Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

What's in a Name?

Creating Rapport by Learning Students' Names--but How?

Creating a good rapport with students, both as individuals and as members of a class, is important. One way to do so is to become friendly—but not friends—with your students. Learning students’ names readily fosters such friendly relations.

And there’s the proverbial rub. There is one instructor and some number of students—could be 15, could be 150, or even more. They need only learn your name—“Dr. or Professor X” and they mostly will and do—but how do you learn all of their names?

Having a class list with photographs often works. Some instructors take their own pictures, for example. Many of us have access to classroom management software that prints out student ID photos along with their names. This method can help, but it is the case that many ID photos are from high school or the first week of college—by the time they are upperclassmen, students often look quite different and those ID photos are rarely updated. Ah, well.

My usual strategy is to call on students the first few weeks of class and to ask them to say their name to me before answer whatever question or addressing whatever prompt I threw out to them. I repeat the name and then make it a point to call on that student once or twice more by name during that class meeting. Now, most of my classes are relatively small—I usually have no more than 30 students. So, after a few weeks, I know most of the students’ names and I do recognize them when I run into them elsewhere on campus.

One of my campus colleagues uses what I think is a simpler but cleverer system. During the first class meeting of the term, she has each student make a “tent” sign. They write their first and last name on it – what they prefer to be called – and as students come into each class, they find their individual name tents in a box. Any tents that are not taken allow my colleague to quickly assess—by name—who didn’t come to class that day. So, she not only creates rapport by calling on students by name, but she also learns their names (and won’t forget them because they are right in front of them) and can maintain an accurate attendance record. Not too shabby.

Now, know students’ names for one semester is only part of the “Name Game” challenge. What happens when you run into students in public place—the grocery store, the mall, at the movies—will you remember them in this “out of context” context? Sometimes I do—but other times I struggle. I know I recognize them but sometimes I can’t place them right away. This is embarrassing, so I try just to smile and hope they think I know who they are (or that they will just humor me).

Years pass. I forget names—most faculty forget names—and yet it is inevitable that I (we) will run into former students in public places, often in the produce section of the grocery store I frequent. They will invariably know my name. The kindest ones will be quick to identify themselves by name, allowing me the graceful opportunity to say, “of course, yes, I remember you!” even when sometimes I don’t. After 20 some years, there are thousands of them to remember, whereas most college students really only learn the names of 30 or so instructors. Still, I often wish I had a solution that did not involve me fumbling through my memory to match a now (middle-aged?) face to a name or allowed me to be true to the rapport that existed once upon a time back in a one of my classes. (I think of this nominal aphasia as one of the regrettable gifts aging brings us--we have to learn to work with it.)

My friend and colleague, Aaron Richmond of Metropolitan State University in Denver, CO, has settled on what I think is an elegant and kind solution to the Name Game problem that psychology teachers face. Dr. Richmond works very hard to learn his students’ names when they are enrolled in is classes. But then he warns them that there is a very good chance he will not remember their names—but he will remember their faces and will be relatively certain they took class with him.

His solution? When confronted with a former student in the aisle of Target, in a local pub, or, like me, amidst the organic produce, Dr. Richmond will grin and say “Hey, Scholar!” To Aaron, all of his students are scholars, as they shared meaningful learning experiences together. I think this is a gracious way to acknowledge a past relationship that occurred over a common interest in psychology. Perhaps those of you who teach will want to consider whether it might work for you?

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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