Naming students is even more crucial in online classes

Naming learners fosters a community in which the teacher is clearly all in and focused on individual members in the unique, shared space of the online classroom

Stone Meredith's avatar
26 Apr 2022
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Naming students in online classes helps them connect and feel that their tutor is present

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Colorado State University Global

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Maybe I’m showing my age, but I remember Beyonce before she went solo, when she was a part of the Texan all-girl group Destiny’s Child. And I remember being struck by the idea of their chart topper single, Say My Name. This 1999 song won two Grammys, pushing the idea that if you are really focused on a woman, you’ll say her name no matter where you are, what’s going on or who is in the room. Who doesn’t say her name? Who prefers to call her “baby”? Someone who’s not really all there in the relationship, right?

As online teachers, the message of this song from the previous century provides a good reminder. When you’re in the classroom, always say the student’s name when you engage with them. In most online college classrooms – the forum in which I have taught for more than 20 years – there are two main spaces for communication with students: discussion forums, which are public spaces; and the assignment areas, which are private, shared only between me and the individual student submitting the task.

In both spaces, my first move is to always begin with the student’s name. If I’m writing just to that student, a comma comes after, but if I am responding to the idea of the student and working to loop the rest of the class in, I might start with the student’s name and a group salutation. For example: “Hey, Suzie and team,” or “Hey, Suzie and the folks in Group 2.” While it might seem like a small step, the impact on the students on the other end can be large. 

Students regularly say that they really appreciated feeling like I knew them on an individual level. Of course, we all work to know our students as individuals, often even being able to spot their own writing quirks or tastes after just a few weeks of working with them. But how do the students know that? Opening conversations with their names in both public and private sends the clear message that you know who they are and that you’re speaking specifically to them.

Often, students write in online discussion forums saying their name in the official roster is not the one they prefer. They might offer an alternative nickname they prefer. For cases like that, teachers need to set a choice and a standard right up front. Will you allow and encourage nicknames different to the ones on the roster?

That’s a choice I tend to make depending upon the class size, the subject matter and the experience of the writers. With graduate students, I typically prefer the less formal move to allow or even encourage learning each other’s preferred names in the classroom. But in classes with undergrads who might be newer to online learning and academia, I tend to go with a note at the beginning of class that says we’ll all call each other by the names provided in our class roster. Using those names, students have told me over the years, puts them in that more formal class space where they develop a persona of “student” working with peers and facilitator – a space that can be so helpful when working to remove the emotive from personal tasks such as writing and sharing thoughts in a public discussion space.

No matter the choice made, nicknames or class roster, the motive is there: saying the student’s name for each interaction sends the clear message that you (a) know who you are addressing and (b) have some context and understanding of who that writer is. In a face-to-face class, students expect to be addressed by name. Following that same tradition in an online environment fosters a sense of community through naming the individual in all speech acts, fostering a discourse community in which the teacher is clearly all in and focused on the individual members in the unique, shared space of the online classroom.

The idea translates to business as well, shared regularly in professional business coaching methods, including the 2014 Washington Post article “Career Coach: The power of using a name” that leads by citing American business mantra-maker Dale Carnegie in support of the concept, along with offering eight tips from an organisational psychologist to help readers remember names.

We work to teach our employees to learn names because, as the article notes, “a person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person.” Also, research backs up the idea, including a 2006 study that found it changes brain activity in a positive way.

In short, we’re wired to recognise our own names in a crowded social setting, on the first day of a face-to-face classroom filled with people and certainly in a shared online space in which the teacher is working without facial cues or body gestures to make a personal connection with students.

In an online environment, we’re already working without the benefits of visual tools for use in connecting with our students. For the most part, typing is our only tool. Typing the name of each student at each point of contact serves to connect the student to the teacher’s voice. On the other side of the coin, typing that name also reminds the teacher of that student’s own personal identity as imagined and symbolised by the individual’s name.

Stone Meredith teaches college-level composition, literature and philosophy courses at Colorado State University Global, US. She is the founder of the Clever Chicas Project, an open-source project promoting cultural literacy through a series of educational initiatives.

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