Wired for Presence: What’s in a Name?

Welcome to my first installment of a monthly series, Wired for Presence.  High-touch humanized and connected course facilitation is essential in supporting positive student outcomes (course completion, grades, and student satisfaction) for historically underserved and socioeconomically disadvantaged students (Kaup, 2012; Jaggars & Xu, 2016).  However, balancing strong presence with a manageable instructor workload is of real concern.  I hope this series helps you create humanized courses while remaining human!

What’s In a Name?

In a 2016 study researchers at Arizona State University examined the use of names and student perceptions in large college biology courses.  In classes with 50 or more students, 80% of students reported it unlikely that the instructor knew their name.  Students did not expect instructors to know their names, but 85% viewed an instructor knowing their name as important.  In fact, students attributed instructor use of student names to the following perceptions:

  • Feeling valued
  • Feeling more invested in the course
  • Feel more comfortable seeking help
  • Feel more comfortable talking to the instructor about non course topics
  • A sense of better performance in the course
  • Feeling the instructor cares
  • Stronger sense of student-instructor relationships
  • Stronger sense of classroom community

True Story

In a recent conversation with a CI student about her Fall courses she mentioned a really ‘good’ class.  With my obsession over course quality, I jumped at the opportunity and asked, “What makes it so good?” The student replied, “It’s a really big class, but the instructor is working really hard to learn all our names, and I think that’s really cool.”

What About Online?

If learning students names in on-ground courses is ‘really cool’, how impactful is this practice in an online course?  We know the affordances of online courses: flexibility and convenience. But we also know the challenges: isolation, time-management, and motivation.

Can we harness the power of student names to circumvent feelings of isolation and bolster motivation? We can!  Let’s borrow some wisdom from an old Kindergarten management trick!

You Are the Secret Sauce!

College students want your attention and value your feedback the most (Ertmer, Connolly and Coulthard, 2007)!  When we recognize students as individuals we are sending a powerful message that they matter, and that is motivating!  While it’s unlikely to use each student’s name in weekly communication, you can use every student’s name several times by the end of your course, if you make a point to do so.


You need the following low tech materials:

  • Class roster with multiple columns
  • A pencil or pen
  • A calendar

Take Stock

Identify how and how often you communicate with your entire class each week.  This could include some or all of the following:

  • Weekly announcements or whole class messages
  • Discussion forums
  • VoiceThread
  • End of module wrap-ups
  • Etc.

These are opportune times to do some ‘Name Dropping’.

Chunk Your Roster

This takes simple division.  Divide the number of students by the weeks in your course.  For example, if you have 80 students divided by sixteen weeks, this equates to mentioning five students by name each week. You will have mentioned every student by name by the end of the course.  Double that number to ten students a week, and you can mention every student two times. The fewer students you have, the more frequently you can mention them by name!

Create a Record Sheet

This is where your low-tech materials come into play.  Create a spreadsheet with student names so you can mark off names as students are mentioned.  It’s a good idea to note the date or week the student was mentioned. Once you’ve mentioned every student once, start over.

Pick Focus Students and Take Notes

Drawing on your work in step two, select a certain number of students to target for the week.  When you read student work, read discussions, listen in VoiceThread, etc. take notes specifically on your focus students.  For each student, identify something about his/her work or contributions you can ‘notice’ in class communications.

Leverage Weekly Communication

In weekly course communications (i.e. announcements, emails, etc) use your notes and weave your focus students’ names into your comments.  Say/write the student’s name and make reference to one of his/her contributions thus far. See the examples below.


Weekly Announcement

Welcome to Module 5.  Last week we looked at (topic).  Many of you made some great points in the discussion on (topic).  (Student Name) really hit on the main issue of the reading with her comment on … (Student Name) brought a different perspective by mentioning … (Student Name) raised a good question, asking … If you haven’t reviewed the work of these classmates, I’d strongly suggest you read their posts.  (Student Name) and (Student Name) you asked about (topic).  By the end of this week’s content, you should find a satisfactory answer.  Time will tell!

Assignment Reminder

Your (assignment) is coming due in one week.  Last week you submitted your drafts for peer feedback.  (Student Name) has a really strong section on (topic).  If you are struggling, he’d be a great resource.  (Student Name) has a good handle on (topic), another good resource!

Two weekly announcements equals seven names.  Besides, direct references to student work lets students know you are following discussion threads, infusing further evidence of your presence in your course – double win!

Potential Side Effects

  • Taking a systematic look at specific students each week may reveal insights into individual strengths and needs.  This may inform your instruction week to week and help you identify struggling students who need more high-touch interaction.  You can focus your energy on those who need it!
  • Using students names will increase your instructor presence, which is proven to positively impact student success outcomes (i.e. grades, course completion, satisfaction)
  • Using names can motivate students to invest more into your course (see the study linked above)

Feeling Ambitious?

  • Use a Video Announcement in place of written announcement and you couple Teaching Presence with Social Presence – double winner!
  • Ask students to use names in course interactions (Discussion Forums and VoiceThread) and instantly multiply the ‘Name dropping’ and support stronger peer-to-peer community

What’s in a Name?…

Individuality, Identity, oh and Humanity.  One simple shift in what we already do (i.e. read student work and send announcements) with potential for big impact on student motivation.

The next time you make your announcements, go ahead and drop a few names!

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