Learning Names (by Marc Helgesen)

Learning students’ names is hard. And I’m not particularly good at it. And my teaching situation makes it challenging. My students have maybe 20 teachers. Some of these teachers are young. Some are old. Many teachers are Japanese but others are American, British, Thai, Aussie, Chinese, Italian. There are males and females. The point is they look very different from each other, and I see them almost everyday. In contrast, I see most of my students only once a week. I teach in a women’s university. All of my students are Japanese women between the ages of 18 and 22. Thank goodness for hair dye. It as least gives me a shot at learning names.

Obviously I try. I want to treat my students as individuals, not factory-created items sorted by serial (student) numbers. And learning names helps to build rapport – which in turn helps to build the class culture that we all try to establish from the beginning.

I find student name cards to be an effective way for me to work on remembering my students’ names. Here are a few simple techniques I use. The name cards I use are about 15 x 10 cm  (4 x 6 inches). For the past several years, a nearby stationery store has had cards in a variety of colors. I usually try to use four colors in each class, with approximately the same number of each color.

Students fold the card in half, the long way. On one side, they write their first and last name and their student number. On the other side, they write whatever them want me to call them. Usually it is their first name but some students prefer to use their family name. Some prefer a nickname. They write with permanent markers – I want the lettering big so I can read it from at least three meters away.


Student name cards

I encourage students to decorate their cards. Some add flowers or smiley faces. Yuki might add a snowman (“Yuki” means “Snow” in Japanese).  The point is I want the cards to be different from each other. That helps me associate each card – and therefore name – with the person it belongs to.

On the other side of the card, they write a short self-introduction. I stress that students should tell me things that are true about them but not about everyone else. For example, don’t tell me you are 18 years old if most of the class is. Most of my students like J-pop or K-pop (Japanese or Korean pop music). So that information doesn’t help me remember them. If they are interested is a different sort of music like jazz, or blues or opera, that might help me remember them. The fact that someone likes chocolate or sushi isn’t memorable. The fact that they don’t like those popular foods is.


Student self-introI collect the cards at the end of class. Before the next class, I read though the self-introductions, writing 1-2 keywords next to each name on my attendance sheet. Then, I arrive for class a minute or two early and start passing out cards. The different colors and designs help me learn names.  Also, because I’m handing them out, it is putting pressure on me to learn the names – if after a few weeks I don’t know the names, I’m embarrassed.

During class, students put the cards on their desks where I can see them. I make it a point to use their names, even though I’m initially just reading from the cards.

The name cards also mean I don’t have to waste class time calling roll. Once I’ve distributed the cards, I can quickly mark any absences in my attendance book.

The different colors of cards give me several options for creating new pairings for group work. One day I might say, “Work with someone with the same color card.” The next week might be, “Today, pink and yellow work together. Blue and green work together.”

It is a very simple system but, when I’ve mentioned it to other teachers, many have wanted to try it. Thought I should share it here.

Note: This article by Marc Helgesen originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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5 Responses

  1. Dom Jones says:

    Thanks Marc
    Good ideas and timely with the new semester starting soon 🙂

  2. Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto says:

    Marc, I love this! Elegant and simple — my favorite type of solution 🙂

    Makes me wish I were teaching large classes so I had a good excuse to try this.

    Thank you for sharing this idea with us all.

  3. Kevin Ryan says:

    I use a similar system (Kent paper from Amazon is just the right thickness), but print classroom language on the back, such as discussion steps and roles.

    The crucial difference is that the cards don’t rest like a tent. One side is resting on the desk, the other sticks up. So the classroom language is visible to the student, the name to me. At the end of class, they write one thing they learned on the part that sits on the desk, a few words for each class to sketch the learning arc.

  4. Jegede Adebowale A says:

    Marc, i love this. I have practiced making students stick their first names to their chest or having them as table tags. It enhances teacher-student relationship.I have not used it for taking students’ attendance. This is great! Well done.. Jegede

  5. Alex Case says:

    Never thought of the different colours and personal descriptions bit before – great tips. Here are my own 15 tips on the topic: https://edition.tefl.net/ideas/teaching/learning-students-names/