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What's in a Name?

In a previous post on my blog for, I suggested that any teacher who wishes to be popular with their students will need to make a serious effort to learn and remember their names. Of course, I’m sure there are many teachers out there who are popular even though they don’t know all their students’ names, but I would argue that they would probably be even more effective if they did.

When I raise this topic with other teachers, the response I get most often is “I just can’t remember all their names!” Now I know I’m not going to win myself any friends here, but may I be so bold as to suggest that there are three words missing from this sentence? The words are “be,” “bothered,” and “to.” I taught a class of second year students at my new university in the first semester this year, and it took me around eight weeks to remember all their names. I do not have any special talent for doing this – I just work really hard at it. And more importantly, I let them know that I am trying.

One of the biggest problems with trying to learn students’ names is that you will inevitably learn some before others, and you will also inevitably make mistakes along the way. This is something that you can discuss with your students in the first class. At the bottom of this entry, I have added an explanation that I give to my students when I meet them for the first time.

So how do I go about learning all my students’ names? Actually, the principles for remembering names are the same as the principles for remembering vocabulary, so most teachers should already be familiar with them. Here is a list of the most important ones.

Principle 1: Take a structured approach.
As with remembering vocabulary, the key to remembering names is going about it in a structured way. This means planning the learning and recycling rather than just hoping that it will happen in an ad hoc way. Note that it is far more difficult to learn the names of students you only meet once a week than to learn the names of students you meet two or more times, so you will have to make an extra effort in those classes.

Principle 2:Test to learn.
When our students learn words from lists, we tell them to cover up either the word or the translation. The same applies to learning students’ names, although I wouldn’t recommend asking them to cover up their faces! Some teachers get students to make name cards to put on the desk. This is okay provided you try to test yourself without looking at them (and provided your aim is to remember the names rather than give yourself an excuse for not bothering!) The most effective way of using these cards is to put them face down on the desks so that you can’t see them. You can then turn them over to check whether you had remembered correctly or not. This has the added benefit of not letting on to the students whose names you have remembered and whose you have not.

Principle 3: More is more.
Although it is slightly counter-intuitive, research into memorization has found that it is actually easier to remember something when there is more of it to remember. This is because you increase the number of “hooks” and links to the information in your brain. Applying this to learning students’ names, you may well find it easier to remember, for example, someone’s name and birthday rather than just their name. Of course, you don’t have to learn everyone’s birthdays (although it’s quite cool if you can – I did it once just to test the theory), but you will definitely find it easier to remember someone’s name if you know something else about them as well.

Principle 4: Mix up the order.
Vocabulary researchers tell us that it is not good to learn words in a fixed order. The reason for this is that seeing one helps you to recall what comes next even though you might not be able to recall it in isolation. In the context of the classroom, this equates to seating position. I might remember that the girl next to Mami is called Yuriko, but if I learn it like that, I will have no idea what Yuriko is called when I bump into her in the corridor. To learn to put a name to each face, you will have to get the students to change places from time to time.

Principle 5: Recycling is the key.
It is all very well learning all the names of the students in your class one week, but the chances are you will have forgotten most of them by the next class. If you want to remember names properly, you will need to find a way of recycling them on a regular basis.

Putting the principles together

This is how I go about learning the names of a new group of students. It’s just my own system, but it might give you some ideas.

1. I give the students the explanation at the end of this entry (usually orally) and tell them that the class will be more enjoyable if everyone learns everyone else’s name. I invite them to join me in taking on this challenge.

2. I ask each student to tell me their name and one fact about themselves. This can be anything that they think might be easy for me to remember. If I think any name will be particularly easy or difficult for me to remember for some reason (see below), I tell the student that and explain the reason.

3. After each student says their name, I try to list all the ones that have gone before; a bit like the game “I went shopping and I bought….” I invite all the other students to try to recall the names before I do as they listen.

4. When we finish, I put the students in pairs or groups and get them to combine their knowledge to try to name everyone in the class. While they do that, I go around testing myself and checking the names I can’t remember. This is actually a good point to teach, “Sorry, what was your name again?”

5. After about five minutes, I tell the students I am going to try to recall all the names and the extra information. If I get stuck, I ask the rest of the class to help me out. This makes the person feel better as someone will always have remembered them even if I haven’t.

6. I ask if any student thinks they can name everyone. If anyone volunteers, I let them try, and everyone helps them if they get stuck.

7. I ask the students to change seats and then test myself again.

This may sound a bit complicated, but it actually only takes about 20 or 30 minutes depending on the size of the class. I have found that this investment pays great dividends later on, particularly when it comes to getting student feedback on the class. The main purpose of the exercise is to make it clear to the students that I am entirely serious about learning their names. I have found that this alone makes a huge difference to the atmosphere of the class.

The recycling element comes in the following weeks. At the beginning of each class, I take attendance by calling out names and insisting that each student raises their hand and shouts, “That’s me!” so that I can easily see who is answering. I can test myself before I call the name and figure out which names I have remembered and which I haven’t. I can then work on remembering the names I have forgotten as I interact with the students during the lesson.

As we have just started a new semester at my university, I have several new classes, so I will be going through this process again over the next few weeks. If anyone is interested, I will post updates on my progress. Please leave a comment if you have your own ideas or suggestions about the best way of learning students’ names.

Explanation to Students (can be done orally or in writing)

Hi everyone,

My name is David, and I’m going to be your teacher this semester. I hope you will call me “David,” but if that feels strange to you, you can call me “Mr Barker.” Please do not call me “Teacher,” “David Teacher,” “Mr David,” or “Barker.” All of these sound unnatural or rude in English.

As there is only one teacher in this class, I hope that most of you will be able to remember my name. There are a lot of you, but I am going to try to learn all of your names too. It won’t be easy, and it might take me a long time, but I will not give up until I have remembered everyone. (Please remember that I teach many other classes as well, so I have a lot of names to learn.)

Of course, I will remember some names more quickly than others. If you talk a lot in class or ask a lot of questions, I will probably remember your name quickly. I will also remember your name quite quickly if you are frequently late or if you are not a very good student!

Some names will be easy for me to remember for reasons that have nothing to do with you. For example, if anyone in this class is called “Ai,” I will remember her very quickly because that is what I call my car navigation system. If any boys are called “Makoto,” it will be easy for me to remember you because I have a friend with that name. It will also be easier for me to remember your name if I have taught a student with the same name in another class, although that might also make it more difficult if you are completely different type of person from the other student.

In some cases, it may take me a long time to remember your name. For example, if there are a number of people in the same class who have similar names (e.g., Ayaka, Ayana, Ayako), I will probably make mistakes. Even if there is no one in this class with a name like yours, I may still make mistakes if I have students in other classes with similar names. For boys, it will be difficult for me to remember longer names. For example, if I have a “Masayuki” in one class and a “Masataka” and a “Masahiro” in another, that is going to cause me problems!

The point is that the speed with which I remember your name has nothing to do with whether I like you or whether I am interested in you as a person. The most important thing is the connections I make in my brain when I hear your name. Those connections are usually based on my life experience before I met you.

In some cases, I may remember your name one week and then forget it the next. This is natural, particularly if I only see you once a week. If I make a mistake with your name, I hope you will just laugh and correct me. If anyone becomes upset or angry when I make a mistake, it will not be possible for me to keep trying to learn all of your names.

Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.


PS Here is a link to a very interesting article on common misconceptions about how human memory works.

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  1. Biwa on Thursday October 4th, 2012 at 11:58 PM

    Hi David,

    If you are interested in “kanji”, it might give you more information on remembering names instead of just seeing their names written in alphabet.
    (alphabets seem to be just a meaningless code for me) As most of the Japanese names are written in “kanji”, although some of the girls names are written in “hiragana” but that makes her more outstanding because the case is rare, they give us more clues to remember as each character has meanings. For example, if there were two “Ayaka”s in your class, one might be written “綾香” and the other “彩花”. Looking at the second characters, the first one is “fragrance” while the second one is “flower”. In this way, you can easily build up a kind of image in youself. The next thing you do is simply match those images to their faces! This is quite fun because the girl named “flower-Ayaka” might be a beautiful girl just like a lovely flower or vice versa. lol!
    I’d recommend you to have your attendance list written in both English and “kanji” for this reason.

  2. Biwa on Friday October 5th, 2012 at 08:30 AM

    Hi David,

    It’s me again.
    I used the word “recommend” last night, because that was the easiest word to remeber as in recommended books(推薦図書)”. Then I looked into the dictionary this morning and found that it has a kind of forcing taste in it.
    So, I guess I should have written like this.
    “This might be a little tip to help you remember complicating Japanese names.”

    Moreover, if I were teaching Japanese in a western country, I would have done with the same process. For me, western names like “Alex” reminds me of the city “Alexandria” and it has an image attatched to Cleopatra so that gives me a kind of gorgeous image. It’s just a personal image, though. For “David”, “Matthew”, “John” and “Mark”, I know their names come from the holy bible, so they’re quite easy to remeber. If a student’s last name was “Thomasville”, I know that “ville” is “town” in French so I put them together like “トーマス村”.

    Anyway, I really admire you because there must be so many students in university!!!

    Have a nice day!

  3. David Barker on Friday October 5th, 2012 at 11:43 AM

    Hi Biwa,

    Thanks for the suggestion. That’s a good tip for teachers who know kanji.

  4. YU on Friday October 5th, 2012 at 01:08 PM

    Hi David,

    As Biwa mentioned, I think asking the meaning or the origin of first names are very effective ways of remembering peoples names if you are familiar with kanjis.

    I don’t know how many students’ names you have to remember, but if it were me, I might ask my students to bring a photo of them at the beginning of the semester, write their names and characteristics on the back of the photos, and try to remember them just like when you memorize English vocabulary by using 単語カード. But I don’t think this is a cool way.

  5. Biwa on Friday October 5th, 2012 at 02:46 PM

    Hi YU,

    I was just going to ask the other members to read David’s article because I thought it might be interesting to share ideas about memorizing things or just practice writing things in English, and there you are! Wow!

    Well, if I didn’t have any interest in kanjis, the next thing I would do will be “sorting”.

    I would ask the students to make groups time to time following your orders. The orders can be whatever you think that would help you remeber their names. For example, birth months, star signs(星座), which train you mainly use to come to university(I’m not sure if you have lots of choices in Gifu, though), what other lectures your students attend, and so on. Then I’ll try if I could recall their names. I would also invite all the students to do this as well as David said because knowing each other’s details would give lots of advantage to them, too. (I agree to David’s older article “the Coefficient of Group Cohesion”)

    I like your 単語カードprocess, too. I don’t take photos of my students, but I try to remember their names by reading their profiles which I ask their mothers to fill in at the first lesson. I also remeber things by “writing” which means “actually using a part of your body”. This helped me a lot when I had to prepare for a vocabulary test which was of course a long, loooong time ago.
shemale lesbian.