Breaking the Ice and Establishing Rapport: Learning Your Students’ Names

Breaking the Ice and Establishing Rapport: Learning Your Students’ Names
Joanne Holladay, TA Program Coordinator

Midway through one semester, a student in a small class where I was a guest speaker told me that the best thing about my presentation was that he had learned his classmate’s names for the first time! Sadly, this professor had not thought that learning names was important. In fact, one of the most essential aspects of developing a positive relationship with your students is to learn their names. At a place like UT where large classes and anonymity are the norm, learning your students’ names can help them feel less invisible. When learning names is made into a group activity, it also builds rapport between students by helping them get to know one another.

Here are some tips on learning student names that I have gleaned from faculty and TAs over the years. It’s true that these activities are ideally conducted the first day or week of class. However, it’s not too late to set aside a few minutes for one of these activities. Perhaps you want to call on students by name to improve discussion. Or perhaps you've observed that students don’t know each other. Finally, you’re likely to find that you feel more comfortable when you know your students’ names. Consider these techniques to enhance this simple but nonetheless challenging learning task.

  • One of the easiest ways to create multiple exposures to student names is to ask them to write out their first names on large index cards (pass around a bold marking pen). Cards should be large enough to fold over to form "table tents." The back of the card could contain information to "prompt" students to participate in class. ("Your perspectives are important! Speak up!" or, more gently, "Part of your final grade is based on your participation. We’d all like to hear from you!") These cards should be placed at the front of their desks where they are visible to you and to other students. Students should place them in their text or backpack and bring them to class and pull them out each time.

  • Use the photos available to you and your professor on "ROSE" (the Registrar’s Online Services") - and literally quiz yourself until you’re familiar with your students’ names. Keep this resource a secret as long as you can and students will be quite impressed.

  • CTE’s creative Director and faculty member in Educational Psychology, Marilla Svinicki, invites her students to visit her at her office during the first and second week of the semester. At this time she takes their pictures in front of a "white board" with their names written above the tops of their heads. Even though she can get pictures through ROSE, she prefers to get students to physically locate her office, and see her in a more informal setting. She also invites them up in small groups of two or three, so they get to know a few other students in her large (70+) classes. She then cuts the names off the pictures, places the photos on index cards, and writes the names on the back. She carries these cards with her and reviews them regularly. Students often comment on their evaluations that it meant a lot to them that she took the time to learn their names.

  • Learn something more about your students. Some TAs will conduct a brief getting acquainted activity early in the semester. You might do a "human scavenger hunt" where students "find someone who…" or ask students to introduce themselves and their biggest "brag", the strangest thing that’s ever happened to them, or their favorite movie or CD. A bit of personal information encourages future conversations between students and provides everyone with more details to support their recall of names. You could also ask students to complete a written questionnaire to ask these and other questions such as their goals for taking the course.

  • One of the simplest exercises is the naming circle, a game often used at parties as an icebreaker. The group, including the teacher, forms a circle (or this can be done in rows) and the first person gives her name. The second person gives the name of the first person and his own name, the third person gives the first two names and her name, and so on. The cycle continues until it returns to the first person who can now repeat the names of almost everyone in the class. I've seen this work with up to thirty people with relatively few mistakes. It is remarkable what focused attention can accomplish.

    While some names will be forgotten by the next class, many will be remembered, and you may want to repeat this a few times until everyone has "got it down," or perhaps supplement it with another technique. This activity also provides an excellent illustration of the effectiveness of rehearsal as a learning strategy!

  • Finally, allow time in class for your students to work in groups during the semester. During this time you can circulate to ask or field questions, and at the same time, reinforce your recollection of their names. Small group work can promote active learning, so you should already consider having it as part of your repertoire of teaching strategies.

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