How do you learn your students’ names? The question took me by surprise. Of course, we always talk about the importance of learning student names and promote strategies like downloading your class list with student photos from the Registrar’s office website, using name tents, or asking students to introduce themselves on WebCT even before the class starts. But I haven’t really thought about why I learn student names quickly. It seemed to come naturally: I usually learn names in a class of 25 in a couple of weeks, and 50 in a month. But then I realized that one of the other reasons is that I ask them a lot of personal questions.
Not “What are your deepest fears” types of questions, but rather “Why are you in this class, and what do you want to learn?” types of questions. The classes I have taught attracted an interdisciplinary group of undergraduates, so I used to hand out index cards on the first day of class and ask students to tell me about themselves. I asked them how they learned best. In my intercultural communication class also I asked them whether they have lived overseas and for how long; what languages they spoke and why they were interested in my class and how they wanted to use their knowledge after graduation (as a quick pre-assessment of their level of cross-cultural awareness).
I also use very personal assignments, whether I teach about teaching or culture. The assignments ask students apply the theories and principles we learn in class to their own experiences. For example, participants in the intercultural communication class conducted a mini- ethnography of their family and wrote about the culture-bound values, beliefs and behaviour patterns that they observed among their relatives. Several years later, I still remember some of the students, their stories – and their names. And an added benefit – plagiarism was never an issue.
You can also find another 27 strategies to learn student names, collected by Joan Middendorf, on the website of the National Teaching and Learning Forum in the U.S. at:
If you use any creative strategies not on the list, please add them as a comment here!