Remind Me What Your Name Is: Why College Instructors Should Learn Student Names

Nontraditional Learning
Online LearningStudent Success

Article Summary

  • Update your roster with students' characteristics you can remember, like, "Josh: black-framed glasses" |Call roll at the start of each class|Ask for name preference/pronunciation|Ask students for headshots, and attach them to assignments as a reminder|Hand back assignments personally
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Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer of professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.


My campus is on the quarter system, and after teaching 10 classes a year for 20 years with an average of 22 students per class, I’m afraid to do the math.

The reality is, the longer I teach, the harder it is to remember student names. I only meet with my learners twice a week for 75 minutes, and it seems that by the time I learn a handful of names, the quarter is over, and I’m back to square one.

But learn them I must.

Research shows that when an instructor knows names, students feel more invested in a class and are more likely to seek help when they need it.

Likewise, learning names makes students feel the teacher is invested in their learning and cares about their success; it’s also considered an inclusivity best practice for the classroom.

My failure to recognize my students had become embarrassing, so last quarter I took action. I began by going over the roster before the term began to familiarize myself with my new students’ names and practice pronunciation. The first day I gave students a 5X8 index card, asked them to write their names on the front and back (so their classmates could also see) and tent the card on their desks.

It worked. Well, sort of. I found that half the students immediately lost the cards. Some of their printing was too small for me to see, and I had to remind them each session to put the cards out. I did, however, learn more names than I would have without them. This coming quarter, I plan to write their names myself and collect the cards to hand back as I take roll. I’m working on it.

But that’s just one method; below are some other approaches. The important thing to remember is to not give up. Learn a few names a day and try different methods until you find one that works for you.

More Strategies for Learning Students’ Names

  • Annotate rosters: Write down characteristics to help you remember who’s who; “Lindsay—red hair. Josh—black-framed glasses.” 
  • Call roll each session: This is another way to help associate names with faces.
  • Ask for name preference/pronunciation: As you call roll, ask students which name they prefer to go by and how to pronounce it. Write the name phonetically.
  • Use photos: Ask students for headshots and use them to make a seating or other chart that pairs names with faces.
  • Add photos to assignments: You can also have students include a small photo of themselves with their assignments.
  • Return assignments personally: As you do, make brief comments, such as “Nice job, Maria,” or “Come to my office hours so I can help, LeShawn.”
  • Use names you DO know: Even if you don’t know every student’s name, when you call any student by name, the class gets the feeling that they’re not anonymous.
  • Keep trying: Throughout the term, repeatedly ask students’ names (“Remind me of your name again”). When students come to your office, start by confirming their names.

Our classes are large, and our memories are small, but taking these steps can help you learn who’s who in your classes. Good luck!

Want to see additional tips from Janet on how to start the semester strong?