Dr. Crystal Chang Cohen is a continuing lecturer in the Political Economy and Global Studies Programs at the University of California, Berkeley. She has been in academia for 10+ years as both a student and a teacher at various institutions including Stanford University, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, Mills College, and San Francisco State University. Getting her start in Silicon Valley, she has observed how education and technology have gradually co-evolved and impacted each other and the world in different ways. Both her approach to teaching and learning have evolved in a similar way over time departing from the stereotypical methods we tend to see in higher academia. As one of Crystal’s former students, I found her teaching methods to be incredibly effective and I look forward to sharing more about her approach in this week’s #HowILearn spotlight.

Crystal’s approach to teaching has three main focuses: personal relationship building, collaboration, and keeping material fresh and relevant to her students. The emphasis she places on getting to know her students and the social aspect of learning are what truly make her approach unique. When I asked Crystal to break down her teaching style, she first explained that her “…philosophy around teaching is to try to get to know as many of [her] students as [she] can”. This is somewhat of a novel concept in higher education as oftentimes classes and lectures are so large that most students go through the entire semester without speaking to their professor once. This aspect of Crystal’s approach is not only a large part of why she enjoys being a teacher but it is also in part why she has been such an effective instructor for her students. As she puts it, “…if students feel like their teacher is trying to get to know them and trying to learn from them, they’re much more likely to be interested in the class and the material” themselves. This approach not only helps foster healthy student-teacher relationships, but it also gives students a sense of community in class as if everyone in the room is mutually interested in learning for the sake of learning rather than just to get a grade or to get through the material. 

As important as it is for Crystal to get to know students herself, she puts equal effort into designing her classes in a, “…way where students get to know each other” as well. This is where her focus on collaboration comes into play. As she puts it, “…every student has something interesting about them to share…its [about] figuring out how to bring that experience into the classroom”. Crystal believes that, “You will learn as much or much more from your classmates as you will from [your instructor]” which is why collaboration and social learning are built directly into her approach. It starts with fostering a classroom atmosphere that encourages sharing, talking, discussion, debate, question asking, and general social interaction. While many teachers would prefer that their students be silent from the moment they enter the classroom to the moment they leave, Crystal much prefers her students to be chatty and to want to talk to each other. She referenced a class she taught recently in which the room was always loud with students chatting before lecture began. She went on to say, “I love that because that means people are talking to each other, they’re interested in each other…most of the the time they go to class and they’re just sitting there and waiting for it to be over, [but in this class] they went in, they liked everyone at their table, and they had things to talk about…That’s the energy that I want to see in the classroom.” 

Beyond the atmosphere, Crystal structures her assessments in a way that foster collaboration as well. Contrary to common academic practice, she does not support the classic midterm/final assessment structure that most learners and educators have come to know so well. In her words, “Students are not going to learn very much from a midterm and a final, especially if they are both in class…I rarely ever meet a student who says, ‘Wow, in an hour and a half, I just showcased all my best learning from this whole semester’…nobody can do that”. This teaching model puts a great deal of stress on students and does not foster true understanding. For Crystal, it becomes a question of, “How do I create assessments where I feel like students can showcase their best learning”. In practice, this looks like having smaller, more frequent assessments throughout the course that give students the opportunity to improve as the semester goes on. Additionally, she prefers more interactive assignments that help students engage with the material in a more practical way. For instance in her class on Silicon Valley and the Global Economy, students are tasked with competing in a semester-long team start-up competition. Students identify an existing start-up they find interesting and take on the role of the company’s founders. They learn the start-up process by actively completing each step as if they were building the company themselves. The assessment culminates in a pitch competition in which each team is able to showcase what they’ve learned while practicing practical skills like public speaking, teamwork, and pitch development. 

In addition to personal relationship building and collaboration, keeping material fresh and relevant to her students is an integral part of Crystal’s approach to teaching. In her words, “I never teach the same class twice”. As the world changes from day to day so too should the way we study and teach it. Keeping material up to date and relevant to students’ lives helps learners form a connection to course content and fosters deeper understanding. As such, Crystal commits much of her free time during the day and over breaks to the pursuit of new knowledge. She reads from her favorite news sources daily, listens to podcasts, watches documentaries, and reads books when she can related to her classes and areas of interest. In her words, “Whenever I design a new class, I also see that as an opportunity to learn new things”. Put simply, to be an effective teacher one must also have a commitment to being a lifelong learner. 

Crystal’s student-first approach to teaching has allowed her to form meaningful relationships with and have positive impacts on the lives of countless students. She embodies what it means to be a student first teacher, and we at Ahura AI hope to take a similar approach in providing the best overall education solution for students and learners of all kinds. What do you think about Crystal’s approach to teaching? Have you experienced any alternative approaches to teaching that worked well for you? Let us know in the comments or in a #HowILearn post of your own. Be sure to tag us at @AhuraAI and we’ll be sure to get back to you!

Author: Alex Murray, Operations and Client Success Intern, UC Berkeley ‘23