We love all the new faces in class, but oh, all those names! Here, educators with 150+ students per semester share their eminently doable name-recall tricks.
It is not just you. Research published by Abrams and Davis in Current Directions in Psychological Science shows that people’s names may be the most difficult of all words to learn and recall. In fact, this topic has been the subject of study for many decades. You may be familiar with a 1981 experiment called the “Moses Illusion,” in which participants were asked, “In the biblical story, how many of each type of animal did Moses bring onto the ark?” Most respondents did not blink at the fact that the name of the biblical figure Noah was swapped out, making the question invalid. In other “illusions” mentioned in this article, researchers found that names with similar parts or sounds (Neil Armstrong and Louis Armstrong), as well as people with similar appearances and context (actresses Keira Knightly and Natalie Portman) can muddle matters even more. So, if you struggle to remember names of the tens or hundreds of students you meet, it is only natural.
Still, we all know some professors who seem to rattle off students’ monikers with ease. To discover their secrets, we talked to three such educators—each of whom welcomes nearly 200 students per semester. Here are a few simple strategies, tested by professors, that will help you to make even large classes feel more personal. (Interestingly, but not surprisingly, they echo some of the study strategies you may already tout to your as-yet-nameless students when you hand out the syllabus.)
Get the picture (roster)
Visuals are important for processing proper names, according to the Abrams and Davis research. This is where class rosters with photos prove to be incredibly helpful. Robert Willett, PhD, an assistant professor at California Baptist University in Riverside, California, says that, at the start of each semester, he reads through the roster, name by name (first and last, over and over again) while looking at each student’s picture as he reads.
When Willett has the names down fairly well, he works through the list in reverse order, covering each name with a ruler and looking only at the picture as he tries to recall the name. He quizzes himself daily for a week before class starts.
Then, after the semester begins, Willett says, “To reinforce their names in my mind, I will try and remember their name and say it to myself as they walk in the [classroom] door.” But nobody is perfect: He admits he brings his picture roster to class to verify names when he is unsure.
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Experiment with fonts
When people share a similar context (Moses and Noah—or everyone in your 8 a.m. class), and a similar sound and spelling (e.g., Autumn Johnson and Autumn Johnston), name recall becomes even more challenging. Using a visually distinguishing factor makes it easier to differentiate between two people with similar names.
Writing the names in different fonts or putting one of them in all capital letters may help. In the Abrams and Davis research on the Moses Illusion, giving the name something like this to make it “pop” was key to helping the reader avoid getting taken in by the trick question.
Contextualize it with interesting details
Audra Sherwood, PhD, is a professor of economics at Rasmussen College in Bloomington, Minnesota, who also teaches distance learners from Florida, Arizona, and New Hampshire. When trying to make an online course feel personal, says Sherwood, remembering names becomes even more important. Sherwood has noticed that some students’ names were easier to remember if she was having a highly positive or highly negative experience with them—for instance, if someone regularly skipped class or, the opposite, often asked thoughtful questions.
She has taken that observation and broadened it. “I like to find out what we all have in common,” she says of her students. “Learning about those personal details really helps me to recall a name.”
“Your ability to remember people is best when you personalize yourself and show that you are human,” adds Sherwood. “I share information about myself—for example, that I am a disabled veteran—and I think that makes it easier for online students, some of whom have a military background, to relate to me.” In turn, they often share a bit of their background with her, making it easier for her to remember their names and, even better, get to know them as people.
Combine audio and visual strategies
For Associate Professor Mallory Lucier-Greer, PhD, the key to name recall is a combination of audio and visuals. In her Auburn University courses on human development and family studies, Lucier-Greer begins the semester by asking each student to write his or her name on a paper placard (or “tent”) and place it on their desk for at least two weeks. She also asks each student to say their first name out loud, followed by one interesting thing about themselves.
In one class, a student said, “My name is Mary and I have five cats whose names all start with M.” In another class that included four people named Katherine or Kate, Lucier-Greer asked them to all sit together and identify themselves individually. (Even so, she says, they grew to be known as “the Kates.”)
“By creating these introductions, I learned their names, and I also helped classmates learn more about each other. [This exercise] helps to create community quickly,” says Lucier-Greer.
Make the commitment
As educators know, successful studying begins with the conscious decision to put forth the requisite effort. By changing the internal dialogue from “I’m bad at remembering names” to “I’m bad at remembering names, so I am doing something about it,” an educator models the very behaviors expected from students. This strategy taps into the growth mindset approach that educators already know and love. As Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck stated in an article about the growth mindset in education, “students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset).”
Of course, a mindset shift need not be limited to those who sit behind the desks; it can benefit the adults at the front of the room, too. In short, by practicing what they teach, educators may find greater success at name recognition and recall.
Sound like a lot of work? It is, says Willett, but it is well worth the time and effort. Remembering students’ names—particularly if they are feeling like “faces in a crowd”—is one of the simplest ways you can show them just how much you value them and their presence in your classroom.