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Keep Calm and Teach: Best Practices for Teaching Cohorts

The influx of nontraditional adult students in higher education has resulted in unprecedented institutional competition. Colleges and universities, vying for attention and increased enrollments, seek creative solutions to attract and retain students. Many degrees have been designed or modified to follow the cohort model, creating temporary cultures of students who participate in programs following an accelerated lockstep sequence. Cohorts start and finish programs as collective groups and share instructors and experiences along the way. Productive learning environments and the temporary culture of a group encourage student productivity and enhance the overall academic experience.

That’s the upside. Conversely, cohorts can also evolve into dysfunctional cadres intent on undermining authority and destroying the very learning environment established to support them. Due to its close-knit nature, a cohort has a strong potential to become a learning community whose members acquire, use, and share their collective knowledge (Brown & Duguid, 2000) in both positive and negative ways.

Due to the cohort model’s reputation of encouraging collective group personalities that may be intimidating, some faculty may prefer to avoid teaching in such settings. The reality, though, is that in order to address enrollment issues and remain current themselves, faculty must adapt to new degree offerings and structures designed creatively to serve these student populations.

Teaching in cohorts is radically different from teaching open enrollment sections of the same course. Faculty may find themselves teaching several “core” courses throughout a program and serving the same group of students multiple times as they participate. Faculty who previously specialized in one particular area of content may find themselves acting as “generalists” and teaching cohort classes covering topics in which they have limited expertise. The idea of having to teach the same group over and over in courses with unfamiliar content may be daunting or even discouraging. Further, faculty who are underprepared to engage repeatedly with the same cohort groups over time find themselves at risk for student disrespect and incivility, negative course evaluations, and subsequent stress associated with feelings of inadequacy.

To encourage a positive experience for all parties, faculty tasked with teaching cohorts should consider adopting new paradigms and teaching behaviors. Here are a few best practices, derived from my own 15 years of cohort leadership experience and collaboration:

As competition for full-time student enrollment increases, more creative degree delivery systems such as cohort models emerge. Creating a supportive and productive environment for cohort students will result in overall student satisfaction and retention. A student’s own perceptions of his/her social and academic integration are perhaps the most predominant influences on whether they stay or leave higher education institutions (Rhodes 2004). Designing and delivering rigorous and relevant programs while providing genuine care and support for participants will ensure successful learning experiences for both faculty and students.

References
Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Engstrom, M. E., Santo, S. A., & Yost, R. M. (2008). Knowledge building in an online cohort. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 9(2), 151-167.

Rhodes, C. (2004). Academic and Social Integration in Higher Education: a survey of satisfaction and dissatisfaction within a first-year education studies cohort at a new university. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 28(2), May 2004.

Diana Adam-Uyder is a clinical professor and lead faculty for MEd teacher certification programs at Northern Arizona University.