Remembering students’ names

For the longest time, remembering names was a huge problem for me. In my first classes, way back when I started teaching, I was still struggling after several weeks and it got quite embarrassing in the end. If you also suffer, you have to find strategies that work for you, as I eventually did.

The view from the trenches

1. So many students, so many names

Initially you might find remembering student names a real problem, especially if you’ve just arrived in a country in which names are unfamiliar to you. Can you always tell your Halil from your Halit? More importantly, are you expected to? Here are some responses I received from those of view in the classrooms who posted on this thread at ELT World forum.

‘I’ve currently got 186 in total. Not a chance!’

‘I have around 1100 students in 22 classes. No way I can remember names. Can’t see myself printing all those name cards, either.’

‘I have about 380 students, and I have been never very good with remembering names. Yes, using the person’s name helps to remember it, but it also helps if you have more regular contact with the same people as well. People I see once a week in larger groups, not much of a chance.’

2. So many students, so few names

Another problem you may come across is what I like to call the ‘so many students, so few names’ dilemma. Learning the name won’t be the problem here, but differentiating one Dave from another might be.

‘I have one easy class. Of eight students, the four women are all called Fatimah. The four guys are, respectively, Ali, Mohammed, Ali-Abdul, and Mohammed. Can anyone beat 8 students, 3 names?’

Yes, apparently.

‘In Qatar I once had a class of 26. 19 of them had the first name Mohammed.’

3. Practicalities

How practical is your method of remembering names? Can you really take photos or make name-tags for all? Consider this…

‘As to taking pics, sorry, I’m not much of a camera guy. That’s a lot of extra photos to be lugging around. I know some teachers have students bring their photos as an assignment, but I’m not sure I want to make seating charts that are that large or to make student files for so many students. I don’t have that much extra free time.’

4. My mind is playing tricks on me

We can be our own worst enemies too. Only last year I had a student whose name was lazy Roger Waters, because he was very lazy and looked incredibly like the former Pink Floyd bassist. Funnily enough, this didn’t help me remember his real name. I’m not alone…

‘My worst problem is I often assign a name before knowing the real name. If a student looks like someone I know named Mehmet, it will take ages to get Mehmet out of my head. Or I’ll see a student for the first time and think “Walter Matthau” or “Shiny Hair” or whatever, which makes it easy to recognize a student but hard to remember the name.’

5. Advice on how to do it

My advice is to find something that works for you. I’m a lot better at remembering names than I used to be because I employ the technique described below:

‘My dad was a corporate trainer, he had new students every two weeks, and sometimes the following year some of the students would take another of his courses. He was great with names. His trick was to use the person’s name repeatedly in your first conversation. It feels weird at first but works.
Hi John, nice to meet you.
Where are you from John?
John, can you sit over here next to Sue?
Sue, can you help me hand out these papers?
Thank you, Sue.’


Here are some other suggestions:

‘Name plates with pictures. You collect them after every class.

Name tags (not on cords because the tags can flip over).

Seating chart with pictures. Nice way to start the class by taking a digital photo of everyone.’


‘I think it helps if you can make quick associations with their names to their features or what they’re wearing. I think that’s how I do it. It’s like their names pop out when I see their faces.’

‘In classes of 25 or fewer, space permitting, I put them in a circle. I choose one student to say his/her name, then go around the circle where each student has to say all the names that came before, plus his or her own name. At the end I go around the circle and say all their names, twice if I really screw it up the first time.’

For me, the following quote sums up why this is an important issue;

‘When I was a student, I’d feel really bad if my name was the one forgotten by a teacher who remembered other names, so I try to plan around my being crap at names.’

If you’re teaching a relatively small group of people regularly for any length of time, get to know their names. If, like me, this is something you’re just not good at, here are some good ways to help you plan around it from Lindsay Clandfield’s excellent 6 things blog.

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    3 thoughts on “Remembering students’ names

    1. Hi Adam,
      Good topic:)Learning sts names is a great challenge but a must, I guess. as justme stated if I wouldn’t like to be an unknown for my teacher so I try hard to learn and remember names and call them with their 1st names. I also have same names in one class. This year I had 3 Melissas and 3 Nathalies in one class. But I always remember my psychology teacher. She was a new teacher, came to class and asked our names and one week later she looked into our faces and called us with our names and when I entered the class on the first day of my teaching I remembered her and have been doing the same since then.

      1. Thanks, Eva. I think we can all relate to the situation you describe. One of the first things I do with a new class is to apologize for the amount of time it takes me to learn names. Fortunately, I have access to photos nowadays so I can make a start before going to class.

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