Learn student names and pronouns

Learn student names and pronouns

Learning students’ preferred names, pronouns, and pronouncing names correctly affirms student identities and builds community in the classroom. A person’s name may be tied to their identity and carry cultural or family significance. The cumulative experience of having names mispronounced is linked to increased feelings of anxiety, shame, and being “othered” or not belonging in the classroom (Kohli & Solorzano, 2012). Moreover, learning and using a student’s pronouns is a first step towards respecting their gender identity and resisting the assumption that all students are cisgender. 

Together, efforts to learn students’ names and pronouns can create a more welcoming and inclusive classroom by signaling belonging and safety for students of all backgrounds. 

Introductions

  • On your course syllabus and the first day of class, introduce yourself by sharing what you’d like students to call you, your pronouns, and how to pronounce your name (see below for resources on pronunciation)
  • In a pre-semester survey, ask students to share their name, phonetic pronunciation, and pronouns (see ideas for questions in pre-semester surveys here or here).
  • In a community building activity, create opportunities for students to share the story of their name. This activity affirms students’ identities and the cultural or family significance of the names. As an added benefit, the activity can help you and other students make the name more meaningful and easier to remember.
  • During the first weeks of class, ask students to introduce themselves to each other during small group activities and to say their name each time they ask a question or share a comment in class.
  • When addressing groups of people or people whose pronouns you haven’t been told, use gender-neutral language such as, “everyone,” “folks,” “all,” or “y’all,” rather than “guys,” “ladies,” “ma’am,” or “sir.” 

Learning how to pronounce names

Students’ pronunciation of their names  will be harder to hear while they are wearing masks in the classroom. Here are a few resources for understanding and having opportunities to practice pronunciation:

  • Name recordings by students: Invite each student to record themselves saying their name when they are unmasked using a (free) tool like namedrop or namecoach that produces a link to the recording. You can also record your own name and include the link  in the syllabus, canvas site, and your email signature.
  • Consult a database of name pronunciations: You can upload a list of your students’ names to a database such as nameshouts to hear authentic pronunciation of names verified by linguists and native speakers.
  • Phonetic spelling: Invite students to share phonetic spelling of their names (Rihanna: Ree-AH-nah; see instructions here) or a familiar word that rhymes with their name (Ruthann: vowels sound like tooth-can).

You can invite each student to share their name recordings or phonetic spellings  in a pre-semester survey, a Canvas assignment, and/or email signature.

Memory strategies for learning names and pronouns:

Remembering proper names is notoriously tricky and yet we tend to underestimate just how hard it is going to be. You will need to put effort in to successfully learn students’ names and pronouns. The strategies below are largely based on retrieval practice, or self-testing, which is one of the most robustly supported and powerful learning strategies for long-term memory, particularly when the practice is spaced out over time (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Morris & Fritz, 2000; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).

  • Practice, practice, practice. Whenever possible, practice recalling a person’s name and pronouns (for example, as they enter the classroom, ask a question, or take an exam in class). 
  • Visualize the student. If you struggle to remember a name or use correct pronouns, visualize the student, recall their name, and imagine referring to the student using the correct name and pronouns when they email you or when you encounter their assignment submission on Canvas. 
  • Use name tents to outsource memory. If you teach in a large class or you know you struggle remembering names, invite students to create name cards using large blank index cards that can be seen by you and by others in the class. You can invite students to add their pronouns (if they wish) or any meaningful characteristics to help you remember them (especially when masked). 

Finally, invite students to correct you if you make a mistake with their name, your pronunciation of it, or their pronouns.  If you make a mistake, acknowledge your error, apologize, and make an effort to correct it (see strategies above). 

References

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review of Educational Research, 87 (3), 659 – 701. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654316689306

Kohli, R.,  & Solórzano, D. G. (2012). Teachers, please learn our names!: Racial microaggressions and the K-12 classroom. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 15 (4), 441 – 462. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2012.674026 

Morris, P. E.,  & Fritz, C. O. (2000). The name game: Using retrieval practice to improve the learning of names. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 6 (2), 124 – 129.  https://doi.org/10.1037/1076-898X.6.2.124 

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1 (3), 181 – 210. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00012.x


Written by Ruthann Thomas