“How can I learn to recognize my students whose ethnicity is different from my own? I feel bad that it takes me much longer to remember their names and faces, and I have even mixed up some of the students, calling them by the wrong name. They deserve better! I do study the photographs we get on MyUW of the students in a class, but that doesn’t seem to help much.”*
Thanks for writing in! This is a complex and sensitive issue, and I really admire that you’ve recognized this problem and are taking the time to work through it. That’s a great first step!
To help answer your question, I’ve turned to my expert colleagues at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and FIUTS (The Foundation for International Understanding Through Students). I’ve provided each of their answers below, along with some additional resources related to names and facial recognition. Some of their general advice is: get to know your students better by playing name-related games and asking ice-breaker questions in class, and, if you’re still stuck, ask the students to re-introduce themselves during the first few weeks of classes or to keep a name card at their desk. Finally, do some self-reflection, and investigate whether any implicit biases might be affecting how you learn students’ names.
I hope this advice helps you to recognize all of your students and learn their names faster. You got this!
The Grad School Guru
THE CENTER FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING
The CTL provided three strategies for learning to recognize your students: Collect more information; use other cues (besides their faces); and reflect on your biases and teaching strategies. Here they provide tips and ideas for pursuing each strategy.
Collect more information:
- On the first day, use an ice breaker activity such as the “name story,” where students go around and share a brief story related to their name. This will help you attach the name to the person.
- Ask your students to teach you how to pronounce their name.
- Record students’ names and pronunciations on the UW photograph sheet when they introduce themselves.
- Consult websites to learn name pronunciations (some websites included below!)
- Before or after the class, chat with students to use their names.
- In the first few weeks of class, have students say their names first when they ask a question.
Use other cues:
- Have students use name tents. Collect them from students after every class and have them pick them up again to use at the beginning of the next class.
- There are other ways to remember students than their faces: consider the tone of their voice, their hairstyles, their posture, clothing style, accessories, etc.
- Use Canvas to have students share stories of their names and/or introduce themselves sharing their interests in the course or other interests (favorite places, foods).
- Ask yourself why as an instructor or TA you are having a particularly hard time remembering some students’ names. We all hold implicit biases: attitudes and stereotypes that can affect our behaviors without us realizing. You may want to learn more about implicit bias: if so, check out the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and Harvard implicit Bias tests online. These tools can help you find out where you might have blind spots and what areas you might want to work on.
- Use active listening strategies. Reflect on how you listen:
- Are you allowing the student time to express themselves?
- Are you concentrating on what the student is saying?
- Are you attentive to verbal and non-verbal cues?
Ellen Frierson and Era Schrepfer, at FIUTS, offered a number of strategies for better remembering students and connecting their names to faces. Also, Ellen wants to assure you that “the longer I work with students, the better I get at learning names quickly (and I’m generally pretty bad with names across all demographic categories!). So, just a word of encouragement that this is a skill you truly are likely to get better at if you work at it.”
Here are their tips!
- It’s easier to remember someone’s name when you know something about them. Create an activity at the beginning of the year/class that gives you some context about each student. Maybe a fun icebreaker where they all make a name tag with a food they like that begins with the same letter as their name? If you can collect them at the end of the day, even better, as it gives you something to study with!
- Spend more time with people who look different from you! You’ll get better at remembering people’s names and faces with more practice. It sounds like you’re already being really thoughtful about examining your own biases, so being more conscious in general about how much time you’re spending with people from their same racial/ethnic background versus connecting more with others might be useful.
- Practice the usual memorization tips more often until you at least know all the names. Carry your list with you. Look over your list at different times of the day, while you’re doing other things. Record yourself saying the names and listen to the recording.
- Pair up with another T.A. and “introduce” each of your students to them (and vice versa), telling them something about each student.
- Focus on memorizing the stressed syllable of each name, and possibly coming up with an association just for that syllable. (So if the name is Xinlu, focus on remembering the “Xin” part, maybe by thinking of a rhyming word like “pin”). When I (Ellen) was a classroom teacher and trying to learn lots of names at once, I’d try to notice one particular feature of the student’s face and pair that with a mnemonic device for their name to help a) remember their name and b) connect it with that person: “Frank has freckles” or something silly like that. If you are having trouble distinguishing people of a specific race or ethnicity, this approach might also help you to start noticing the ways in which facial features vary among people of the same race or ethnicity.
- Use name tents in class if you need to. Have the students make name tents on the first day and collect them to be distributed in each class. You can practice by handing them out at the start of each class and it will reduce the chance that you will call on the wrong person.
- Create learning activities that will help you to learn as much as possible about each of your students: having them share helps both of you. Be sure to remind everyone to introduce themselves before sharing with the class, whether you already know their name or not.
- Don’t worry if you forget someone’s name, just ask and be honest about the challenge. It’s totally OK to say, “I have so much trouble remembering people’s names! Please help me by reminding me and let me know if I get it wrong!”
Here are some additional resources you might find useful, compiled by the CTL, FIUTS, and Graduate School staff:
- A database collecting the pronunciation of names from 18 different countries
- Learn how to pronounce Chinese names
- An article written by a Sociology PhD student at Virginia Tech on the mispronunciation of African names in American media
- A blogpost by an anonymous Korean author, who addresses why people think “all ____ look alike,” and how to overcome this.
- CTL resource on inclusive teaching strategies
- CTL resource for teaching international and multilingual students
*This question has been lightly edited to preserve anonymity.
Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →