A tradition to maintain in a time of change: Creating personal connection in the classroom

September 9, 2015 / By: Dr. Ann Johnson, Director of the Center for Faculty Development / Professor of Psychology

By: Dr. Ann Johnson, Director of the Center for Faculty Development

With all the flux and change happening in our community this year, and all the committee meetings and time pressures, it would be easy to let our focus slip and fail to build opportunities for connection in the classroom. I had this experience myself a few years ago and learned a lesson the hard way about the importance of getting to know my students (and especially learning their names early on), and it’s compelled me to collect strategies for doing that – ideas I’ve collected below. I would also love to hear from others about the methods you’ve developed to learn student names and build community and connection in your classes.

What happened to me was this: I had just begun working full time as Faculty Development Director and was also teaching one psychology course. It was an evening course and met just once a week. I’m not one of those people who learns names easily, so the once-a-week format posed a challenge; on top of that, I was busy and distracted with my new job. As a result, I was still stumbling over some students’ names as mid-semester approached – and there were only 20 students in the class.

As part of my own training, I had a Classroom Consultant, Rich Sathe, come into my class that semester and perform a Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID), collecting student feedback while I was out of the room. A day or so later, Rich broke the news to me gently: the students were angry that I didn’t yet know all their names. Of course they were! As UST we pride ourselves on providing a strong sense of classroom presence and connection. At larger schools, students may not expect faculty to know all their names, and certainly if a class size is very large, that expectation is less severe. But at UST most faculty are committed to communicating that they care by learning and using student names in class, and clearly I had blown it in the eyes of my students.

I was able to recover – I apologized and made a commitment to improve, and followed through on it. And the students forgave me. But it was a vivid lesson in the power of names to communicate care and respect for each member of the class. Learning names seems like a no-brainer, but if you are someone, like me, who has trouble with names, it requires real work and creativity.

Recently this became a hot topic on a listserv I subscribe to for members of POD (Professional and Organizational Development in Higher Education). So I’ve curated some creative ideas (below), some of them from POD educators and others I’ve collected and tried myself.

Many UST faculty use the photo roster available through Murphy Online, but here’s a caveat about using any kind of prepared roster:  Sometimes students go by names that don’t match the official roster list. Rather than just calling off names, give students the chance to identify themselves with their preferred names – a strategy that communicates an inclusive spirit by letting students express their ethnic or gender identities in ways most comfortable for them. Here are some ideas for facilitating that:

  1. Use the photo roster and 3 x 5 cards: Before class, cut out individual photos from the roster. Hand out 3 x 5 cards to students and have them write their preferred name on the card, then distribute the photos and have students attach them somehow (glue/tape/staple) to their cards. You collect the cards and use them for taking roll; you can also use them like flash cards to practice identifying names with faces. (Credit to Joseph La Lopa from the POD list.)
  2. Create a video: Ask students to sit in a large circle or stand in line. Ask a volunteer to take a video on his/her own smart phone, going around the circle and having each person say his/her own name. You could also have people write their names on a card and hold it up (bonus: provides you with both visual and audio feedback). Have the student send the video to you and post it on the course Blackboard site. This works for up to 25-30 students. (Credit to Paul Corrigan and Heather McGovern from the POD list.)
  3. Take your own photos: Have students write their preferred names on a large card and, using your smart phone, take photos of each as they hold their cards. (Credit to Ed Gehringer from the POD list.)
  4. Create a Getting-to-know-you blog. Blended course design expert Jason Rhode recommends this strategy: before class begins, send an email to class members asking them to post a photo and introduce themselves using the blog function on Blackboard. The instructor does the same. This provides you with both a photo and some helpful information to get to know your students – and allows them to get to know each other.
  5. One Special Thing PowerPoint: This worked well for me last semester; it would be best in smaller classes of 20 or fewer. On day one, have students introduce themselves and, included in their introduction, have each name one special thing about himself or herself that they would like to share with the class. Then ask them to email photos to you that represent the one special thing (for one student it was a passion for board games; for another it was running marathons). Create a PowerPoint presentation – each slide has the student’s preferred name on it and the photo he or she selected. Show the entire slide show in class. Then, periodically throughout the semester, pull out the slide show and ask people for updates (how’d that marathon go?). It helps students get to know each other and helped me to know them – along with their names. It was a great community builder and students loved it.

There are, of course, other ways to show respect and concern for students. But at a place like St. Thomas, where the average class size is 21 in undergraduate classes and 19 at the graduate level, knowing names is expected, and students – even the most forgiving students – notice when it doesn’t occur. As we launch into a busy and change-filled new semester, it’s good to keep in mind what author Ken Bain noted of the exceptional college-level teachers he studied, they “treat students with what can only be called simple decency.” For the memory-challenged like me, using creative techniques can help meet the challenge of learning names while building connections that can last long after the course ends.

Do you have a favorite strategy for learning names and getting to know students? Let me know (a9johnson@stthomas.edu) and I’ll summarize in a future Synergia.