Why we forget pupil names – and how to better remember

The forgetting of students' names is common, but the science of learning offers some memory tips, writes Gavin Simpson

Gavin Simpson

remember names

One of the most mortifying parts of being a teacher is seeing an old student approaching and having no idea who they are.

You desperately scramble to recall their name or look for a name badge, but if that fails, you have to utter the horrifying words (for them and for us): "Sorry…who are you?" 

You then spend the next couple of minutes profusely apologising for this huge faux pas.

Remembering names

This forgetting of names happened recently to me when an old student popped his head through the classroom window while I was a teaching. I had a quick conversation, but it was obvious to all that I couldn’t really remember who they were and my class asked in unison: "You won’t be like that with us, will you, sir?"

Well…what could I say?

Forgetfulness is no surprise, really, given the hundreds of students that a secondary teacher will teach in their lifetime. And we can often be guilty of forgetting the pupils we currently teach, too. 

In fact, it’s actually quite amazing how many students the average teacher can remember!

Old friends

The reason why teachers are usually good at remembering names is due to some of the more effective strategies we use in the classroom that help our students to recall their learning. 

If you are struggling with the names of current pupils, it may be worth working your way more explicitly through these stages.  

1. Spaced practice
If you're a secondary teacher, you naturally space your learning, as you have days when you won’t be teaching a class. This spacing-out means that you review your learning after a natural break. Of course, you will forget names at first, but recalling this information will eventually mean they will become embedded. 

2. Interleaving
Throughout your normal day, you are interleaving classes and this is a good strategy for learning. We also get to make links between classes, as suddenly you are teaching a brother or sister of someone you are already teaching.

3. Retrieval practice
As the weeks go by, you start to feel more confident about names, and giving out marked books will often give you the first opportunity to see whether you really have remembered names without potentially staring at a photo on the register. This is ultimately you testing yourself and we know that the testing effect is hugely powerful when it comes to learning.

4. Dual coding
Naturally, you are combining words (their names) and visuals (their faces) when completing a register. This quickens up the learning process.

If we believe the science (and I certainly do), we can see how these effective learning strategies create the conditions for us to embed the names of our students into our long-term memory.

And it is also easy to see why, after they leave, we can so often forget their names. 

Style it out 

But what happens if an old or current pupil pops up and you still can’t remember their name?

Just talk to them and ask questions about their former classmates, or whether they have siblings or other teachers they remember . Soon enough, your neurons will start firing and wiring. Slowly, your memory will come back online.

Before you know it, the embarrassment has gone and everybody will feel a lot better.

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