Putting names to student faces

As class sizes increase, remembering students’ names is a growing challenge – and word association can help

June 12, 2008

Many lecturers struggle to remember all their students’ names. The trick is to make it a priority, says Mary McKinney, a clinical psychologist, dissertation coach and director of Successful Academic Consulting.

She advises reading through the list of new students before the first class, paying attention to names that may be difficult to pronounce. Call the register on the first day. Take your time, pay close attention and repeat each student's name. Ask about pronunciation if you are unsure, because shy students may not necessarily correct you.

Phil Race, visiting professor in assessment, learning and teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University, gives out sticky labels to new groups of students and asks them to write their names on the labels and wear them. This way, he finds out what they want to be called rather than simply following the names he has on a list.

He then fires a question at the class, picks a name he can see and asks that student to pick someone else by name for the next question.

Alternatively, ask students to stand up and put themselves in alphabetical order by first name. Once the students have completed the task, point to someone and ask everyone else for his or her name. This helps you - and the rest of the class - to remember it.

McKinney says you should use students' photos, if you have access to them, as preparation in the first weeks. It is also useful to create a map of the seating arrangement and write down who sits where.

Alternatively, you can use name tags or cards, especially in large classes. Students pick up the cards as they file in and place them at the front of their desks. Tags that aren't retrieved indicate absent students.

Another useful trick is to think of another person you know who has the same first name as a particular student and make a visual connection. For example, McKinney says she imagines a short-haired student called Susan with the wild grey hair of her cousin Susan. "The incongruous image cements the student's name in my cortex."

Peter Morris, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University who has published a number of papers on name recognition, says previous knowledge helps understanding, and understanding improves memory, so relating new information to familiar information helps.

He advises thinking about the meaning of names. If someone is introduced to you as Morris, try picturing them in a Morris dancer outfit. Seeing a meaningful structure in the information you receive is also helpful, as is thinking about it in lots of different ways: making tunes, rhymes or puns with it or generating distinctive sounds or images from it.

The secret is to keep testing yourself at increasing intervals once you've learnt a person's name, either by repeating the name to yourself or by using it in conversation.

"Be a bit more like Americans and feel comfortable about using the person's name when you are talking to them," he advises.

Chris Moulin, lecturer in cognitive neuropsychology at Leeds University, says even if you learn everyone's names in the first tutorial, you are likely to forget them if you don't practise recalling them. And, while the embarrassment of getting a name wrong can help you to learn it, he says there is evidence that making errors is unhelpful. "Try to constrain your errors so that you never have to overwrite an incorrect memory," he advises.

Asking students to produce something individual and driven by their personal interests related to the discipline, with a presentation, for example, also helps to make students into memorable individuals, Moulin says.

McKinney says it is possible to remember everyone's names even in a very large class if you concentrate on memorising a few at a time, although Moulin says the best way to remember everyone's names is to work in a department with a sensible staff-to-student ratio.


Mary McKinney's website

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