Build community by getting to know your students

January 12, 2016

Students feel more connected to faculty who know their names. Because names are abstract labels and the connection between a specific name and face is arbitrary, many people have difficulty learning names. The task is even more difficult when we meet many new people at one time, such as when we meet new students at the start of the term.

As a rote memory task, the only way to connect names and faces is to rehearse paired names and faces repeatedly. The following strategies can help you learn the names of your students.

Practice, practice, practice.

  • Request student photos when you download your class list from Classmate. Use the list to review names and faces, and practice retrieving student names for faces.
  • Call on students by name during class and pay attention to where they sit (usually the same place) and what they look like (not always a close match to their Classmate photo). Rotate through the entire class list and repeat until you can recall the name correctly when you see one of your students.

Discover distinctive characteristics for each student.

We remember distinctive, concrete information better than abstract or meaningless information. One way to make student names more distinctive is to create a connection between students and their names by learning something about each student. When we learn a unique detail about a student, we create a personal connection with students, which has an additional benefit: we create a welcoming community in our class. If you experience a memory lapse while trying to recall the student’s name, but you remember that the student likes to train for marathons or belongs to a local tango club, your students will feel connected and welcomed in your class.

  • If your class is small enough, conduct an icebreaker activity during the first week of class. Ask each student to state their name and describe something distinctive about themselves: something they do for fun, an unusual skill or hobby, or something they’ve done recently that they are excited or pleased about (recent travel, an accomplishment, a special event). Begin by modeling the behavior and state something unique about yourself. This strategy also helps build community because students can learn each other’s names and discover common interests.
  • If you are reluctant to request students to disclose personal information, an alternative strategy is to ask students to imagine that they were going to be stranded on a desert island and would be allowed to bring only one item with them. The name of the item must start with the same letter as their first name. Ask students to state their name and their special item. Although this icebreaker helps make names distinctive and easier to remember, it won’t help you or your students get to know one another better and is less useful for community-building.

Thanks to the contributions of several directors of teaching centers who offered these suggestions during a discussion on the Professional and Organizational Development Network email list: Ed Nuhfer, Michael Dabney, Barbara Stuart, Ursula Sorensen, and Carol Chomsky.

01/22/2016 gb