How can I remember names better?
March 14, 2017 3:34 AM   Subscribe

I need to learn a lot of names very quickly. How can I do it?

I'm just about to start a teaching job. I will have a large number of classes, most containing a number of students that's in the mid 20's. I'm guessing the total number I teach will be around 400.

I'm appalling at remembering names, but to me it's a really important that I get a handle on it. This aspect is much more daunting to me than the teaching itself.

Having looked at previous threads, I can see a lot of strategies that could work well for smaller numbers - but I need to get hundreds of names into my head very quickly.
posted by monkey closet to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I apologize if this doesn't answer your question directly but I've found that openly admitting that I'm terrible with names can be extremely helpful in situations like this. People will often admit to a similar thing in response which makes it easier. It also gives you the option of asking someone's name more than once without offending the person.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:42 AM on March 14

As someone who also teaches classes of this size, I don't even try. Rather, I invest my time in preparation to give the best possible lectures and make sure to answer any questions by mail as soon as possible. Students seem to understand and don't expect me to know their names. I think none of my colleagues even attempt this. Every year brings another 1000 or so bright young students (across all my teaching activities). Unfortunately, I usually only know the names of problematic students.

Honest question: why do you need to know their names?
posted by swordfishtrombones at 4:32 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]

Honest question: why do you need to know their names?

This is classroom teaching in school rather than lecturing; and in a very practical subject. The lessons are going to be pretty hands-on, with a lot of interaction with individual students within most lessons.

Practically, reporting is going to be based as much on these interactions as on assessed work; but at that point I will at least be able to refer to class lists. It's more about the quality of my interaction with the kids individually and in small groups.

This isn't an entirely new thing for me - I'm returning to teaching after a break of well over a decade. I certainly felt it was a problem when I was teaching before (and noted that many of my colleagues did significantly better than me on names) - but there was no Ask to ask!
posted by monkey closet at 4:48 AM on March 14

If you really think it will be useful to have a name learning tool or method, here's what I did when teaching middle school: hand out index cards & markers and ask students to fold card the long way and write their name on it, big & bold (this later would serve as a name-sign for me to rearrange seats quickly, make groups etc). Then I would take a photo of each student holding up their name sign. Then I could review and practice the names as needed. Also helpful for remembering names years later. And students love to see a slideshow on the last day of school of how they looked on the first day of school.
posted by chr1sb0y at 4:50 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]

Can you get photos of them? When I worked at a school that put a premium on knowing the students by name, I made flash cards (electronic ones using Anki, I think). It worked pretty well. It would have worked even better if I had divided them up into groups based on superficial appearance.

This was like 70 students at a time though. 400 is a lot. You might be better off having them use desk signs or name tags.
posted by mskyle at 4:50 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]

And I had a grad school teacher in the 90s who took polaroids of us holding our name on a sign.
posted by chr1sb0y at 4:52 AM on March 14

I am a professor of 20+ years and have taught many classes of 40-60 and a few of 200+. First, your students in large classes won't expect you to remember their names unless you interact with them personally a few times. I've always found a straightforward "remind me of your name, I'm sorry" at the start of a hallway or after-class interaction is not considered rude, but actually solicitous. Also, in early class sessions I have students say their names when they ask questions. In classes under 50 I have students do quick name only introductions all around at the start of the first few classes and I make a game out of remembering who is who by backtracking over each group of 4-5 and repeating them back.

But most major universities now provide tools for this in their online courseware for faculty. Ours gives us a page of photos with names we can discreetly refer to during class And gives us a flash card learning system for memorizing names with photos. It's fairly fast work which I never bother doing. I find I always learn the names by mid-semester (especially because all my classes require essays.

Finally, a pillar of my pedagogy -- and my major advice to young faculty wanting to improve their teaching evaluations -- is to make the effort to meet individually with each student early (and then again late) in the semester. This gets hard to scale beyond 40-50 students although you can delegate it to good TAs at that level. But I do it for classes of up to 50 even now as an old tenured fixture with nothing to prove. It's heavily booked few days of 15 minute meetings and you ask them where they're coming from and what they expect of the clsss and you try to calibrate their expectations with reality. You learn so much about them that it becomes much easier to interact with them personally and in class. Each one feels like you notice them, and they have a relationship with you. They'll be so much more engaged and I guarantee your evaluations will improve immediately. And names get way easier after a face to face.

Pro tip. Take it or leave it. Might not work as well for some people or some disciplines or some student bodies. It is the secret to accumulating "best teacher I have had at X University!" quotes for your tenure dossier. Works best if you have at least one more and more substantive meeting with each student toward the end, to coach s final paper or go over what they've taken from the class.

Craft takes effort.

ETA This is an actual "pro tip!"
posted by spitbull at 4:54 AM on March 14 [18 favorites]

I teach elementary, so I'm not sure if this will be helpful, but I teach 500+ students. I like to take attendance by saying their names and looking at their faces. I call it "Welcoming them to class" and say "Good morning (student name)". It might be too cutesy for you, but it really helps me when I see them in the hallway or during class to cement name and face together. It also helps that I have them 26 at a time, so this takes some time but not that much. If you have larger classes, this may not be useful.
posted by ceramicblue at 5:06 AM on March 14

Can you use name tags?

In one of my classes in college we had fancy name tags as incentive to not lose them and they were placed on our computers/start of every class. (And I think extra credit or attendance may have been involved by bringing them?)

Definitely letting them know you're horrible at names helps.

Also, as a chronic name-forgetter I look at them in the eye, repeat their name back to them, think of their name three times (sometimes while shaking their hand or whatever) then do some sort of poem or memory connection like "Jane with red hair." in your head. If you're working with them personally then learning something about their personality can attach to a name and a face "Joe's favorite color is purple." etc. I'd do this every chance you get like attendance or whatever.
posted by Crystalinne at 5:15 AM on March 14

An old friend of mine taught himself to do this, I think he found a book or two which aimed in this direction and he studied them and learned how to do it. Like anything else, it's an effort to learn to do. But, also like anything else, once you've learned it, once you've got it on-board it stays with you.

It takes a certain amount of discipline, and dedication, same as learning to play a guitar does, or a martial art, or adjusting the dérailleurs on your bicycle.

Politicians absolutely must have this skill; I've read that Clinton could speak with you for five minutes and then five years later he'd address you by your name, and ask how it turned out with your mothers health, and did you get that promotion you'd talked about. I've heard that Geo W. Bush was also very talented in this area.

My friend who did it did so by associating their most striking feature -- perhaps a large nose, or a ridiculous comb-over, whatever -- and then find a way to put link the persons name to that feature. Again, he found it in a book or two. But I'd bet that you can find fourteen thousand eight hundred and seventy-three youtube vids instructing you how to do it, also. Google can be your friend, or whatever search engine it is that you use.

It can be done. You can learn to do it. Learn from people who've been interested in it enough to be able to write a book about it, and learn from others who seem to do it easily. It *does* come to some people easily, and I hate them, because I'm like you, and to see someone ease through what I have to struggle through makes me want to bonk them on the head with a wood-board...

Good advice upthread -- you needn't do this. I believe that you absolutely can do it, should you decide it's important enough to you.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 5:38 AM on March 14

One good trick, or maybe not a trick, but more a method, is to try to remember three things about a person.

For example, their hometown, whether they have a dog, what they like to do for fun.

Having association with other facts helps you a lot in remembering names. Having pictures helps a lot too.

A lot of what I do for a living depends on remembering people, and this also helps with small talk.
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 5:41 AM on March 14

Flashcards, and handing back work regularly by walking around the classroom and returning it to each student, while repeating their name. I used to try to improve on the handing back without asking name thing by 10 students a week. By the end of term I'd finally know them all.

Pro tip, you can get away with asking names even late on the semester when returning work because you can ask "what's your surname again?" And point out you had the tests sorted alphabetically by surname.

I have to say though, my evaluations improved when I stopped trying to learn names. I used to get really grumpy comments from the few students whose names I did continue to mess up. I guess they felt discriminated against. Now that I mess everyone's name up, no one mentions it.
posted by lollusc at 5:52 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

One of my profs at Harvard would have us make folded cards with names to just sit at the front of our desks. Nobody at that age would think it unreasonable for you to need to be reminded of their name.
posted by transient at 6:07 AM on March 14

Seating charts or folding name tags are what I had in undergrad and law school
posted by notjustthefish at 6:09 AM on March 14

Herculean goal, but unfortunately more Sisyphian in practice for the majority of people. I definitely fall within the majority, and all I've found that helps me is creating sing-song ditties in my head in order to more effectively memorize, ala Schoolhouse Rock. Not only does this fact seriously date me, it also slightly embarrasses me to admit. Still and all, those brief animations got me through math in school better than my pronounced dyscalculia would have, sans the educational intervention the episodes provided; which, in itself, was a pretty heroic contribution to this viewer's intellectual development. Also why I sat glued to Sesame Street, come to think on it. If you ever need to remember the "Capital l" song, I'm your girl.

Suffice to say, even if you settle for repeating the old "Name Game" song four hundred times, recalling things in mental musical cadence could likewise be a boon for you as well. Seriously, I can serenade you with how a bill becomes a law! ;)
posted by Amor Bellator at 7:13 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

Google has lots of helpful-looking results.

It's helpful to spend some time learning the names even before you have faces to associate them with. This also gives you a chance to look up pronunciations of unfamiliar names. You still may get a few wrong, but you'll have fewer corrections to remember than if you started from scratch.

I took every opportunity I could to quiz myself on names in class--saying "yes, X" when calling on X, or returning graded assignments with as little help as possible.

I found the process revealing of the unfortunate categories that I sort people into--if there was a box in my mental ethnicity-by-gender matrix with only two students in it, guess which two names I'd swap. I tried to do some extra homework on those names, since I figured I wasn't the only teacher with that problem, and they were likely sick of getting confused for each other.

I never had 400 to learn, good luck!
posted by floppyroofing at 7:31 AM on March 14

I found the process revealing of the unfortunate categories that I sort people into--if there was a box in my mental ethnicity-by-gender matrix with only two students in it, guess which two names I'd swap.

Yeah, this is embarrassing but true - with my flashcards I sometimes had to do a specific review of "white women" or "South Asian men" because otherwise I found myself just kind of learning that Brianna was one of the white women and Shahrukh was one of the South Asian men, which was not hugely useful information.
posted by mskyle at 8:54 AM on March 14

I once had a class with 5 Allisons in it.
posted by spitbull at 3:04 PM on March 17

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