around each class for the first few weeks and have them sign in, using the seat they are sitting in.
I think if you tell them you're bad at names it feels a lot less creepy if you then take their pictures.

I don't just put notes on my roster, there's not enough space.

I make a whole new class list with waaaay more space and write detailed notes.

I make a point of learning at least one name per class meeting.

I use handing back graded assignments as a time to learn names as well... But, I do it strategically, have that be a day when they're doing some group work and make the groups so that each group has at least one person I know so that using my group-chart I can get to the correct region of the room.
Meeting individually with students is a good way to learn their names and it doesn't have to be creepy: have a paper due early in the course, and then require each student to meet with you to talk about it. This is fairly standard in the composition program I teach in, and its been a saving grace for learning the names that I haven't been able to get within the first week or two by the other means people have mentioned.
I would suggest:
#1. As RJ said, tell them you're terrible at remembering names and that you'll need something to help you.
#2. Maybe you could ask to take a group class photo, just make sure you have permission. Those who are uncomfortable can opt out. Not nearly as creepy as individual pics... You might not get all of them, but it would certainly help.
#3. Study, study! You are undoubtedly smart, with enough practice, you will remember.
I teach small classes, so it's easier for me. When I call the roll the first day, first I tell them that I'm awful with names, and then I do it like that "I'm going on a trip and I'm taking an aardvark, ball, carrot..." game.

"John Anderson. That's you. OK, Sally Bander. John, and Sally. Jose Coelho? Jose, Sally and John." And just keep going. The students always laughingly quiz me on the second day of class, and that's fine.
If your memory is good for some things and not for others, try to exploit that aspect of your memory for retaining names.

I'm not great with names in the extracurricular world—if I meet two new people at a party I'll forget both names—but I am great at remembering directions, geography, and landmarks.

So, on the first day or two of class, I draw a map of my classroom, while the students are there. I study that when I get home. It helps me a lot.

It also helps to assign some written work in the first week or two of class, or even just a first-day survey, so I can associate their faces with more than just their names.

Also, it helps that my university makes their ID photos available in my online class rosters. But I was good with remembering names (with the "map" method) even at a different university where that wasn't an option.
I have several tricks to overcome the same problem.

1) Take roll every class. I know it's sort of high-schoolish, but I find that nothing helps me remember names better. I tell the students that I'm taking roll so I learn names, and it doesn't seem to bother them.

2) Have lots of assignments/quizzes to hand back early in the semester.

3) During tests and group work, I often wander around with my list, practicing names.

4) As someone else said, say their names when you call on someone.

5) When a student raises their hand and you don't know their name, ask what it is.

6) I doodle little pictures on my list for some students. I'm a terrible artist, but I can tell if they have huge hair, facial hair, multiple piercings, etc. It helps a little. Unless they get their hair cut.
I take the id pictures (which our university makes available to faculty with the class list) and make myself a powerpoint slide show with the names and pics. Whenever I have a few minutes I run through it and drill. Usually I have all the names in a class of 30 by the end of add-drop.

Before we had online access to pics, I used to ask students to provide a snapshot. I even had a form with a square showing them where to paste it. Then I'd put these in a binder and flip through them every day.

No one seemed to find it creepy, but then I teach theatre. If you aren't comfortable giving your headshot to random older men, you won't last long in this business.
I have sometimes taken group photos of the class, after a few meetings, when everyone has settled into a regular seating pattern. I've never had anybody suggest that that was creepy, but then I'm young(ish) and female. With a photo to refer to, I can practice identifying them before I come to class, and associate the names and faces with their usual place in the classroom.

More recently, I've taken to asking students to make name placards to put at their places or across the front of their desks, so I always see people labeled with their names. I finally realized it was essential for me to learn their names visually; I was just never going to retain them aurally. That realization gives me the chance to announce the first class meeting that I'm a visual learner and need to ask them to bring their placards for the first few weeks, which opens the subject of learning styles. I invite them to put on their placard just the name they want to be called by and to make their names visually distinctive. I suggest that they stop bringing their placards after a few weeks and see if I know their names by then, and almost inevitably I do. I find the placards start disappearing by about the fourth week of term and by midterm I know everyone's name. I've also found the practice helps the students know each other's names and respond directly to one another in discussion.
I have some semesters with 250 students -- and I'm bad at names.

I do tell them that in the beginning -- also, that I'm good with faces but don't connect them with names, so forgive me when I ask later. I also tell them how many students I have in a semester -- which tends to lower their expectations about papers coming back quickly.

The only way I've been able to learn names is by handing back assignments on a regular basis. When I call their name, I make them stand up to come get the paper -- so I connect the name and the face. Unfortunately, for my larger classes -- 50 per section -- this takes a while AND entails lots of assignments, so I don't tend to do it.
Name badges or name tents. Either work. And I suck at names
As yet another teacher bad with names, I have used many of suggestions above, esp. getting early writing samples, having specific details to hang onto face/name combo. The other simple-minded strategy I've used is just to go around the room the first day, starting at one corner of the room, and saying/asking for the first student's name. Then I add on a second student, and say both of their names, and then a third student, each time going back to the beginning and running through the whole list. It only takes 5 mins. or so in a class of 20, helps students to know each other's names, and lets me demonstrate, with some self-deprecation, just how bad I am at remembering. Of course, I tell them, they must wear the same clothing and not change seats for 2 weeks (usually that one is no problem, as students seem to settle into their own regular spots). The spatial orientation helps me a lot, and I find myself that first week or so visualizing the class and going down the rows to fix names in my mind.
I am great at this, but I am not sure how I do it. Except this: I have a 5 minute writing assignment in my classes at the start of class. So the 50 students have to pick it up each day. I quickly learn all of them -- so I think it is related to handing things back and associating it with a face. I also promise them on the first day of class that if by the 2nd test, I do not know all their names, 5 bonus points to the whole class. Helps me to focus and just do it.

These two things allow me, each semester, to learn 200+ names of students and remember them even years later when they come up to me in the grocery store. Try it -- it works!
Yes: to handing graded items back in person (one variant on this that worked well this semester was to have a pop quiz the class before an exam; both got them to study slightly more but also meant that they left the exam in a slow trickle, hence automatically bringing them to pick up their quizzes individually instead of en masse) and to being willing to look foolish-but-trying in calling on folks by name.

I also ask the students to use their name when speaking up in class for the first few classes, and have a class-participation part of the grade which encourages such speaking. I can generally get everyone by around week 3. Yale includes headshots in the online system, which was a big help; Albany does not, but my classes here have so far been smaller. Next semester will be my first >200, and we'll see how that works..
I do name placards. They don't mind. By the time they start losing them, mid-semester, I usually know most of the names. (I just use folded-over pieces of paper that they "hang" off the front of their desks by sticking one half of it under their notebook, and I carry a sharpie.)

As for unpronounceable names, it's not a big deal. I have a tricky last name (that is pronounced the same as a very common, very differently-spelled last name from another ethnic group, so even when someone hears it first, that's often no help). By third grade I was used to correcting the teacher and I've never thought anything of it. Most of my students don't seem to mind either, and when I run across the occasional total puzzle, I'll say, "... name starting with D that I can't pronounce?" and usually the student will speak up with "Dzeckieowicz" and I'll quickly note a phonetic spelling on my roster. As long as you get it close the second time, they don't mind.
1. Students make their own name placards
2. The university provides us with a class photo roster (id card photos)
3. The "Name Chain Game" (announce you are terrible with names, and that to help you learn yoiu will play the game. Call on students during class; for each successive Q&A you must list the names of all previous students in order, ending with the student who you just called on. See how many students the old prof can remember before messing up. Much hilarity ensues.)

Advantages of the game: It uses self deprecating humor to put the problem on the table. You learn the names of the most involved/participating students first. It gives you an excuse to call on students who have not yet actively partcipated ("how can I learn your name otherwie?") Bonus: You actually learn the student's names.

Disadvantage: it adds about 5-25 seconds to each Q&A cycle.
Our college makes a photo roster available to us. For many faculty, that is all they ever use.

Like one commenter, I make the greatest use of that roster during exams. I also check it before I hand back work.

I find that a seating chart isn't needed because students generally sit in the same place every day. I usually learn where Stu Dent sits before I learn which person in that group is actually Stu.
My last institution wasn't quite organized enough to make a photo roster available to faculty. However, I could make my own photo roster by looking up each name in the Student ID photo database, which was available. Then I'd simply open up a Word document, cut-and-paste the photos into it, and type each name next to the photo.

It was time-consuming, but it sure helped me remember those names.
Pronouncing names when you live in a city with more languages spoken percapita than any place else in the US is, let's just say, challenging. But the internet is your friend. These sites have MP3s that let you hear the correct pronunciation.
I really like yacp's suggestion and will try to implement it; it sounds like a good way to cut ice in Q&A sessions, as it gives students an amusing incentive to participate.
To help with names, you can take a photo of the class once the drop/add period calms down and students start to "own" their seats. A group photo helps me distinguish differences immediately between the two gents who wear the same "young, male with angst" uniform, including the backward baseball cap. The placard also helps. This seems to be popular here–a number of students take out their placard from another class when I ask them to make one.

As far as finding your office, make it a 5-pt quiz question. "Here's the map. You have to darken my doorway be Wednesday to earn the 5 points." It doesn't need to be more than that unless you want it to be.

I do a similar exercise with my syllabus. Every student gets the same syllabus and every other student gets half the questions. To get full credit on the Syllabus Quiz, they have to team up with someone who has the other questions. Again, it's only 10 points and all the answers are in the syllabus. This stops the "whaddya mean I lose points for being late?!?" nattering.
All the suggestions above are good. I tell them I am bad with names, and as an older teacher, I get a pass sometimes. I generally learn everyone's name eventually, but once the term is over and the student sees me a year later, I've completely lost their name.

A surprising number of students will sit in a teacher's class all term and never learn her name, either.
I'm pretty good with names, but I use the "name game" on the first day of class, which was suggested by my supervisor when I was a TA. I tell them it is because class discussion and group cooperation is vital, so they need to know each other's names. A side effect is that I usually have 80% of their names by the end of the first class.
Starting in one corner of the room, the first student says his/her name. The second says his/her name *and* the previous one. The third says his/her name and the previous get the idea. Some groan a little bit, but almost everyone plays along with goodwill (and gets a boost about halfway through). By the end, you've heard most names multiple times. To even up the score, you can start in the opposite corner the next day.
Another variant on the "group photo" idea that may be less creepy than individual photos is to have them get their pictures taken in small groups. If you're going to have a groupwork assignment early on, use those groups. Otherwise, just line everybody up and take pictures in groups of 5. One of my choir directors did this and I never found it creepy. It also takes 1/5 the time of taking individual photos, a major bonus in a 50 or 60 person class.
Two tricks I'd like to add. With the name game, add something silly. Before my first year of college, I went on a wilderness orientation, where we did names and animal. Several of my best friends came from that experience, based in part on conversations struck up from the animals we picked. The first person that game was Sunshine, and her animal was a Bunny (I caller her "Luck Bunny Sunshine" for the obvious reason). That was 13 years ago....

As for being bad with names and faces? I'm horrible. When I TA'd, I owned up to it. And I did pay attention to what my students said...I am pretty good at remembering biographic details, which I'll have tied to your name or your face. So something I'll do when I *should* remember somebody's name but don't is, after asking for their name, point out I remember the relevant things about them, and rattle off some trivia I they've shared about themselves. This shows that I do care, and that I do listen...just that I *really* have troubles remembering names. The usual reaction to this is that they'll laugh with me at my inability to remember their name, and not be offended.
Hey, Ewan: what department? (And welcome!)

On difficult names: Students are used to being in multiethnic environments, and the ones who aren't named "Jones" will cheerfully correct your pronunciation if encouraged to do so. Last semester, I had a student with a no-vowels Polish name who, when I got to her on my attendance list, held up a pre-made sign with the phonetic spelling. :)
It's worth noting that, although I do learn everyone's name within a few weeks, I forget all those names nearly as quickly.

I see people I had first semester in the hall and can easily picture which class computer they tended to sit at, details of their families and biographies, outstanding papers they wrote, but between Christmas and ML King Day, I've lost their names.
I do almost everything mentioned above including seating charts and execepting photographs, but I still have a hard time. Where I really learn names is in my office when students come to see me to work on their papers. A single office visit, and for some reason, I can put a name and a face together.

So as RJ said, I Tell Them. I also add that "if at the end of the semester, I still don't know your name, it says as much about you as it does me."

That seems to work.

My trick is to imagine who they remind me of, even if it's a classmate from grade school years ago, and then I jot that name next to theirs on the roster. And "Linda W" works better than "buxom blonde" if I lose my roster notes or someone catches a peek of the list. BH for backwards hat and FH for facial hair are useful for the guys.

Or pick up a memory book by Harry Lorayne if you're really challenged.
I come in thirty minutes early on the first day, and exchange names as each student arrives. While we're all sitting around waiting for the class to begin, I'm mentally reviewing them in my head. This breaks the problem down into smaller pieces, because I only have to memorize one new name at a time.

As the class starts I announce that I'm going to recite everyone's name. Surprisingly I average about 70% retention. This is an order of magnitude better than I can achieve in everyday life.

Actually my primary reason for this exercise is to avoid throwing up on the first day of class. By directing all of my nervous energy and tension into memorization, I stop myself from worrying about everything that can go wrong.
Dictyranger: Psych (but really neurosci; I'm over in life sci).
thank you for all the advice. I've saved the comments and will try some of the things suggested.
I wanted to share something that really worked for me when I TA'ed my first classes last year. It's another variation on a Name Game, but you have the students name an activity that they enjoy. So, the first person says she is Barbara and enjoys backpacking; the next says "that is Barbara; she enjoys backpacking. I am George, and I love dancing." By the 10th person, I was hearing "Becky/backpacking; George/dancing, etc." In following classes when I was trying to recall names (like most posters, I was very upfront about how difficult I found this), I found myself saying "Becky backpacking?" They were all quite tickled by the associations (corollary: you want to be careful not to ask them for a prompt that they will hate being stuck with for the rest of the year!).

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