1 Sep 2017

The Name Game

Submitted by Chip Nataro, Lafayette College

It's that time of year when there are lots of eager young faces looking at me in my general chemistry lecture. And with those faces comes a long list of names that I have to try and attach to those faces. Of my many faults, perhaps the worst is my ability to remember names. I am very bad at it, especially when I get more than one new name at a time. An additional complication is that I only see these students on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so the long layoff really hurts. Sure I generally get some of the names down quickly, for example I know Nikki from my 9:30 section since she has been to my office twice during the first week (that and for the past several years Nicole is a VERY popular name among our female students so just guessing Nicole gives me a decent shot at being right). But the vast majority of students it takes me a long time to get their names if I do at all. I always fear calling a student by the wrong name so I tend to avoid it.

I have a feeling I am not alone in this. In fact, I was chatting with some of the members of the leadership council this morning and, ummmm, darn it, what's his name....ummmm, Steve, ummmm, no, Adam, yeah Adam, mentioned that his IT folks recommend a flashcard app called Anki. I decided to give it a shot. It isn't exactly the most user friendly thing I have ever encountered (at least the PC version), but it isn't horrible to figure out. It does take some time to enter pictures and names, but it is fairly easy. I'm going to give it a shot. We shall see how it works. Right now I am facing a little bit of a problem in that not all of the pictures of the first year students are available on our campus faculty drive. It looks like they are somewhere in the range of last names starting with the letter O. Hopefully that gets finished in the next day or so. There is also the potential problem of two or more students having the same name making it challenging to decide which picture to use. I guess I'll cross that bridge when and if I get to it. Let's hope this works. If anyone of our loyal BITeS readers has any suggestions, please feel free to share them.


fortunately for me, our IT department prepares an Anki card deck of the whole school every fall so all I had to do was create a sub-deck of my 95 students. And now I just have to remember to study the deck. I also am really bad at names and faces but I am going to really try to learn my student's names this fall!!

We've just gotten to the point of the school getting the pictures of new students available to faculty on the web in September as opposed to November. I think it will be a few years before we take that next step, but that is great for you.

Last year I had a pair of fellows in my general chem discussion meeitngs (just once a week) where I knew both of their names, but couldn't ever get which student had which name.  Of course they were also good friends who hung around together most of the time.  It felt like some kind of pchem problem, with two names, two guys, but not any specific assignment.  Eventually by about March I had it figured out.  But until that point, I would just mark them both present.  I'm also pretty shameless about guessing, but sometimes when I guess wrong multiple times, the wrong name gets more embedded in my mind. 


I also struggle with learning names at the beginning of the semester. But in my case, there are some factors that are different from most faculty members. It should be easier for me to learn the names of my students because they all literally have their last names stitched onto their shirts. On the other hand, it's hard because they're all dressed the same and the men all have the same haircut. For that reason, and the fact that there are fewer of them, I tend to know the women's name before I know the men's. A coping mechanism I've used to learn names is to seat them in alphabetical order by last name for the first part of the semester (note: this technique also breaks up "the nodes of power" where students who already know each other will gravitate to sit together, spend time in class being incredibly chatty, and distract everyone from the material). I then force myself to use their name whenever one of them raises their hand to ask a question. Usually by week 3 or so, I've managed to learn their first and last names and connect them with the correct faces. However, this semester I've been unusually slow at it, even confusing two of the women earlier this week (in my defense, they were wearing lab aprons at the time which obscure the last names on their shirts). Perhaps this difficulty is also due to the natural aging process...the hamster on the wheel ain't running so fast anymore.