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Learning Names

When the professor engages the student in personal conversation, recognizes her by name, and seems to include her in the domain of attention, the subject matter seems more accessible. The nonverbal message goes out that the student is a part of the community of people who can do mathematics, statistics, chemistry, or whatever the subject is. (Willemsen, 1995).


While learning names is a terrific thing to do, many of us find it challenging.  Here are a few ideas that may get you started, but we recommend that you read Joan Middendorf's article for more suggestions (she has 27 different techniques).


  • Seating charts.  Ask students to sit in the same seats every day until you know their names, and make a seating chart.  

  • Take attendance. Taking attendance every day is important and is also a good way to learn names.  Ask students to take seats in the front of the classroom and to leave no empty seats.  This makes it easier to learn the names and also makes it clear exactly who is missing. 

  • Photos.  Most schools now publish versions of the class list with photos. At the beginning of the semester, print the photo list for your course, and keep it handy until you put names with faces.

  • Hand back papers by hand.  During the early weeks of the semester, make a point to return each quiz or paper by hand, so that you have the opportunity to connect a student's face with her or his work.

  • Name Tents.  Another good technique is to get very stiff paper and have the students write their names on name tents (with the paper folded the longway so it stands up on the desk).   Some faculty members also print some information on the name tent so that while you see the student's name, the student is reading your text, which might be some ground rules for the course.

  • Combine Name Tents and Attendance.  One professor asks the students to leave the name tents in the room after they leave.  This is a good idea because otherwise the students will lose them.  She then sets out the name tents in the front of the room (in alphabetic order) before each class.  As students come into the class, they pick up their name tents, and she can see immediately who is missing.  She also writes the days missed on the name tents, which helps remind the students of their own absences.

  • Name Games.  Many ideas involve having students take responsibility for teaching you their name, as in the example below.  


Detailed Discussion:

Name Game: This game is part of a marketing course taught by Jeremy Kees, so he develops it in terms of marketing terms.  The technique could be varied for other contexts.  If anyone is able to custom tailor it to Philosophy, please send us your version.


Name Positioning Assignment
The environment in most industries today is extremely competitive. For many product categories, the market is saturated with many different choices for consumers. Sometimes it is very hard for us as consumers to distinguish between different brands. This is why the concept of “product positioning” is so crucial to the long-term success of products. Positioning seeks to put a product in a certain position (or place) in the minds of prospective buyers. Marketers try to develop marketing communications that are unique and memorable so that consumers will recognize or even seek out the advertised product at the store.

(Professor to students): The product marketplace is not so much different from the classroom in this regard. Right now, the entire class is positioned in the same place in my mind. That is, outside of physical appearance, I am unable to differentiate between each of you or call you by name. 


For Wednesday, your goal will be to play the role of a marketer and market yourself to me. Your assignment is to position your name (first, last, both, nickname—whatever) in my mind in such a way that I remember it by the end of class tomorrow (and if you’re really good—the rest of the semester!). You will have 60 seconds to accomplish your goal. You do not need to turn in anything written, but you do need to use some sort of prop that will help me remember you. Remember, there are 50 other students competing for space in my mind, so be creative. Everyone who comes to class prepared and makes an honest effort will receive 5 bonus points on your first exam (less sincere efforts will receive fewer points).  [Note: One student, for example, came in with a piece of paper that said "Will" on it in large letters. He then ate the piece of paper and told everyone that his name was "Will-Yum."  Jeremy also has each person repeat the names of everyone who has gone before, to further reinforce the names.]

Jeremy Kees, Marketing Department, Villanova University, 5/22/08
Based on:"Your Teaching Reputation: A Little Bit of “Vegas” Goes a Long Way!", by Melissa Moore, Robert Moore 25 (2004), Journal for Advancement in Marketing Education /



Joan Middendorf in "Learning Student Names" lists twenty-seven different suggestions for learning students names.   16 April 2009   

Willemsen, E. W. "So what is the problem?: Difficulties at the gate." Eds. J. Gainen & E. W. Willemsen. Fostering student success in quantitative gateway courses (pp. 15-21). New directions for teaching and learning, 61. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995, as quoted in Middendorf 17 January 2008.   



Author: John Immerwahr
Update:  July 23, 2015, Erin C. Tarver

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