Chris Cohan makes it a point to memorize the names of every student in his course on neuroscience and behavior.
By the end of the second week, he usually has them down—all 140 of them.
“It takes effort,” says Cohan, professor of pathology and anatomical sciences. “Even before the course starts, I go over class photos and try to pick out students I have seen around school or who look more familiar to me.”
Memorizing their names is one way Cohan transforms a required module into a personalized learning environment for second-year medical students.
“I try to orient my teaching around a one-to-one experience for each student,” he says. “I think that’s an extremely important part of teaching—not seeing the whole class as ‘the class’ but as a collection of individuals.”
Cohan's numerous teaching awards are one indication that his approach resonates. When students nominated him for the Siegel Award—the foremost means for recognizing extraordinary teachers in the school—they submitted testimonials about his dedication.
“He galvanizes his class with provocative questions and a highly interactive style," one wrote.
“It was a pleasure to show up to class each day to learn from him," wrote another.
And another: “I have never met someone who cared so much about other people’s education.”
Just as meaningful are the less formal gestures of appreciation Cohan receives from students. In his office, a collection of thank you cards lines a shelf.
“I can never throw them away,” he admits.
As Cohan’s teaching responsibilities have increased within the medical school, he has made a concerted effort to hone his teaching skills. To that end, he received an advanced certificate in educational informatics from UB.
“Most people feel that anybody can teach, but that’s not true,” says Cohan, who also serves as chair of the medical school’s curriculum committee.
“Students learn differently, and it’s difficult to know how to capture their interest and explain things so that all of them understand. It takes a lot of work and skills that you need to develop.”
Acquainting himself with his students is anything but work for Cohan. He enjoys learning about their talents outside medical school, and showcasing them whenever possible.
Every year Cohan challenges students to create a drawing with a neurological theme. He then features one student's artwork on the cover of his course packet.
“A lot of the joy I get out of teaching is coming to know the students. As I get to know them, I try to help them understand the nervous system and the brain, and enjoy it as much as I do. I hope I impart some of that excitement to them.”