February 25th, 2015

Cohort Groups Can Present Special Challenges


Many of us have encountered cohort groups in our teaching, and by that I mean those groups of students that proceed together through a program, typically a professional one. They take all or most of their courses together, often in lock step. Cohort teaching happens to some degree in most courses. Students in a major at smaller institutions often end up taking many of their courses together. Sometimes there are cohort groups within a class, say a group of commuter students who went to the same high school, or students who live on campus in the same residence hall, or a group of adults taking a work-related course.

When students take all, most, or even a lot of their courses together, that student group bonds, often in a significant way. They get to know each other well—friendships develop, alliances are formed, sometimes there are cliques. Cohort groups have leaders, followers, and those who are in the group but not really a part of it. Cohorts develop “personalities.” Haven’t we all had those groups that pretty much whine about everything, or an uptight bunch that dithers about every detail? Some cohort groups (fewer than we’d like) are great, and are full of students who work hard and collaborate willingly.

Cohort groups can present teachers with special challenges. In every course, there’s the student group and then there’s the teacher, but in cohort groups, the teacher’s outsider position is accentuated, especially when the group has been together for some time. The cohort has a history, a shared set of experiences, and usually a collection of inside jokes. Add to that the virtual certainty that the group has “discussed” the teacher of the current course, probably at length. The teacher has a reputation, but so does the cohort. Even though a teacher may aspire to meet the group with an open mind, she has definitely heard things about its members. Teachers and students come to every course with expectations, but they are more fixed when cohorts are involved.

It often feels as though teachers have more to prove with these groups. Respect can’t be earned one student at a time. It’s awarded or withheld by the group. Adversarial relationships develop more easily. The teacher announces a decision and the class is unified in its opposition. Few are willing to agree with the teacher if that calls into question their allegiance to the group. Cohort groups can make teachers feel very lonely.

If the teacher implements an instructional strategy not used by others teaching in the program, say she has students working in groups, does not share copies of her PowerPoint slides, or includes short-answer questions on multiple-choice tests, the cohort group resists. And they share that displeasure openly. To prevent whole group objections or to respond to them, teachers need to explain, without being defensive, the educational rationale that justifies use of the strategy. The objective is to select those instructional approaches that most effectively promote learning; whether students “like” them is a secondary issue.

So how do teachers forge relationships in courses taken by cohort groups? I’d say they do it by listening to the group and by not seeing every objection as a challenge to their authority. It also helps to be flexible and willing to make adjustments (which is not the same as caving in to demands). If students would rather get the teacher’s notes than take notes themselves, is some sort of compromise possible? Could they post a set of class notes on the course website that the teacher responds to with questions, clarifications, and elaborations? Constructive relationships are forged when teachers are authentic and genuine, comfortable with who they are and how they teach. Teachers need to find that professional space in which they’re less concerned about being “liked” by the group and more concerned with providing quality learning experiences.

Over the past several days I’ve been perusing my large article resource collection and I haven’t found one article that addresses the issues of cohort teaching. That’s a bit surprising. But I am quite certain that among the blog’s readers are any number of faculty who deal with cohort groups. I invite (indeed encourage) you to share your wisdom. What have you learned? Any good resources you could direct us to?