The Power of Strategic “Name Games” Part One

Guest Post by Heather Holleman, PhD, The Pennsylvania State University

At Penn State, I’m known as the “Name Game” professor because students know I’ll invite them to introduce themselves and answer a strategic question every single time we gather. Over the past 25 years of teaching, I’ve gathered the kinds of questions that help students understand themselves, connect more deeply with others, and usher in the kind of vulnerability that opens the classroom to better learning and writing. Last year, however, I discovered the best question I’ve ever asked a group of students. Now, I use this question everywhere: in committee meetings, in staff meetings, at family gatherings, and in my writing seminars—whether online or in person.

Here’s the best question:

What question do you wish people would ask you?

This question opens the door to loving, other-centered conversations. The first time I asked this question, the basketball player piped up first. His hand shot in the air, and he said, “You all just ask me about basketball. I hate it. I don’t want to talk about basketball or how tall I am or if I’m going to the NBA or about my Nikes. I don’t want to talk about it.” His frustration oozed out with every word as he shook his head and looked down into his lap.

“What question do you wish people would ask you?” I asked again.

His face lit up. He seemed to explode with joy as he told us to ask him about this one video game he loves to play and how it saved him from being on the streets and doing drugs. He told us how good he is and that he’s ranked so high as a leader in this game. We would have never known to ask about this. How could we know? The girl beside him asked, “How did you become interested in that game? Tell us more!” I’d never seen him more talkative or engaged at that moment.

The next student answered the question by announcing he wished we’d ask him about the screenplay he’s secretly writing and his dreams in Hollywood. The class immediately asked what it was about. He beamed.

That day, I learned about students who wished we’d ask about their dogs or their favorite coffee shop or their sports teams or what it was like to grow up on an dairy farm. The class was never the same after that Name Game. We were connected. We were a community. We knew how to talk to each other in ways that honored and brought joy to the other person.

That Thanksgiving, I asked The Best Question to my extended family around the dinner table. I learned for the first time that my own reserved father wished we’d ask him about his fountain pen collection or that my sister liked to talk about the funny videos she’s watched.

I now always ask this question on the second day of class. The first day of class involves the simple question of hometown, major, and intended career, but I warn them that each Name Game becomes progressively more difficult. They like the challenge. In fact, they love these questions because they build self-awareness and confidence. So on day three, I ask an even harder question:

What changes when you enter a room?

This question helps us know what we offer in any setting (good or bad). We also modify the question to ask, “What do wish changed when you enter a room, and what do you fear actually changes?” I always answer the questions, too, so I confess that I wish I bring energy and joy to any setting, but I fear I bring too much talking or too much positivity when the room calls for more peace and reflection.

As the course moves on, my questions match the goals for learning that day. During our unit on storytelling and characterization, for example, the Name Game involves the sharing of the best, most unique detail about you: 

Fill in the blank: I’m the type of person who_________________________.

That last question brings lots of laughter and nods of agreement when I say, “I’m the type of person who reads grammar books for fun.” That day, I learned about the uniqueness of every student as they cried out these answers:

I’m the type of person who collects calculators (she’s a future actuary).

I’m the type of person who actually eats squirrel and rabbit; I wasn’t kidding when I said I was outdoorsy!

I’m the type of person who makes my bed every morning and has eaten the same breakfast every day for the last 10 years (waffles).

Finally, this semester, as COVID-19 and racial and political arguments brought what felt like a spirit of hopelessness and despair to the classroom (both online and in my in-person course), I use the Name Game to open their minds to a more receptive learning state. I’ll ask questions like these:

What’s going well for you?

What’s one piece of good news?

What’s something cool you learned this week?

I continue to love the Name Games for what they can do: develop a student professionally, build rapport, and change the mood of the room. And they also give students a toolbox of questions to use in any situation as they seek to know others better. I tell them to use the questions in their dating life, in their fraternities and sororities, and in their internships. “Remember,” I tell them, “good questions like these build the conviction that we might develop interpersonal curiosity, perhaps the best professional skill of all.”

Note from Bob:  I wish I had had a professor like Professor Holleman when I was a University Student!  If you have enjoyed the questions that Professor Holleman shared today – you are going to love Part Two of her “Guest Post”  where she shared 70 Building Community Questions! Click HERE for Part Two!

Heather Holleman


Heather Holleman is a speaker, teacher, and author who loves helping develop others professionally, especially as writers and speakers. People have called her a “walking exclamation point,” and she’s known as a lover of vivid verbs and semicolons. Heather currently directs the Advanced Writing in the Humanities courses at Penn State, and she devotes herself to building authentic writing communities and helping students gain confidence and joy in writing. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and earned her PhD in English Literature from the University of Michigan. She has received numerous teaching awards in the past 25 years and has written eight books, her most recent being Sent: Living a Life that Invites Others to Jesus (Moody Publishers). Heather and her husband, Ashley, also serve with Cru’s Faculty Commons with Ashley in the role of National Director for Graduate Student Ministry. They have two teen daughters and three cats. Her podcast is “The Verb with Heather Holleman,” and she blogs daily at


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One thought on “The Power of Strategic “Name Games” Part One

  1. Roma Hurley says:

    Those are great questions. I want to ask them and play the Name Game with my family at Thanksgiving and Christmas time. Amazing ice breakers.

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