What belongs to you and is cherished by you, but is used almost exclusively by everybody else?
Riddle lovers may quickly recognise the answer to this: your name. It’s a good brain teaser, but it also illustrates the importance of names and their use in western culture!
An annual challenge for all teachers includes learning the names of new students. This can be especially true in a secondary school—one teacher may teach multiple classes, potentially with hundreds of names to learn in total! Knowing and (crucially) being able to recall student names does not happen instantly; just like classroom learning, it is the result of time and effortful practice.
Knowing and using student names is an important steppingstone towards building positive working relationships and creating a supportive environment for learning. It is important that teachers learn the names of every student in their classroom and use their name throughout lessons—both during verbal and written communication.
It can take time to learn students’ names and it can be embarrassing for the teacher and student when names are forgotten. Some names may be easier to recall than others—maybe because they have a unique or distinctive name, or they share a name with someone important to you. Other names may be harder, for example if they are unfamiliar or if they are very similar to others.
Below are six strategies to help with the challenge of confidently (and correctly!) recalling the names of students.
- Explain the limitations of working memory to students.
Everyone is prone to forgetting, even teachers, and students should be explicitly told this. If a teacher does forget the name of a student, it may hurt their feelings or suggest the teacher doesn’t care. However, the reality is that you may have lots of names to learn; however, working memory is limited in terms of duration and capacity. It simply will take time and practice for names to become embedded in long-term memory. Forgetting names is normal, not personal—it is important that students understand this.
- Check and correct pronunciation.
Knowing names is crucial, but it is also essential that names are pronounced clearly and correctly. This can be a challenge, especially with a name that may be unfamiliar to you or may sound unexpectedly different from the spelling. Teachers should be open with their classes that they are willing to be corrected should they mispronounce a name. It is better to address this sooner rather than later; if unsure, ask students to state their name first to model and demonstrate the correct pronunciation. In addition to pronouncing names correctly, it is worth asking students if they have a preferred name. For example, a child may be recorded on the register as Charlotte but is known by friends and family members as Charlie; William may prefer and respond to his name shortened to Will. It’s important not to make assumptions about student names. Instead, ask and find out to be sure.
- Use the register as an opportunity to learn names.
Taking the register is an important safeguarding protocol in a lesson to record and monitor student attendance. The register can also be viewed as an additional opportunity to learn students’ names and practice using and pronouncing names correctly. Students can be asked to raise their hand when their name is called in the register; this helps the teacher connect individuals with their name.
- Refer to seating plans.
There are many benefits to creating and using seating plans in the classroom, and one of those benefits can be to assist the teacher with student names. You can refer to the seating plan and find the name of a particular student. The seating plan can be used during classroom questioning such as “cold calling” or to provide feedback. In terms of learning names, the seating plan can act as a cheat sheet to support the teacher until they have mastered and memorised the names of their students. If there are student photos available for teachers to refer to, they can be included on the seating plan to ensure the students are being addressed correctly. Of course, ensure your seating plan uses the appropriate names for students—and consider including a pronunciation reminder!
- Sticky labels
Another strategy you can use in the classroom, especially during the first few days or lessons, can be the use of sticky labels with students’ names clearly written. These can either be printed in advance and given to students or students can write their own names in bold text. The students then wear the labels like name badges The teacher should look to the names on the stickers and aim to use students’ names as much as possible until they become familiar and automatic.
- Quiz yourself
We know the act of attempting to retrieve information from long-term memory is a powerful tool in adding learning—you may recognise this as “retrieval practice” or the “testing effect”. As you become more familiar with students’ names, test yourself and try to recall the names without using the seating plan or the nametags. If you’re struggling, ask the student to give you a retrieval cue, like the first letter of the name, to aid in your recall. (And of course, just like explaining the limitations of working memory, it is helpful to students to explain the power of retrieval practice to aid their own learning!)
Learning names is just one step towards establishing positive relationships in the classroom. To find out more about creating a supportive learning environment you can complete the online course on this topic, as part of the Great Teaching Toolkit. This course provides an evidence-based overview of how and why a supportive environment helps both teachers and students, and what great teachers do to create it. You can explore how these principles can be applied in the classroom, before practising selecting and adapting individual teaching strategies for different contexts to prepare for the next steps of your personalised professional development.