The alternative to “trying harder”

Every semester, I have somewhere between 30-50 students in the undergraduate course that I teach. That’s a lot of names to learn!

I’m not good at learning names. I’ll get “Mike”and “Mark” mixed up. Or, I won’t be able to keep straight the two students who always sit together. And never mind the student who often skips class and sits in the back of the room!

But, it’s hard to talk to the students, to answer their emails, to grade their assignments, and to keep up with their progress if I don’t know their names. So, I attempt to learn their names.

The first semester I taught this class, I decided that I would try really hard to learn the students’ names. For example, I would ask each student to say his or her name if the student asked a question.

By the end of the semester, I knew the names of some of the students who participated regularly in class. But, I still didn’t know the names of the majority of the students.

What do we usually do in these situations? Often, we tell ourselves that we need to “try harder” the next time. So, the next semester, I could have continued to do basically the same thing, but I could have tried harder. However, “trying harder” often doesn’t work.

Instead of “trying harder,” I find it’s often much more effective to “try something different.” Sometimes, of course, it takes several rounds of this.

So, the next semester, my question for myself was: “What can I do differently this semester so that I can learn all of the students’ names?” The next year, my question shifted to “What can I do so that I can learn all of the names quickly?”

I’ve taught the class six times now, and I’ve made gradual improvements to my approach each semester. Here is what I do currently. At the beginning of the semester, I make myself a deck of flashcards. On the front of each card is a picture of each student. On the back of the card is the student’s name. In addition, I make flash cards for my teaching assistants, if they need help learning the students’ names.

Then, I start practicing. I spend about five minutes a day with my flashcards. It takes me about two weeks until I know most of the names, and then another week or two until I really feel fluent with them. I also have things I do during class to practice. It’s still not easy for me to learn all of the students’ names. However, the difference now is that I know exactly what I need to do so that I can accomplish this.

So, does it even matter? Do the students notice?

Here’s a comment from a student who was in my class last semester. She wrote the following on her anonymous course evaluation. “This was the only class I’ve been in where both the teacher and the teaching assistant actually knew my name.”

So, what’s the point of all of this?

Here is advice that I would give you. If something isn’t working, it’s often tempting to keep doing the same thing, but to try harder. However, if what you were doing didn’t work that great the first time, it usually doesn’t work if you just “try harder.”

Instead, try something different. Is there another approach? Is there a different way to practice? Can you change things in your environment? Would it help if someone watched you and coached you? In the long run, “trying different” often is much more productive than “trying harder.”

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