Learn Your Students' Names

August 26, 2014

As summer ends, professors across the country are gearing up for a new academic year: refurbishing old syllabuses, reviewing some alternate readings, perhaps adding service learning or a new assessment tool to their courses. I’m designing one entirely new seminar, plus working with colleagues to rethink our team-taught intro class. It all requires time and energy, and has to be done. But the best thing I do to improve students’ work in my courses is far simpler.

I will learn and use their names. It’s easy, and it works.

Using those names in class is uniquely powerful. As Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a man’s [sic] name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.” (Of course we know today that this is true for a woman too.) A student who hears his name suddenly becomes completely alert; one who hears herself quoted (“As Hannah said, Machiavelli was just trying to be realistic”) will be replaying those words in her head, over and over, for at least a week.

I used to learn names by taking the class list and scribbling descriptions, and for a time I would videotape students actually speaking their names, then review the tape every morning over my Cheerios. My current technique, at least for larger classes, is flashcards. The first day I line up the students alphabetically (they’ll already be smiling at each other, with a nice excuse for meeting), then take their pictures one by one, bantering like a novice fashion photographer  (“Excellent!”  “You look sharp,”  “Nice t-shirt,”  “Great smile,” and so on).

After being photographed, the students write their preferred first and last name, with phonetic guides if needed, on a pressure-sensitive file label, a sheet of which lies on the desk. At the end of the day, I deliver the pictures to a one-hour development kiosk, and by morning have a full deck of photos, each with a name stuck on the back.  Before each class meeting I spend a few minutes going through the deck again, memorizing the names. Whenever I pick up a new tidbit about a student I’ll write it on the back: “Plays lacrosse,” “Civil War buff,” “always wears these glasses,” “from Vermont.” The names take maybe four class meetings to learn; last fall, when I had 82 students in two courses, it required about two weeks in total. 

And the technique, or at least its principle of individualized recognition, is scalable. With smaller classes (say, 29 students or less), you can make up nameplates – just a folded paper card will work, with names on the front. Within a few days not only will you know their names, the students will also know everyone else’s – a nice side benefit, and very helpful in seminars. With larger classes, learning the names certainly takes more work -- although a dean of students I once knew was famous for knowing and using the names of all 700 or so students at his college, from the day they matriculated. It’s impressive if you do learn so many; even if you can’t, your teaching assistants can learn students’ names in their sections. Or even without knowing any names, a lecturer who pays attention can spot a puzzled student and say, “Do you have a question?”  It is possible to connect well, with even a large class.

Why is knowing someone’s name or acknowledging them individually so important? Any person’s name is emotionally loaded to that person, and has the power to pull him or her into whatever is going on. By putting that person at the center of attention, naming takes only a moment from you – but for them, it is deeply affecting, and lasts.

But more than that, calling a student by name opens the door to a more personal connection, inviting the student to see the professor (and professors generally) as a human being, maybe a role model or even a kind of friend. In the 10-year longitudinal study that Chris Takacs and I did of a cohort of students moving through college (for our book How College Works), students who found congenial advisers, or even full-fledged mentors, were more likely to stay in school, to learn more, and to enjoy the entire experience.

Several years ago I saw Jon Stewart, the television show host, deliver a marvelous 74-minute stand-up comedy routine for an audience of 5,000 people, apparently with no notes whatsoever. Stewart worked the crowd, picking up on what we liked, playing off of a few local references, sensing groups in the audience who responded differently, asking questions, riding the laughs but knowing when to quiet our responses.  He connected with us; he made us part of the show. It was exciting and memorable.

I’m no Jon Stewart, nor a match for that dean of students. But once about 20 years ago I had a social psychology class of 144 students. Armed with the freshman facebook (small “f,” remember that?) photos and some scribbled hints, I worked on their names for a couple of weeks. Then one day I came into class and started pointing at each student, slowly speaking his or her name. Some were easy, others took a moment; still others I skipped, to return to when I remembered or had eliminated possibilities. As I progressed around the room, students became increasingly focused on what I was doing, smiling and laughing at who was remembered, and who took a minute.  Eventually I got to the last few, the people at the outer edge of my mnemonic ability. When I declared that last name – correctly -- the entire class hesitated, and then erupted in a long, sustained round of applause. Some cheers were thrown in.

And the course went well.



Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, of How College Works (Harvard University Press).


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