Adult Learning in Cohort Groups

Adult Learning in Cohort Groups

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Adult Learning in Cohort Groups

[According to a cohort participant,] cohorts are created not born. They are successful when everyone works collaboratively and collectively on improving their own and others' learning experiences. It takes self-responsibility, patience, courage, humor, commitment, sensitivity, and a lot of hard work to create such an enriching learning experience for everybody. (Nesbit 2001, p. 3)

Learning in groups has historical roots in adult education and many adult educators use group learning as an element of their programs (ibid.). Recently, a form of group learning—cohorts—has emerged as an attractive option for administrators, instructors, and participants alike (Fahy 2002). Cohorts are usually defined as groups of students who enroll at the same time and go through a program by taking the same courses at the same time, a process that is sometimes referred to as lock step (e.g., Chairs et al. 2002; Reynolds and Hebert 1998). A cohort is much more than a structure, however (Norris and Barnett 1994). It is "a tight-knit, reliable, common-purpose group" (Drago-Severson et al. 2001, p. 15) that has foundations in group dynamics, adult development, and adult learning theory (ibid.; Nesbit 2001; Norris and Barnett 1994). This Brief highlights findings from research and theory on adult learning cohorts to examine how cohorts are structured or formed and the experience of the learning process within cohorts. Recommendations for practice are provided.

Forming and Structuring Cohorts

A cohort is more than an administrative arrangement. In fact, "to view the [cohort] structure merely as a method of course delivery, a vehicle for socialization, a convenient scheduling design, or as an upbeat, fashionable 'in' approach is to do cohort structure an injustice" (Norris and Barnett 1994, p. 34). Cohorts must be purposefully formed and structured if they are to succeed as environments that foster learning and development.

Both individual and group development are important aspects of cohorts (Chairs et al. 2002; Lawrence 1997; Norris and Barnett 1994). Cohort structure should support the personal development of its members within a collaborative, cohesive group environment. Research on cohorts (e.g., Brooks 1998; Chairs et al. 2002; Lawrence 1997; Maher 2001; Norris and Barnett 1994) reveals that successful cohorts balance the needs of the group with those of the individual members by fostering a sense of belonging, creating an environment in which mutual respect flourishes, supporting risk taking, providing a place for critical reflection and the development of shared understanding, and encouraging and sustaining multiple perspectives.

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Lawrence (1997), for example, says that the most successful cohort groups in her study valued diversity and that "many students broke out of their comfort zones of dealing with people who were similar to them" (p. 181).

If cohorts are to evolve into a cohesive group, initial experiences as a cohort are critical in group development. Some cohorts are initiated with residential experiences designed to allow students and instructors to get to know one another (e.g., Lawrence 1997; Tisdell et al. 2002). Tisdell et al. (ibid.) describe how a residential experience made up of structured and informal activities with a focus on community building and co-learning was critical to the success of an online master's cohort. The participants in a study conducted by Norris and Barnett (1994) kept daily journals during a summer intensive course experience in which they were asked to reflect on how they were benefitting as individuals from the cohort experience as well as how the group was changing and developing. The participants in Maher's study (2001) had several intensive residential experiences over a 10-month period that enabled the cohort to evolve. At the end of the initial 3-week experience, for example, the "cohesion developed between cohort members…appeared to be somewhat tenuous" (p. 16), but by the end of the fall period, members had developed a level of comfort with each other that enabled shared understanding to blossom.

A theory about the structure of cohort groups emerged from research by Kegan et al. (2001). As a way of defining the functions of cohorts, researchers used Kegan's theory of adult development that considers a person as a maker of meaning throughout his or her lifespan. According to Kegan's theory, "growth processes, such as learning and teaching processes, depend on connections and these processes...invariably occur in some context" (Drago-Severson et al. 2001, p. 15). Cohorts—termed "holding environments"—can provide a context for the growth processes of teaching and learning and contribute the support and challenge needed for growth and development. These holding environments have three characteristics or functions (adapted from Drago-Severson et al., p. 16):

1. They must "hold well" by accepting and confirming who the individual is without expectations for change.

2. When individuals are ready, the cohort must "let go" by challenging learners and allowing them to develop beyond their existing ways of knowing.

3. They must "stick around" to provide continuity, stability, and availability to the individual undergoing growth and development.

A cohort structure does not ensure that a cohort will succeed (Norris and Barnett 1994). Cohorts must be structured as environments in which individuals experience growth and development supported and challenged by the group.

Learning in Cohorts

The form and structure of cohorts is critical to the success of the learning process, and research reveals that cohorts vary in structure and support different types of learning. The learners in the cohorts studied by Kegan et al. (2001) were engaged in the development of basic academic skills. These cohorts supported three types of knowing: instrumental in which learners focus on finding the correct answers, socializing in which learners have positive internal characteristics about learning but rely on the teacher for the correct answer, and self-authoring in which learners create and explain their own knowledge and are comfortable with ambiguity. In higher and adult education, the development of critical reflection and knowledge construction is the focus of many cohorts (e.g., Lawrence 1997; Nesbit 2001; Norris and Barnett 1994; Tisdell et al. 2002). In these cohorts, students are encouraged to challenge assumptions and engage in joint knowledge construction with each other and the instructor (Nesbit 2001), and transformative learning frequently occurs (Lawrence 1997; Tisdell et al. 2002).

Research on learning in cohorts reveals that cohort members tend to have positive feelings about their experiences. Learners report such benefits as increased development of critical thinking skills (Chairs et al. 2002); greater individual development as a cohort member (ibid.); development of an enhanced knowledge base (Norris and Barnett 1994); opportunity to examine one's own knowledge (Tisdell et al. 2002); motivation to learn more (Brooks 1998); and changes in perspectives on their own and others' learning (Lawrence 1997). A common theme throughout all participant comments was the value placed on the opportunity to be a part of a collaborative group.

Whether learning in cohorts increases learning outcomes has received scant attention in the literature. Two studies (Reynolds and Hebert 1998; Reynolds and Sitharaman 2000) that used a survey to compare students from cohort and noncohort groups found significant learning gains in the affective domain related to attitudes, self-concepts, and values. Significant learning gains in the cognitive domain were not found, however. Positive outcomes in the affective domain are consistent with the results from other studies (e.g., Brooks 1998; Chairs et al. 2002) indicating that cohort members liked being part of a collaborative group and found it to be an enriching learning experience.

Although learners generally report positive experiences in cohorts, some researchers (e.g., Lawrence 1997; Maher 2001; Norris and Barnett 1994) discovered that certain factors or characteristics and behaviors of group members can limit the effectiveness of cohorts. These factors include passive or dominant group members, changes in group membership, lack of commitment to the cohort, failure to meet group expectations, members viewing the instructor as the ultimate authority, and independent learning styles that cannot adapt to group environments.

Recommendations for Practice

Spend time at the beginning of the cohort developing group relationships. The success of the cohort depends on the ability of its members to form a cohesive, collaborative group. Time spent at the beginning laying the foundation for the group will pay dividends over the life of the cohort. Initial activities need to focus on building collegial and interpersonal relations as well as model expectations for how the cohort will function.

Balance group and individual development. Related to the development of group relationships is the need to balance group and individual development. Successful cohorts feature an interdependence that fosters both individual and group development (Norris and Barnett 1994). Attention to group process and fostering cohesive groups should be balanced with the needs of the individual learners within the cohort.
Provide an environment that both supports and challenges. Cohort members need to feel secure but they also need to be challenged if they are to engage in critical reflection and knowledge construction. As in any adult learning situation, instructors have to balance the need to ensure that learners are "held well" (experience high support) but also "let go" (experience high challenge) (Kegan et al. 2001).

Acknowledge and address tensions that may arise between learners and between learners and instructors. Members of cohorts will likely experience pressures as a normal part of the group development process. As they engage in collaborative learning, different tensions might arise related to knowledge construction. Working out the sharing of power within the group and developing interdependent roles for instructors and learners can also result in tension. Instructors can ease the way by preparing cohort members for the possibility of these tensions; they must also strike a balance between letting the group settle its issues and stepping in to mediate. (Lawrence 1997; Norris and Barnett 1994)

With their foundation in group development and adult learning theory, cohorts are a natural fit in adult education. Research on cohorts in adult education settings reveals that many are sites where learners engage in critical reflection and co-creation of knowledge and experience transformative learning, considered by many to be hallmarks of adult learning.


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