Whenever I get the chance to talk about teaching, especially what I consider the most important thing, I have a quick answer…Learn the students’ names!  I cannot think of a single thing that will make your class more meaningful or effective to the students than to learn the names early.

I NEVER call roll.  To me that is a lazy and impersonal way to take attendance.  You might as well be saying to the students “this is something I have to do and honestly don’t care enough to put a name with the face”.  I am stunned when I see people calling roll after a few weeks of the course is past.

I set a goal for myself to learn everyone’s name within the first week.  I have a little advantage since I teach math.  Our courses are sequential and when students get comfortable with a teacher, they like to follow him or her into the next courses.  That being said, I usually know about a quarter to half of the class on the first day anyway.  On the first day at the beginning, I will walk around the room and get everyone’s names.  Then I have an ice-breaker activity that I give to the class.  This involves having them do a “personal scavenger hunt”.  I give them a list of categories and have them mingle around the room to find other students who can fit into those categories.  I participate along with them and can usually pick up a few new names this way.  At the end of the first class, I give out a brief information sheet to learn some information about the students.  As they turn these in while they are leaving, I try to call them by name from the sheet.  I can usually pick up a few more names this way.

Unfortunately, by the time I meet the class for the second time, after meeting five or six classes in the first couple days, many of the names get mixed up.  My best name-learning technique comes at the beginning of the next class.  I take the information sheets and go around the room and try to name everyone.  I am usually not 100% successful with this, but usually do have a pretty high success rate.  Usually the students that I get right are surprised that I’ve learned their names.  I’ve also learned to poke fun at myself when I get a name wrong or have to guess.  I see that the students sitting nearby seem to enjoy the “game” and seem to be relaxed that I allow myself to be vulnerable around them.  I think it puts them at ease.  Usually during this second class, I also try to have an activity during class where I ask the students to “report out” something.  I have them work in pairs usually and when it comes their turn to report, I have my roster and try to call them by name.  If I get it wrong then, I will correct it immediately.  Finally, at the end of this second class I tell them that “they can leave only if I get their name right”.  At this point, I usually have a pretty good handle on the names.  I usually know who everyone is, but may have to look at the roster to refresh my memory on the name.

The reason that I think put so much importance on this is that I want the students to know right from the beginning that they are not just going to be a name on the roster and a person in the seat.  It gives them a sense of importance to the class and helps them feel like they belong.  Each class I teach I see students’ eyes get wide when they realize that I’ve already learned their name.  I think it impresses them that I am taking the effort to know who they are……it also lets them know that they won’t be able to sneak through the class without being noticed, either, so that gets their attention.  I’ve found that the sooner I learn  studens’ names, the more comfortable they become, and the more likely they will be to ask questions when they need to.

Thanks to xkcd for another smile.

Finally, to those reading this who may be thinking “yeah, but I am really bad at learning names”.  That is no excuse.  I have always been good at learning names and, yes, the first week may not be a reasonable goal for yourself.  However, that doesn’t relieve you of trying to learn the names.  What I have found is learning names isn’t the most important thing…..the EFFORT in TRYING to learn the names is what is important.  That is what sets the tone to the students.  If they see that you are making the effort to learn their names (and being open to laugh at yourself if you struggle), then they will know that they are important to you and will still reap the benefits.

Good luck!


Do you agree with Pat that learning names is important?  Do you have a tip for remembering your students’ names?  We would love to hear from you!


One comment on “Rule #1: LEARN THE NAMES

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