Sarah Cunnane

Why remembering pupils’ names is so important

Studies show that referring to students by name builds trust and also improves engagement in learning, says Sarah Cunnane

Why remembering pupils' names is so important for teachers

Wandering around Prague Castle on holiday a couple of years back, I kept coming across a reference to a particular king of Bohemia – Rudolf I, “known as Porridge”. There was no further explanation given.

It sparked a flurry of possibilities. Was he known for his love of oats? Was it a childhood nickname that endured into adulthood? Had he done time in a British prison in the 1950s? (Given Rudolf I died in 1307, I grudgingly accepted the last option was probably the least likely.)

Frivolous speculation, yes, but there was a serious truth within it: names – whether first, last or nick – are important. And names hold power that go beyond their mere meaning. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, businessman Dale Carnegie says: “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”

It’s why people who need to win your trust quickly and easily – think doctors or salespeople – learn your name and use it as often as they can when talking to you. And the same holds true for students and learning. As UCL professor Peter Fonagy says in this week's feature on learning names, using a young person’s name “makes the kid trust you and, if they trust you, they learn from you. They trust your knowledge.”

The power of remembering pupils' names

Beyond trust, research shows that people are more likely to pay attention if their name is used. In a study carried out at UCL, academics found that people asked to recall words from a list read out to them by a computer were more likely to do so if the computer had addressed them by name before reciting the list. Teachers know this instinctively – it’s why they’ll pinpoint students creating low-level disruption or single out a child for praise: a rebuke or a reward means more if there is individual recognition behind it.

Of course, in schools, using names goes beyond learning and beyond trust. There’s an important pastoral aspect to names, too. Tom Arrand, principal of Cardiff Sixth Form College, says that remembering names is “essential”. “Their name is their identity. We cannot say we care for every child as an individual if we don’t know their names.”

Using a child’s name shows them that they are known, they are valued and they are cared for.

But just because something is important, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. Remembering 30 new names from the off every year is a real skill. And for secondary teachers, who may have to remember dozens of classes – not to mention the difference between Emily B, Emily H and Emily R – the task is even more onerous.

The crucial thing is getting names right as quickly as you can. How you get there? Well, that’s up to you. There are techniques to help, such as a good old-fashioned seating plan or simply using name cards to mark your students’ places.

Fonagy also recommends using a mnemonic device, which can be helpful if a visual clue or private nickname is the key to unlocking your memory. An old teacher of mine remembered me and my deskmate, Miles, thanks to his fondness for the actress Sarah Miles. As Fonagy notes, they don’t have to be logical; they just have to work.

Which brings us back to Rudolf I. His nickname turned out to be merely a mocking epithet based on his frugal nature. It’s no Richard the Lionheart or Catherine the Great, true. But he can take solace from the fact that it could have been a lot worse – spare a thought for Eystein Halfdansson, an 8th century king of Norway, whose royal status was somewhat undercut by how he was known more widely: Eystein the Fart. Now that truly blows.

@Sarah_Cunnane

This article originally appeared in the 27 August 2021 issue under the headline “Remembering pupils’ names isn’t oat so simple – but it’s powerful”