What’s in a Name?

Steve Volk, August 28, 2017

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

–Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

After a summer that has quickly scurried away into some dark corner from which it will only emerge, like a baby newly born, nine months from now, we return to our classrooms. At least for those who didn’t spend the summer teaching or are not teaching this semester. As we reengage, hopefully refreshed and ready to go, I’m reminded of what the poet Nikki Giovanni once remarked when asked what she would miss most when she retired from teaching. (Lord knows, it wasn’t grading exams or sitting through department meetings!)

I’m going to be sorry when I retire — she wrote — because… if it’s one thing that I definitely enjoy, it’s my 8:00 class. My 8:00 class, they come to me, 8:00 AM, they come to me from their dreams, and I come to them from mine. And I would give up a lot of things, in terms of teaching; I really don’t want to give up my 8:00, because I like the freshness that they bring. And the other word would be, I like the love that we have for each other as we come into that class.”

Good to keep in mind.

Graduates, Oberlin College. 1973 Hi-o-hi Yearbook. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Graduates, Oberlin College. 1973 Hi-o-hi Yearbook. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

When I began teaching, I was sure I’d never forget a student’s name. A few years in, and it became quite evident that wasn’t going to happen. OK, I don’t remember their names, but I was sure I’d never forget a face. Fast forward — maybe a few weeks? — and I realized no guarantees there, either. As the years went by, I was embarrassed to admit that I greeted returning alumni as if they were still in my classes (“So, how are your other classes going?” “Er, I graduated 5 years ago”) and, occasionally, currently enrolled students I bumped into at the gym as former students. I soon switched to a more noncommittal, “So, what’s going on?” when I saw a familiar face.

While my face and name forgetfulness is more likely due to advancing years, and not anything as dramatic as prosopagnosia, it concerned me that students would think I didn’t care who they were. Students are (justifiably) upset with faculty who haven’t learned their names, more so if it appears that instructors are not putting any effort into it. (This reaches another level altogether if faculty consistently, and perhaps pointedly, mistake one minority student for another, what has been called the “cross-race effect”. That’s not my subject here, although I’ll return to it in a future article.)

For all the discussion of the importance of remembering names, there has been little research on the impact on student learning of faculty members’ ability to remember their students’ names. At least until now. A study recently published in CBE – Life Sciences Education by Katelyn M. Cooper, Brian Haney, Anna Krieg, and Sara E. Brownell (“What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving That an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom”) tried to measure the impact of “name-knowing” in a 185-student, upper- level biology class. Among the findings:

  • Over 85% of the students who responded on a post course survey thought it was important that the instructors knew their names.
  • When asked why, many wrote that it made them feel valued, that it helped them feel that the instructor cared about them.
  • Students also indicated that having an instructor know your name made them feel more invested in the course and likely impacted their behavior in the course; it made them more comfortable seeking help from the professor.
Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1960. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1960. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

So, while the researchers couldn’t determine whether name-knowing was linked with an improvement in student performance, it’s not a stretch to imagine that students who are more invested in their classes, and more willing to get help from the instructor, are likely to learn more and do better.

These findings are also broadly consistent with the conclusions reached by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takas in How College Works (Harvard 2014) which argued that “personal connections are often the central mechanism and daily motivators of the student experience” (p. 4, italics in original). While there’s more to “personal connections” than knowing a student’s name, calling a student by name can help pave the way for such a connection to form.

Pronunciation: First (try to) do no harm…

And while we’re at it, we should also stress the importance of correctly pronouncing a student’s name. For all students, and especially the children of immigrants or those who are English-language learners, having a teacher who not only knows their name but can pronounce it correctly signals respect and inclusion. I always call role on the first day of class. Some time ago, after the first class, a student came up to tell me it was the first time that a teacher had correctly pronounced her name on the first day of class. Ever. Her first year in college and no teacher had gotten it right before. She still remembered that some years later when I saw her at a reunion. I was able to do this because she had a Spanish-Mayan name, but I often find myself linguistically challenged with names that aren’t in my language wheelhouse. Asking for help is always the best way forward in such circumstances. I was teaching in China over the summer and, quite sure that I would do serious damage to their names, I had the students pronounce their names – and asked them to correct me – until I finally got it right. [For a good article on this in the early childhood classroom, see: Mariana Souto-Manning. “Honoring Children’s Names and, Therefore, Their Identities.” School Talk (NCTE) 12.3 (April 2007): 1-2.]

Tricks of the Trade

So, how can you remember all those names? There are lots of suggestions out there. For example, try these from the University of Virginia, these from Carnegie Mellon, or these from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Without claiming any originality, I’ve compiled a squadron of suggestions (in no particular order), including some old favorites and some newer approaches.

Use a seating chart for the first 2-3 classes: Ask students to sit in the same place for a few classes to help you learn their names more quickly. (You’ll find that, even without asking them, most students will sit in the same seat all semester long.)

Photos: use the “Photo Roster” tab in Blackboard: Blackboard, and many other learning management systems, will provide you with photos of students enrolled in your classes. This is probably the best way to learn the names of many of your students before the first class even though I’m always staggered by how different many students look when seated in front of me from when they took the photo. But it’s a good start.

Keep in mind that some students may have changed their names since enrolling, and even though Blackboard allows students to change their preferred name on this platform if they wish, you will want to make sure that you have updated the necessary information.

Photos: use your phone. If you want current photos, you can have students come up, maybe three at a time, write their name on the board (and any pronunciation guides if needed along with their gender pronouns), and snap their photo with your phone.

Help the students learn each other’s names: One of the best methods of learning student names is to make sure that they know each other’s names and use them in class when referring to each other (“I agree with Julio, who argued…)

Arrange students into groups of two and have them introduce themselves to each other, coming up with three interesting facts about their partner. Then have them introduce their partner to the class as a whole, which is a boon for students who are reticent about introducing themselves.

Alternatively, you can have students write something about themselves, put it on a card, and give it to you. (You can then attach a photo to the card from the Photo Roster or draw a quick, 20-second sketch of the student.)

Have students say their name each time they speak in class, at least in the first few weeks of class or until everyone (instructor and the students) feels they know everyone’s name. This will require that you remind them frequently, but it pays off.

Pick one thing that says something about you: Have students pick out one item from their backpacks, purses, wallets, etc., that says something about them, and then introduce themselves to the class: “Hi, I’m Shang. This is a Metro card from the Beijing Metro which I took to get to my high school.” “I’m Amy, and this is my mouth guard – I play field hockey.”

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1968. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1968. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

“Tent” cards: Hand out 5X8 cards, have students write their names on them, make a “V” out of them, and put them on the front of their desks. This helps everyone learn names (unless you’re assigned to the purgatory of a fixed-seating classroom). Collect them at the end of the day, and have your students pick them up as they come in for the next class. (You can also use this as a handy way to keep attendance, at least at the start: students who didn’t get their cards are marked absent.) Here is one student’s comment about using name tents from the biology class study referenced earlier:

“I had my name tent out a couple weeks ago, and the person sitting next to me called me by my name. I turned around. It makes me respond better, because they call you by your name instead of like, ‘Hey.’ Some random person is talking to you, and they just want to discuss a worksheet question. When they call your name—I don’t know what it is—it makes me want to have more communication with them, better communication since they call you by your name.”

Easy does it: For very large classes, try to memorize a row of students per day. In the few minutes before class begins, review what you’ve already memorized and then add another row of students to that list.

Create visual associations. James Paterson, a psychology teacher in the UK and finalist in the World Memory Championships, suggests creating “a visual association between the student’s name and their face, no matter how weird or illogical it might seem. If your student is called Oliver for example, you could imagine him begging for more marks, like Oliver Twist – it’s incredible how easily the full name can be recalled with only the most tenuous of associations.”

Ask for help: Particularly during the early weeks of a course, ask for the students’ help in remembering their names. They usually appreciate the effort you are taking.

Names and assignments: Often, as hard as I try, it’s not until I start reading assignments (and passing them back) that I finally remember all the names. I have found it really important to hand papers back to students as a way of learning their names (although that’s not going to help you if you do everything electronically!).

Challenge yourself: After introductions the first day (particularly for seminars), see if you can remember everyone’s name in the class. Try doing it at the start of the next class as well.

In the end, I still have problems remembering student names when I see them in something other than a classroom context, but it then it never hurts to say, “Can you remind me of your name? Sometimes I can’t even remember my cats’ names!”


Sandra Cisneros, 2009. Creative Commons.

Sandra Cisneros, 2009. Creative Commons.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday morning when he is shaving, songs like sobbing. […]

At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister’s name Magdalena – which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least- – can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza. I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do. (Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street)

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