Ways to remember students’ names.

ways to remember students' names

Can a Cappuccino help your memory? No.

So, here’s what can happen when you don’t remember students’ names. I recently stopped by a local Starbucks and was greeted with a friendlier than normal ‘Starbucks welcome’ as I walked up to the counter. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Starbucks where the staff didn’t have a big smile when you approached the counter, so I just thought the girl must be the ‘Employee of the Month’ or something. But, as I stood there looking at her, there was a familiarity to her face, but I just couldn’t place it.

She looked at me and said, “You don’t remember me do you?” Uh oh. I said, “Uhh, yea…umm…” in which she quickly replied, “What’s my name then?” Busted. “I was in your class!” she said. Of course, that’s why she looked so familiar, and the neighbourly Starbucks greeting now made total sense. “So, what’s my name?” she repeated. Damn, I thought that part was over. Trying to jolt my hippocampus into gear, I asked the obvious, “Uhh, what does it start with?” “K”, she answered. “Umm, and your last name starts with…?” was my brilliant rebuttal. “H”. Silence. “Karleigh…Karleigh H….!” she proclaimed. Yes, of course it was, and then it all came together and I remembered her being in my class. “So, what year did you graduate?” I asked her, in hopes of salvaging any hopes of a conversation. “Phil, I was just in your class…LAST semester!” No amount of ‘Cappuccinos’ at this point could have activated my neurons to attempt to recover from this memory ‘fail’. You would think that having 100 billion neurons in your brain would help you remember a name, but I guess not?

As I walked away, I knew that she was probably thinking, “Holy sh*t, that guy needs another sabbatical!” I actually felt kind of bad about not remembering her name, mostly because I didn’t want her to think that I didn’t care whom she was, or to think that she was just a ‘student number’, which isn’t the case with any of my students, past or present. So, it got me thinking about strategies for remembering students’ names, and not just during the semester (which, I actually do pretty well), but also for remembering their names long after the semester is over.

Here are several tips that have worked for me in the past, plus a couple of ideas that I’ll be trying out next semester. Try them out for yourself; they may help you avoid a ‘Cappuccino Hell’ scenario in the future. By the way, the more ‘bizarre’ the visuals in the examples below, the better it is for remembering.

  • If the sound of a person’s name rhymes with a word, form a vivid image based on that word (e.g. ‘Tony’ = Boney = Imagine Tony as a skeleton).
  • If applicable, connect the student’s last name with the corresponding profession (this is called the “Baker/baker paradox”). If their last name is ‘Stone’ or ‘Mason’, then just picture them working as a Mason, or if their last name is ‘Buffet’, visualize them working at a restaurant buffet.
  • Have students include a picture of themselves every time they hand in an individual assignment or have them include a team picture for group projects (naming each student in the picture).
  • Use name cards to be placed in front of their desks. However, have them create the card (give size specs etc.) and have them include a picture of themselves, as well as briefly writing something unique about themselves (e.g. hobby). You can then use this information to create a vivid image to associate with their name. These cards can be collected at the end of each class so that you can scan them repeatedly throughout the semester.
  • Explain to the students that you want to learn their names, however, tell them that repetition is necessary for you to do so. Ask them to state their name whenever they talk to you, especially during the beginning of a semester (e.g. “Hi Sir, John Doe. Is the assignment due at the beginning or at the end of class?”).
  • Encourage them to drop by during your office hours and make sure they tell you their name every time you meet. If you teach in large lecture halls with hundreds of students, you can tell them that this may be one of the few ways for you to remember their name.
  • Visualize their name flashing brightly on their foreheads.
  • Use opportunities that will allow you to repeat their name several times throughout a semester (e.g. handing back assignments, talking before/after class, talking in the hall, during office hours etc.).
  • Ask them what their favourite song is, listen to it (find it on iTunes), and make a name association through a visual image (e.g. Pink Floyd, ‘Money’ – imagine them sitting in a pile of money), or try creating an auditory association (insert their name into the song and hum it).
  • Focus your attention on the student’s face when you ask them their name, looking for a unique feature that can help you create a visual image. Think of it like taking a picture. First, focus, second, take a picture (the visual image you create), and then third, look at the picture (the visual you created in your mind) several times afterwards.
  • Limit the number of names that you’re trying to learn. Take a cue from George Miller’s, ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two’, and limit the number of student names from five to nine at any one time.
  • Ask the student to write their name down, especially if their name is hard to pronounce.
If all else fails, I guess you can always resort to the ‘Name Game’ song. In fact, I think I’ll practice it using Karleigh’s name before I go back to that Starbucks:
Karleigh, Karleigh, bo-barleigh, Bonana-fanna fo-farleigh, Fee-fy-mo-marleigh, Karleigh!

You can try this out for yourself. Let’s say, for example, that your student’s name is ‘Tucker’, then you’d simply sing, Tucker, Tucker, bo-bucker, Bonana-fanna-fo-fu…

Ok, bad example, but you get the idea.

What are your strategies for remembering students’ names?


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