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How professors remember your name: the strategy and science behind memorization

September 21, 2023
Photo by Aryanna Dorsey | The State News

Each semester, professors perform an unappreciated, if not unnoticed, feat of mental fortitude. Memorizing the names of up to 100 students a semester is no easy task, but for many professors, it’s one they’ve had years to perfect.

Matt Raven, a professor of community sustainability, has taught thousands of students during his 15 years at MSU and 43 years teaching altogether. He attributes his memorization success to an online flashcard system he uses before the school year begins.

“I create a flashcard deck of my students with their pictures, their majors, and their name,” Raven said. “I look at their picture, I look at their major, and then I try to remember their name. It’s … just rote memorization.”

Kirsten Fermaglich, professor of History and Jewish studies, developed a different method through her 22 years of teaching at MSU. At the start of the semester, she has her students go around the room and tell her their name and something interesting about themselves

She then tries to have a brief conversation with each person about what they shared, during which she makes sure to repeat the student’s name out loud.

“I take two seconds and I try to associate that face with that name,” Fermaglich said. Her strategy helps her remember classes of around 50 students within two weeks

Entomology Professor Gabriel Ording, who has taught for 25 years, references pictures provided to him by the Student Registrar Office whenever a student emails him. He also has students put their name and pronouns on a folded paper in front of their desk

“I try to have a really interactive classroom, and I won’t address anyone without first reading their name and then actually using their name,” Ording said. Over time, this continual practice helps Ording put names to faces.

The science behind the strategy

Kimberly Fenn, a memory researcher in MSU's Department of Psychology, told The State News that the effectiveness of these strategies is supported by “decades of research.”

“When you first encode some information, in this case that my name is Kim, a memory trace is formed in your mind,” Fenn said. “One perspective on memory essentially argues that every time you repeat that name, or name/face pairing, you strengthen that memory trace. In other words, the connection or the association becomes stronger.”

Another theory states that every time a name is repeated, a new memory trace is created

“In other words, instead of having one memory for the name, you create multiple memories,” Fenn said. “As you can see, both theories would suggest that repetition would increase memory over information that is not repeated.”

Fenn said Fermaglich’s strategy of having a brief conversation with her students is a practice called “elaborative rehearsal.”

“Here, she does not simply repeat their names but attaches the name to a former memory,” Fenn said. “For example, perhaps one student is a competitive skier so she can associate the students name with her memory of going skiing at Boyne with her family. This type of rehearsal leads to stronger memory than simple repetition.”

Why professors bother learning names

Taking the time to memorize names of 50-100 students is time-consuming, no matter how efficient the strategy.

“I don’t have a great memory, but I put a lot of energy into it,” Ording said. “It’s time consuming, but I think it’s well worth it.” 

Ording’s goal is for students to care about his class. He tries to make that happen by showing that he cares enough to know their names

Fermaglich agreed that knowing student names makes her a better teacher. She also feels it’s rude not to. 

“To me, it’s manners, it really is etiquette,” Fermaglich said. “If someone started talking to me, and we had a relationship and they didn’t ask my name, I just think it would be weird.

Raven says knowing the names of his students makes it easier to call on them, making for a more engaging learning experience. One student told him he was the only professor to remember her name in her four years at MSU. 

Raven also said the practice keeps his mind active.

“I like to keep my brain happy,” Raven said. “My dad died of Alzheimer's, so it’s always on the back of my mind, and so I try to do things to keep my memory fresh and my brain going.”

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