March 18th, 2008

Pros and Cons of Cohort Groups


Recently I worked with a group of faculty who teach cohort groups. Students start this professional program as a group and they move, lockstep, through the curriculum. So, the same students are together for every class. We talked some about the assets and liabilities of this kind of cohort association for teachers.

On the asset side, students come to know each other well. After a couple of classes they aren’t shy with each other. They express opinions in discussions and tell each other what they think. They come to have a set of shared experiences that become part of the group’s identity and can be used as touchstones across the curriculum. They also care about each other, not uniformly across the group, but friendships do develop as well as productive study groups or partners. The sense of community often missing in large required courses is not a problem here.

Several teachers felt that the strong bonds between students increased the chances of adversarial relationships between teachers and the group. The group can feel empowered to stand up to the teacher, to challenge policies. They have lots of opportunities to talk about their teachers. Their togetherness emphasizes the teacher separateness. Even minor issues, like getting the class settled at the beginning of the period can be a challenge with cohort groups. One teacher reported how when she arrived for class students are all over the room in and out their seats; they talk loudly, sometimes calling to each other across the room, seemingly obvious that it’s time to start.

Some groups as a whole perform less well than others. They have lower expectations and do not have the chance to see how productive groups can be or see examples of individuals striving and meeting high expectations. If a cohort group lacks movers and shakers, the whole passive mass can muddle their way forward without realizing that their behavior is neither professional nor the norm.

Sometimes relationships within the cohort sour—students hold grudges and harbor ill feelings toward one another. In a course near the end of the program, one teacher reported how several students gave her lists of fellow students they didn’t want to work with on group projects.

Would you list other assets or liabilities? I don’t know that I ever read anything that specifically deals with the pedagogical advantages and challenges presented by cohorts groups. Have you?

Please share your thoughts, insights and resources on this important topic!

–Maryellen Weimer