Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why do students expect me to use their names?

International faculty member, CMU-Pittsburgh

In my country, faculty and students don’t talk to one another much, if at all, outside of class. The professor comes, teaches, leaves, and that’s it. I know that I’m expected to hold office hours in the U.S., and that’s fine, but it seems strange to me to call my students by name. I’ve been told it’s important, but it seems so unnecessary. In my country, classes were too big for faculty to learn students’ names, but I doubt that most faculty members teaching an occasional smaller class would still bother. It’s just not considered important.

My colleagues tell me that I should really learn students’ names. They say that when students feel that their professors know and care about them, it contributes to learning and retention. My colleagues also encourage me to chat with students about my children and my hobbies – to add the “personal touch.” This still feels really unnatural to me, and it’s a struggle to learn and remember all these American names, but I’m working on it. I realize my pronunciation is sometimes off, but I encourage students to correct me and I laugh about my mistakes. They seem to enjoy that, and appreciate the effort I’m making.

Other strategies

  • Request a photo roster. This can help you attach names to faces.
  • Ask students to introduce themselves on the first day of class to learn how they pronounce their names. Write names out phonetically on your roster to help yourself remember.
  • Use name tents in classes with tiered rows of seats. Your department may have the resources to print these for you, but if you don’t, you can bring card stock and let students make their own. Just make sure the print is large and visible from a distance.
  • Ask students to introduce themselves when they talk in class for the first couple of weeks so you can associate the name with a face and learn the correct pronunciation.
  • Use the first day of class to gather some information about your students’ backgrounds and interests, especially as it relates to the course material.
  • Find out about students’ majors and professional interests and try to find as many meaningful connections to the course material as you can (e.g., “A number of you are planning to go into medicine. So let’s talk about how statistical probability relates to the work you’ll be doing...”)

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.