One of the most effective ways to establish a productive classroom environment is learning what your students want to be called in the classroom–both their names and pronouns.
Use of student names has been shown to build classroom community, increase student engagement by helping them feel more comfortable, make students feel more accountable to the instructor, ensure students are comfortable seeking help, and increase student satisfaction with a course (Cooper et. al 2017, Murdoch et. al 2018, O’Brien et. al 2014). While instructors can feel like learning student names takes valuable time away from class, its benefits to student learning are greater than covering more content. Failure to know or correctly pronounce student names has been tied to implicit bias and feelings of alienation among students, particularly for students with ethnically distinct names (Mitchell 2016 and Ohuabunwa 2021). While this failure can seem unavoidable in larger classes, it need not be. Research on the use of nametents on desks, for example, indicates that a student’s mere perception that an instructor knows their name can help them feel valued and increase classroom engagement (Cooper et. al 2017). Knowing and expressing a desire to learn student names can reinforce an instructor’s commitment to inclusivity and solicit more focus from students in classrooms large and small (Tanner 2013).
Using someone’s correct pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show respect for their identity. Being seen and respected impacts students’ well-being and ability to engage in learning environments. An increasing number of young adults hold nonbinary identities (Connolly, Zervos, Barone, Johnson, & Joseph, 2016; James et al., 2016). Misgendering by peers, faculty, and advisors is a common stressor for students with nonbinary identities (Goldgerg et al., 2019). Students appreciate instructors who invest time in learning their pronouns and names, which can lead to a greater sense of belonging in the classroom.
Suggestions for Learning and Using Student Names
For all classes
Use the Canvas tool, Photo Roster, to review student names, pronouns, and Yale ID photos. Consider that some students’ legal names in Canvas may not reflect the name that they use, and their photos may not depict their current appearance and identity. Avoid unintentionally deadnaming a student, which is the the act of calling a transgender person by a birth or legal name that they no longer use.
Recommend to your students the use of NameCoach, a Yale community service that invites users to record the pronunciation of their name and share their pronouns. For students who use the service, a small audible icon will appear next to their name in the Yale online directory.
Suggest to your students to update their pronouns in Canvas. Because only instructors can access Photo Roster in Canvas, the NameCoach icon will only be visible to them. If students want their peers to know their pronouns, then additionally setting them in Canvas for all to see is an option.
Model inclusion as an instructor by recording your name and pronouns in NameCoach and adding the icon to your email signature line. On the first day of class, pronounce your full name and share your pronouns with your students (and on your syllabus).
When making a mistake by misgendering a student, briefly apologize, give reassurance that you’re working on it, and then follow through with your efforts.
Visit the website for the Yale Office of LGBTQ Resources including their resources on pronouns.
For smaller classes (<50)
Use the first few class sessions to learn student names and pronouns by asking students to introduce themselves, inviting students to state their name and pronouns when responding to a question, making a game with students of vocally reciting their names, and/or recording a seating chart for reference with names and pronouns.
Invite students to visit you in office hours, where you can focus on individual student names, pronouns, interests, and needs.
Develop your own roster that records students’ names and pronouns as well as memorable items you may have learned about them from your pre-course survey or discussions.
Break class into smaller student groups for learning activities and visit each group, practicing and learning names and pronouns in chunks.
For larger classes (>50)
Invite students to make name and pronoun tents on the first day of class that sit on student desks, or ask them their names and pronouns in a pre-course survey and print out the tents ahead of time. Letters should be large enough to read from the back of the classroom.
Ask students to share their name and pronouns when responding in class, if they feel comfortable. Use these to properly refer to the student when speaking directly to them or if you are referring to them in the third-person.
Memorize a few names and faces before class and gently call on them during class. Over the course of the semester, try to call on every student.
Review a Canvas discussion forum before class and compliment or build on student responses by name. Ensure that you comment on every student throughout the semester.
Ensure that the TAs, in section, ask all students to share their names and pronouns and stress the importance of using them correctly.
Guide: Inclusive Classrooms for Trans & Nonbinary Students, Office of LGBTQ Resources, Yale University
Tips for Learning Student Names, Teaching & Learning Resource Center, The Ohio State University
Respectful Pedagogy for Stanford Instructors: Gender Identity, Expression, and Pronouns, Gender Expansive Support, Stanford University
Connolly, M. D., Zervos, M. J., Barone, C. J., II, Johnson, C. C., & Joseph, C. L. M. (2016). The mental health of transgender youth: Advances in understanding. The Journal of Adolescent Health, 59, 489 – 495.
Cooper, K., Haney, B., Krieg, A., and Brownell, S. 2017. What’s in a Name? That Importance of Students Perceiving That an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High- Enrollment Biology Classroom. CBE Life Sciences Education 16.1 (1-13).
Goldberg, A. E. , Kuvalanka, K. & dickey, l. (2019). Transgender Graduate Students’ Experiences in Higher Education. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 12 (1), 38-51.
James, S., Herman, J., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anaf, M. (2016). The report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.
Mitchell, C. 2016. Bungling Student Names: A Slight that Stings. Education Week 35.30 (1-11).
Murdoch, Y., Hyejung, L., and Kang, A. 2018. Learning Students’ Given Names Benefits EMI Classes. English in Education 52.3 (225-247).
O’Brien, M., Leiman, T., and Duffy, J. 2014. The Power of Naming: The Multifaceted Value of Learning Students’ Names. QUT Law Review 14.1 (114-128).
Ohuabunwa, Emmanuel C. 2021. Say Our Names. We Are Doctors, Too. Annals of Emergency Medicine: Change of Shift 78.4 (568-569).
Tanner, K. 2013. Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE Life Sciences Education 12.3 (322-331).