A Trick for Memorizing Students’ Names on the First Day of Class

How to remember student names

You probably already know that there are lots of benefits to learning your students’ names as soon as possible. In elementary school classes, where the seats are often labeled and you only have one group of kids, memorizing names is more straightforward. In high school it’s a lot harder, but still worthwhile. Here’s my system. In my best moments, this system has allowed me to memorize the names of up to 180 students on the first day of school.

A trick for memorizing students names quickly (with one important disclaimer)

The unstated ingredient in this formula is teacher time and concentration. This is one of the reasons my first-day lesson plan recommendations trend toward keeping students busy and quiet for a healthy portion of the first day. If you’ll be “on” all day, running around and interacting with students non-stop, you probably won’t have time to memorize 30 names per class period. You can still use this system to make it easier and faster to learn names. It just may not happen on the first day, and in any case, it’s better not to announce your intention to do this. Just try your best and impress the kids if you can manage it.

Getting Started

Name Memorization Example Card

Hand out index cards to each student. Then, ask students to draw a horizontal and vertical line to divide the card into four sections. Post an example card on the board and give the verbal instructions below.

Top left: Full name

You can also ask students to include the version of their name they’d like you to use, but be sure to spell out any personal guidelines you have about using nicknames in class. (For example, you may be fine referring to students by a shortened version of a first name, or a middle name, but unwilling to call them “Smokey” or “Shorty.”) This is also a good time to invite students to politely correct you if you’re pronouncing their name wrong—and to keep doing so until you’re consistently pronouncing it right. There will likely be a few students in the class with often-mispronounced names who really appreciate this.

Top right: Seat number

Or whatever system you’re using to assign seats. It can be hard to label permanent seats before the first day of school, because your class roster will likely change throughout the first week. With that in mind, here are two ways to assign seats on the first day of class. My favorite one involves two decks of playing cards.

Bottom left: One identifying detail

Ask students to tell you one visible detail you can use to pick them out of the crowd—one that won’t change by next class period. In other words, they shouldn’t tell you what color shirt they are wearing, but they can use a hairstyle or descriptions of glasses or jewelry that they wear every day. You can offer some identifying details about yourself as an example. (Avoid listing examples that students might be self-conscious about, like height or weight.)

Bottom right: One thing you’d like me to know.

Here, you are inviting students to tell you something they’d like you to know before the school year begins. Most of the details students will share on the first day aren’t going to be very personal, but they still make good conversation starters; it’s always nice to know who likes to draw, dance, play basketball, etc. But also, be sure to let students know they can share information that’s a bigger deal—and that they can request that you keep this information confidential. Among the students who’ve shared more personal information on these cards, one had asthma and needed me to notice if she started wheezing, several students wanted me to know they needed help managing their anger in certain situations, and another student had recently experienced a traumatic life event and just needed me to know they weren’t completely okay. If a student drops a bomb here,  it’s also important to follow up with a quick, private conversation so they know they’ve been heard and understood.

After You Collect The Cards

  • Use these to call on students randomly for the rest of the day (and for many days to come).
  • Review the cards like flashcards when students are working quietly.
  • Do your best to use students’ names every time you call on them.
  • Near the end of the class or the day, put yourself on the spot and try to call everyone by name. You can offer a reward for anyone whose name you miss, like the chance to line up first or a sticker or school supply. Students are thrilled if you get this right, and it sets a tone of embracing challenge that will hopefully carry into the rest of the school year.
  • If you forget some of the names by the next time you see this group of students, don’t panic. This is normal. Just keep the cards handy, keep using them to call on students randomly, and don’t rearrange student seats until you’re confident that everyone’s name is filed in your long-term memory.

How to Get Students to Memorize Each Other’s Names

If the Cheers theme song has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name—or, if not everybody, at least the people currently sitting near your assigned seat in a class you’ll be attending the rest of the school year. If you have time during the last ten minutes of class, challenge students to try to memorize the names of everyone in their rows, or the students sitting closest to them. You can even play the Cheers theme song in the background while you do this. After all, sometimes we all want to go where everybody knows our name, and they’re always glad we came. We want to be where we can see people are all the same. We want to be where everybody knows our name—and, most importantly, why should you be the only one who now has this song stuck in your head?

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