Matthew Haynes
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Max. Classroom Capacity: Say My Name, Say My Name…

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

In the spirit of self-improvement that my friend Marcus Dickson imprinted into the DNA of this column when he created it, I’d like to admit to a personal failing: I’m terrible at remembering peoples’ names. I’m the kind of awful person you meet at a party who forgets your name 3 seconds after you said it. I’ll remember everything else about our conversation but not your name. I took several cognitive psych classes as a student, so I know about different encoding strategies—I never remember to use them! It’s not something that I’m proud of, and it’s also a professional handicap, especially at the beginning of a new semester when you meet dozens of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students in the classroom. So over the years I’ve developed some strategies for remembering students’ names that I’d like to share with you in the hopes that you find some of them useful. 

First of All, Let Me Say…

I remember being a first year undergraduate student studying psychology at McGill University in Montreal. My smallest class was about 120 students. My largest class was over 800. It was not uncommon for students to complete the entire major without a single professor ever learning their name. Some students never had a one-on-one conversation with any of their psychology professors. To us, our professors were necessarily aloof and mysterious, giants too occupied with pushing the boundaries of psychological science to spend time chatting with we denizens of the lower realms for the simple reason that you can’t have one-on-one conversations with 800 students in one semester and get anything else done! It was easy to feel lost as a student, and that first year would have been especially brutal without the encouragement of the generally wonderful psychology PhD students who served as TAs for many large classes. As much as I enjoyed my time at McGill and appreciate how well prepared I was for graduate school, I remember thinking that if I ever become a teacher, I will always treat my students like human beings who are worth getting to know as individuals! Perhaps my experiences as an undergraduate student were different from your own, but I think that we can all remember the desire, as a student, to be recognized in this way by our professors.

Why the Sudden Change…

As I started teaching classes in graduate school, and then into my career as a professor, I took learning students names very seriously, and I still do now. Earlier in my career I would teach one or two jumbo sized classes with over 100 students, so some semesters I had over 200 new names to learn. Because I am so terrible at this, I had to develop new strategies for learning names.

If Somebody's There Then Tell Me Who

The first thing I would do before the first day of class is announce my intention to learn everyone’s name. I would ask for headshot photos from each student to help me achieve this goal. Having a photo handy when you look through your roster to start putting faces to names is very useful. Some students don’t want to share pictures or personal info. That’s fine. I tell them if they’re not comfortable they can send me a copy of their ID card. I don’t push them. This by itself is personal info that can help in remembering a person’s name. By the way, a byproduct benefit of having headshot photos of students is that 5 years later when a student e-mails you for a letter of recommendation, you can search for their photo and (hopefully) recall rich personal information about them that you can include in the letter.

Second, in large classes I assign students to the same seats for the entire semester, usually in alphabetical order. For the first few classes I call roll. This is pretty efficient as you know where to look for each name. This also makes it much easier to associate names with faces and places. In smaller classes, I have found this to be unnecessary as the students I’ve taught tend to spontaneously sit in the same seats every class anyway.

When You Cannot Say My Name

Third, I have developed a pretty elaborate excel spreadsheet for my large classes. I have a sheet with a diagram of the classroom in which each cell corresponds to a seat. Each cell has an embedded comment with the student’s name, so when I hover my mouse over a cell the corresponding name appears. Each cell also has a link to the student’s headshot photo such that when clicked, the student’s picture will open. This lets me look at a seat, guess the student’s name, check if I’m correct by calling up the comment, and look at their picture by clicking the cell. I use this speadsheet primarily to learn students’ names, but it’s also a useful reference in class when someone raises their hand—you can quickly check the seat to find their name, and call on them by name—this sends a strong signal to students that they are not anonymous, which is especially impactful in the early part of the semester.

You Actin' Kinda Shady…

The Excel spreadsheet also allowed me to, for example, call on students by name when they are doing something that I preferred them not to, like checking their cell phone, reading the newspaper, or sleeping on their desk—setting expectations early on is important! In a 2016 Max. Classroom Capacity column I wrote about an embarrassing episode in my first semester teaching as a full time faculty member in which I was unable to call on a student by name that cemented for me the importance of learning students’ names. This Excel spreadsheet sounds like a lot of work but once you have it set up, it’s fairly easy to edit each subsequent semester once you learn a few excel efficiency tricks. I don’t use it for smaller classes, but it’s useful with large ones. I’m happy to send you a blank one if you’re interested.

Fourth, I ask students to complete cue cards with their listed names, preferred names (e.g., Gigi is short for Gasig—who knew?), major, and one interesting or unique fact about them. Sometimes those unique facts are enough to remember a student’s name. It’s also nice to wander around in the few minutes before the start of class to have a quick conversation with students I have never spoken to about their unique facts—it’s a great icebreaker!

If No One Is Around You…

Practice! Just a few minutes. I usually have my folder of student headshot photos open in the early part of the semester so I can quickly check students’ names when they raise their hands in class. Just try to do this surreptitiously. Students might be weirded out if they see you looking at their photos when they are right in front of you.

Say My Name, Say My Name

If you still aren’t convinced that learning students names is worth the trouble, then you probably wouldn’t be reading this column in the first place, so I’m probably preaching to the choir, but let me try to make the broader case for learning students’ names.

First, when you use students’ names in and out of class you send the message that you care enough about them to learn their names. It also introduces a level of accountability—I see you, and you cannot disappear in my class! I think it’s easier for students to be motivated when they believe that their instructor cares about them. One might argue that being so chummy with one’s students as to know all of their names might lower professional barriers and invite them to spend all kinds of time hanging out in your office, e-mailing you questions constantly, and so forth. In my experience, if anything, knowing students names and having students feel like you care about them makes students more likely to reciprocate by being respectful of professional barriers, and of your time. When students feel comfortable enough to ask questions during class, this often means that many of the questions that I might otherwise get in individual e-mails or office visits, I am able to answer at the beginning of class in front of all of the students, which saves a lot of time and confusion.

Second, it’s much easier to cold call students (if you’re into that kind of thing) when you know their names, and particularly useful to get individual students’ attention. It makes taking attendance easy. On rare occasions where one suspects a student of cheating during an exam, knowing who it is who can be extremely helpful. In some large classes, students who are not enrolled may try to take an exam for someone else or merely to gain a copy of the exam to sell to other students.

Third, I think that setting the stage early in the semester by making clear your intentions to get to know all of your students as individuals, and using their names in class, creates a climate that is conducive to learning. Amy Edmondson’s (1999) work on psychological safety climate comes to mind. Of course our goal is to educate, so this is good. But also pragmatically, when you need to ask students to go above and beyond the norm with some new teaching practice, or when you’ve written a difficult or unfair exam that strains their trust in you, it’s nice to have accrued, in the words of my friend and colleague Ed Hollander (1958), idiosyncrasy credits that you can cash in on to keep the class on track.

Fourth, a selfish reason: Over the years I’ve run into students on or off campus, the next semester, or years later, and been able to remember their names. The reaction is always the same—it doesn’t seem to matter how much time has passed: They are delighted, and so am I. Reconnecting with students is one of the joys of being a teacher.

Any Other Day…

Readers, as always, your comments, questions, and feedback are most welcome! Loren.Naidoo@CSUN.edu.


Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 350-383.

Hollander, E. P. (1958). Conformity, status, and idiosyncrasy credit. Psychological Review, 65, 117-127.

Knowles, B., Luckett, L., Roberson, L., Rowland, K., Daniels, L., Jerkins, F., & Jerkins, R. (1999). Say my name [Recorded by Destiny’s Child]. On The Writing’s on the Wall [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia Records.


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