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?

  • JES

    Great article. I notice these same behaviors in the university where I teach. Not only do we use the cohort model, but we draw students from the healthcare field where these cohorts already exist and are transferred into the classroom. The cohort provides the benefit of community support, but on the other side is the barrier created between the student and the instructor that you mentioned.

  • ADillman PhD (ABD)

    I have instructed in two post secondary schools in which cohorts were prominent. In one school, the students were on a wheel. Their courses were modular and they all followed the same schedule. The school in which I am now employed has one instructor for all of the core subjects for their major. At least at the campus I am employed, I teach all the computer networking courses as I am qualified to teach all 13 courses. Cohorts can be a lot of fun if the teacher carries the right attitude.

    The first requirement is to be very knowledgeable of the subjects being taught. Students talk about their instructors to other students within and outside of their programs. We get a reputation for our knowledge, teaching styles, and our personality. I have had some difficult students, but unless the whole group is rebellious, this student is treated as an outcast of the group. Most cohort groups are collections of students with a common goal, to learn the skills for their chosen career field. When the instructor presents to these students that they will get not only the knowledge they seek, but insights from someone who has been in that field, they pay attention.

    I earn their respect on the first day of class by showing them that I respect them. I am here to provide a service and that is my guarantee to them. I explain that the course requires work on their side, explain what those requirements are, and how these requirements relate to their future goals. I provide them with added value of experience from the field, either my own, through conferences, or through guest speakers. I tell them the extra information I give them in the class is "free, no extra charge!!"

    I keep the atmosphere light, but professional; and everything we talk about or do in the class has the primary goal of learning a skill, a tip, or an important aspect of the education they are seeking. I enjoy the cohorts. I love the personality of the group and the personalities that form within the groups. If you as an instructor have issues with cohorts of students, one of two tings is probably true. You are trying to teach a group that has grown to develop a very high level of feelings of entitlement (which I can cure), or you really need to examine your teaching methods and attitude.

  • Jim W.

    I agree with the premise of the article, but I have found that when the cohort wants something changed in the program, say a schedule or procedure change, the students will keep pounding away at the professor to complain, even though the professor can do nothing to make the desired change. It becomes a gripe session at the start of every class and all it takes is one instigator to sway the entire cohort.

    • ADillman PhD (ABD)

      Maybe I can present some insight that may help with your gripe sessions. I had some complaints when I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in Computer Programming. The school did not offer a course in HTML, a basic web-based markup language. I found an online tutorial and learned it in a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. The point is, if the students complain that something they feel should be in the class or the program is missing, there may be other options.
      As far as complaining about the scheduling, I just tell them it is beyond my paygrade. They find humor in that remark, but I also explain to them the proper channels to voice their concerns; and it is not through me. This teaches them corporate culture and how to follow the proper chain of command. They learn a real life lesson through this process. They may not like the outcome of the process, but it is a learning experience.
      So, do you see what I did there? I used their gripe session as an opportunity to teach them. You have to think on your feet, and turn everything into a learning experience, and then get them back on track with the course. I hope this helps.

    • ASmith

      I had this very complaint session thing happen recently, and as you state, there is nothing I can do to change what they are complaining about. The complaining started, they tried to pull me into it (their complaint was about another instructor) and I refused. I told them I would give them 7 minutes to discuss it amongst themselves, figure out what they could do and how to alleviate the issue, and then it would be done, never spoken about in my class again. I left the room, set the timer on my phone, and waited. I returned after 7 minutes, conversation stopped and the topic has not been brought up again in my class or even in my presence. It worked this time. Next time it might not.

  • Cindy MacGregor

    There is a piece by Lei, Short, Smallwood, and Wright-Porter (2011). that includes a little about the role of the instructor in a cohort model. Their piece from Education, 131(3), 497-504 might get you started in some other items to read. Hope this helps. I teach in a cohort of doctoral students and have found that benefits override the drawbacks, to the students and to me.

  • E Berg

    I love it. I am the director of a small nursing program in a very rural area and we have cohorts. Each cohort has its own flavor! The faculty refered to one as the "suggestion group". I finally stated that I would not listen to another suggestion! I had heard suggestions on when tests should be given and even the answers, how the college could give them more money, the program was too stressful, attendance should not be mandated……. I have found that students will hang themselves if given enough rope and I informed them that I would not supply the noose. I let them know that we had to abide by the laws of the local state board, HLC and accrediting bodies. Plus, they had to pass a national exam. I love the small school, adult learners and constant interaction between staff, faculty and students. I had to let them know who made the rules and the consequences if broken. We are also very supportive of the students and most stay in contact with me and the faculty for years after graduation. Sometimes we have to be mothers to the students because they have no role models. I tell them that I teach like I raised my sons. I am in control and accountable but also supportive and caring. I do not care where they came from but they have to achieve the standard. I expect them to be successful and we work together when we find a problem. The students try to split us but we have a unified front. We also intervene immediately if a student is being targeted. We also have fun. One student wrote the following poem…"Thank you for making me cry and making me try. Thank you for being strong enough to accept my curses and then my praises. Thank you for being a real woman and the role model I never had. Thank your for believing in me and helping me to succeed. Thank you for your gift of wisdom encouragement, understanding and friendship at the times I needed it most. Thank you for changing me from what I was and showing what I can become. Thank you for your words, both harsh and kind. You've helped me discover the woman I alone could not find."

  • Jim W.

    Good advise, ADillman. Thank you.

  • ADillman PhD (ABD)

    This has all been very good, positive feedback. I can say that I am honored to be associated with such a wise and humble group of educators. Changing lives is our mission; and each life is different. The ones who come back to thank us give us our greatest rewards. Keep up the phenomenal work.

  • Subhash

    I see the point from the descipline and other issues of the 'strength of the cohort group'. I grew up in an educational systems which only had cohorts – for four years in BS and MS. I agree with some of the points made by many. I have taught at the university level for 40 years and would like to add another perspective – That is the perspective of education where on the first day of the class you could make one tentative assumption that all students in the class have been (at least) exposed to the same material and can be expected to know some of it. When each class comes in with a heterogeneous background (i.e. with limited common set of courses or expectations), each course has to spend a lot of time starting over – covering the basics each time and leaving much less time to go in depth – I don't know the answer for a compromise, but to start over in each class is compromising the education at the higher level.

  • Carol Mooney

    I have had the pleasure of teaching in a cohort numerous times at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I believe the instructor who "kicks off" the cohort plays an essential role in establishing the norms of the group. Often, developing core value statements brings the group together and assists the instructor in designing instruction.
    The only time I've ever observed an adversarial relationship develop between the instructor in the student relates to the application of adult learning principles. Simply, 1) recognize the students for what they bring to the table and 2) communicate course expectations to the students on day 1.

    • ADillman PhD (ABD)

      Excellent post. Thank you for participating and sharing your wisdom.

  • Dr. Karla Carlson

    As instructors, I am sure we have all experienced a cohort who has expressed issues/suggestions on how to improve their learning or their program. As a teacher, my job is to listen first then respond. There is nothing worse than to have a concern and nobody cares to listen. Many of the student's concerns are above my authority to make changes. However, I have invited individuals who can make changes to speak to the group. Once the group has been given an explanation, the student's countenance changes. Students have expressed their appreciation to me for responding to their concerns in a proactive way. In fact, the negativity stopped. I love my students for advocating for themselves. Finding the proper venue to be heard needs more work.

  • Claire Lamonica

    This is an interesting topic. In our teaching center, we've developed over the years a service called "mid-program chats." Based on the Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID) process, mid-program chats are conducted with cohorts of students who are approaching or at the midpoint in their program and focus on the overall program, not on any specific instructor or course. Of course, we also conduce SGIDs with individual instructors within these (and other) programs, and often hear in our pre-chat meetings concerns from instructors about these cohorts.

    Because I have a background in small groups, I was fascinated when, early in my career as a professional development specialist, I began working with faculty members who found themselves "on the outs" with specific cohorts. The phenomenon was immediately recognizable as what small group specialists would call the "we-they" phenomenon. One suggestion I had for countering this phenomenon was that ALL faculty attend and actively participate in any orientations, etc, that the cohorts attend early in their program and also take advantage of other opportunities to interact with cohort members throughout the program. This might improve chances that individual faculty members become less "they" and more "we" as the cohort progresses. Another thing faculty can do is stay in constant communication with each other regarding program goals and expectations and to see if they can develop at least a partially shared philosophy of instruction. At the very least, such communication can make faculty aware of individual differences in teaching philosophies and styles, and these can be addressed directly with a cohort the first time it has a class with a particular faculty member. (e.g. "I know that many instructors in this program post class notes to the campus LMS; I don't do that, but this is why ….)

    Great topic! I was so glad to see it and am sharing this post with others on my campus who teach in cohort-based programs!

  • ABrakefield

    I always work with cohorts and most of the time I find tem to be beneficial. What is interesting to me is how the cohort can influence success. I have had students that fall into negative group patterns with one group and then return later with a different group and flourish. Being with the right people at the right time can make all the difference. My efforts to set a professional tone go a long way to making that happen.

  • Bonita Austin

    I have a question about informal cohorts. My university and college are trying really hard to increase the diversity in our student population. Last summer, I taught a class that was made up of 50% Chinese students. I really struggled with the class because it is a case discussion type of class for undergraduates. Many of the students knew each other prior to registering for the course. I typically have good class participation, but was not successful in getting through to the informal cohort in the class. I have experienced this problem again this term in two classes that each are made up of 25% international students. I understand and sympathize with many international students' reluctance to comment publicly in English. Nevertheless, it significantly reduces the effectiveness of the course to have a large group that will not participate. Does anyone have any ideas about how to deal with this type of cohort? What happens if the large group lobbies the professor for something that the professor is either unwilling or unable to do?

    • Allen

      Bonita, have you tried to break up the topics into smaller sections and create small groups within the cohort? Allow them to research a specific topic, or the same from a varied perspective, then allow one or several of them from the small groups present their conclusions to the rest of the class. If need be, and if it is possible, mix the international students with your native students in the smaller groups. Unless, of course your international students have their own cohort that does not wish to be disrupted. Case discussions are a very good opportunity to get viewpoints from various sides or angles and create some very lively and interesting discussions from the diverse viewpoints. Everyone, including you, will learn from those experiences.