I’m going to learn their names

Okay. That might be an overly optimistic goal, but I’m going to give it a shot.

I’m bad with names. Depending on how much sleep I’ve gotten, I periodically call one of my children by the other’s name. Last semester I had 225 students between two classes. These were new classes for me, so I was mostly concerned with keeping the ship afloat. I knew there was no chance I would learn 225 names, so I made no concerted effort. (I picked up a few names, but only students I had frequent interaction with).

Frankly, it was a bit embarrassing. I could recognize many of my students, but I didn’t know their names. I recently attended UBC’s graduation. I recognized many students (and they recognized me), but few names came to mind.

I need to do better.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and then I saw a talk by Dr. Sara Brownell of Arizona State University (Brownell, 2019). If you’ve read many of my posts, you’ll know that I love to see data and evidence on teaching and learning. One of Brownell’s postdocs, Dr. Katelyn Cooper led a great study regarding instructors learning students’ names (Cooper et al. 2017).

The study

In a large-enrollment (185 student) active-learning format biology course, students made and displayed ‘name tents’ on brightly-colored card stock. If students forgot to bring theirs on a given day, they were encouraged to make a new one.

Students’ views of instructors learning names

In a survey, when asked if instructors knew their names in a previous large-enrollment biology course, 20% thought they likely did and 80% thought they didn’t. There was a significant gender effect, with female students 2.9 times as likely as male to state that the instructor did not now their name.

At the end of the semester students in the biology course considered in this study (the one using the name tents) were surveyed, 78% of the students perceived that the instructor new their name while only 22% did not, and the gender difference disappeared. Most interesting is that the instructors actually knew only 53% of the students’ names. So, because of the name tents, students perceived that the instructors knew more names than they actually did.

Why is it important to students that instructors know their names?

In the survey, 85% of students reported that it was important to them that the instructor knew their name. In open-ended questions, students cited nine reasons why:

  • Student attitudes about the course
    • Student feels more valued (30.6% of respondents)
    • Student feels more invested in the course (19.4%)
  • Student self-reported behavior
    • Student feels more comfortable getting help (19.4%)
    • Student feels more comfortable talking to the instructor (11.9%)
    • Student feels enhanced performance in the course or confidence in the material (11.9%)
  • Student perception of course or instructor
    • Student feels an instructor cares (26.9%)
    • Student feels it builds student-instructor relationships (23.1%)
    • Student feels it builds classroom community (14.2%)
    • Student feels that instructors are more likely to provide student with letter of recommendation or mentoring (6.7%)

Aside from student-instructor relationships, there was another interesting finding. Students noted that the name tents facilitated increased interaction with their classmates, as it allowed students to easily learn (or remember) each other’s names.

Okay, I’m sold. Now, how on earth am I going to learn these names?

Name tents?

I love the idea of name tents, but in the large lecture hall I teach in, the seats are auditorium-style with just a small, fold-out writing surface. No room for a name tent. Students do have lab once a week, with a seating arrangement that would allow name tents. Labs are primarily TA-led, but name tents would allow TAs to more easily learn student names (and this would also facilitate students learning their classmates’ names). I think it’s a great idea.

In my other course, students sit behind long, narrow tables on tiered risers. Name tents are a no-brainer here, and students will be able to easily see each other’s name tents.

Good old-fashioned retrieval practice and distributed practice

Given the inability to use name tents in my larger course, I think I will simply need to make flash cards from my photo roster and regularly take a few minutes to quiz myself. I will also start using students’ names in lecture, lab, and outside of class.

Not all names are alike

I teach a large proportion of international students, and I have a harder time remembering a name that I’ve never heard before (compared to a name I’m familiar with). I want all students to have an equal chance that I will learn their name, so I will consciously put more effort into learning names that are more challenging for me.


Wish me luck! I’ll report back after my next round of teaching.



Brownell, Sara E. (2019, February). Hidden inequities in active learning classrooms: How groups of students are differentially impacted by active learning. Presented at the Biology Seminar, University of British Columbia.

Cooper, K. M., Haney, B., Krieg, A., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving That an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(1), 13 pages. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-08-0265

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