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What is a Cohort Program?

What is a college cohort program?The cohort program is a growing trend among institutions of higher education, particularly in programs related to the helping professions, like psychology.

There are many benefits of cohort learning in higher education. This is particularly true as one advances to higher degree programs, like graduate and doctoral programs.

But you might not be familiar with cohort programs, let alone the benefits you might derive from one.

When you’re on the path to getting a degree, it can be helpful to fully understand the unfamiliar terms with which you may be presented. The article below explores the utility of the cohort approach to study, what it entails, and how it can benefit your educational experience.

What is a Cohort Program?

A very basic definition of a cohort is a group of students that have similar classroom experiences and similar educational goals. While these programs have typically appeared most frequently in graduate schools, where class numbers are small and the topics of study are advanced, it is also applied to other types of educational experiences. Your elementary school classes, for example, were very likely cohorts – you likely advanced through each grade with the same kids in class all year.

But for the purposes of education, a cohort is much more than a group of students that have classes together. Instead, a cohort is a group of students that have the same classes, with the same professors, with the same graduation requirements.

In fact, cohorts work through an entire course of study together. Typically, each course in a cohort program – whether it’s a 33-credit master’s degree in guidance counseling, a 63-credit school counseling program, or something in between – is taken by the entire cohort at the same time.

Why Do Educational Institutions Use the Cohort Model?

Why Do Educational Institutions Use the Cohort Model?The driving force behind the cohort program design is to help a group of students develop an identity together.

That is, the cohort model helps engender support without the cohort that helps each member of the cohort deal with the stressors and challenges of a rigorous course of study. Likewise, cohort programs help encourage innovation among cohort members that helps uplift and push the entire cohort with forward-thinking ideas.

Helping students reap these kinds of benefits (and many others, discussed later) is one of the reasons why the cohort model was developed by educators and psychologists in the first place.

As researchers in education and psychology gained a better understanding of how people learn, they realized that learning in a community rather than on one’s own can help improve learning in a variety of ways.

For example, learning in a cohort gives you opportunities to experience the different perspectives of the other students in your cohort. So not only do you get the basic or general knowledge of the topic as presented to you by your professor, but each cohort member can also contribute their unique understanding of the subject, which then leads to expanded learning opportunities for everyone else in the group.

As another example, learning in a cohort program gives you a ready-made support system as you make your way through the course requirements. Each person in the cohort is having a similar experience. They’re reading the same assignments, studying for the same tests, and participating in the same projects. This means that if you have questions, difficulties, concerns, or “aha” moments, you have a group of people with whom to share, vent, learn from, and support.

These are but two examples of benefits that can be derived from this type of study. Let’s explore some more benefits you might experience in a cohort program.

Benefits of Cohort Learning

Benefits of Cohort LearningAnother benefit of cohort models in higher education is that they help facilitate the completion of a course of study in a timely way.

Cohorts are intended to reduce the stress of competition for seats in a specific course, which allows students to focus their energy upon excelling in their studies. As noted earlier, cohort programs help members of the group develop a strong support system. This only fosters a greater focus on excelling in the course of study. 

Cohort models also engage a set group of individuals for much of their time in a course of study. Rather than shifting groups each semester with different classes, cohorts study together with a program of learning goals that are common to each group member. Cohort members have classes together. They study together. They might have practicum or internship experiences together as well.

This often facilitates strong friendships and even a family-like dynamic within a cohort. Student members of cohorts spend class time involved in highly participatory, student-focused discussion seminars and classes. They work on group projects with each other, developing new strengths and learning new knowledge and skills from others in the group. This can prove intensely beneficial, especially given the high-stress levels of graduate and post-graduate education.

During the rigorous demands of coursework, cohort members can also provide social and emotional support for one another. They might encourage participation in stress-relieving activities like exercise. They might have lunches or dinners together at which they can interact in a social setting. Cohort members can offer advice, provide study help, and even just lend a friendly ear to a classmate that needs someone to talk to.

Moreover, even beyond the classroom, once the degree program has ended, the students still have a solid network of peers in place. Because of this cohort studies benefit career growth after graduation. As graduates apply for and obtain jobs, they can still rely on their former classmates for advice and encouragement. Additionally, you might find that one of your classmates gets a position and then recommends you for a position at the same company – all because of your relationship in the cohort.

These strong bonds mean another thing as well – students are more likely to stick with the program. When you’re learning in part of a community, you have a support network that can help you keep moving forward when the going gets rough. In a traditional classroom setting, and even more so in a self-paced program, you won’t have the same kind of support. This could make it easier to withdraw from a course or a program altogether.

In other words, students in a cohort program often benefit from a higher degree of motivation to complete the program. The drive to finish is strong in most students to begin with, but when you are experiencing the program with the same group of people throughout your studies, you might feel as though you have a much larger “cheering section” encouraging you to continue moving forward with your studies.

While cohort models are employed at a variety of different educational levels, they are most popular and prevalent at universities. They help students and teachers build strong relationships, deriving the greatest benefit from study. While it’s certainly possible to succeed within a more decentralized program of education, a cohort program is crafted to support students, help them grow intellectually and socially, and provide a highly positive and successful entry into the post-educational world.

Disadvantages of Cohort Learning

While there are obviously many advantages of the cohort learning model, there are some disadvantages of which you should be aware.

First, cohort learning usually takes place in an accelerated timeline. So, a traditional course that might take a semester to complete might be done in 3/4ths of a semester or less in a cohort program.

While trimming the time it takes to complete your coursework – and, therefore, your degree program – can certainly be an advantage, this rapid pace could make it more difficult to get a deep understanding of the material under study. Likewise, the faster that courses go, the less time you have to study, complete assignments, and so forth. If you work and go to school, this quick-fire pace could be difficult to accommodate.

Second, cohort programs have set course schedules for the entire program as well as strict due dates and completion dates for course assignments and exams. There is no self-paced learning here – you must keep pace with the cohort and learn on a very tight schedule.

Lastly, while the cohort model fosters peer-to-peer interactions that can result in wonderful learning experiences from one another, you might also find that you get less individual feedback from your professors than if you were in a traditional course. While this is not always the case, some cohort learners have found that the increased time learning with one’s peers means a little less one-on-one learning time from one’s professors.

Of course, what might be advantages for one person in a cohort might not be an advantage for another. The opposite situation applies as well – you might love the fast-paced movement of a cohort learning model while your peers find it to be a challenge.

Ultimately, every learner is a little bit different, so take these pros and cons with a grain of salt. Think about how each of these factors might impact you as a learner and decide from there what the specific pros and cons of this type of program might be for you specifically.

Types of Cohort Learning

As noted earlier, cohort learning is, in broad terms, group learning in a classroom setting. But there are different types of cohort learning, or, more specifically, different ways to apply cohort learning.

For example, the cohort learning model has found much success in traditional classroom settings. Having face-to-face interactions with your classmates in a classroom setting can quickly help develop those peer-to-peer connections that cohort learning values so much.

This is especially true of students in a psychology cohort. Working together in a face-to-face situation enables cohort members to develop their therapeutic skills before they ever work with a client during the internship stage. So, in a cohort classroom, students might be paired together to test out new therapeutic techniques that they’ve just learned. This, in turn, facilitates skill development, reinforces the material that’s been learned in class, and helps build confidence among cohort members in terms of their use of therapeutic techniques.

Cohort learning models have also found success in distance learning situations. 

For example, even without being physically together in a learning space, online learning has come a long way over the years and utilizes technologies that enable students to interact with one another in real time.

So, using the example from above, distance learning students can still pair up and practice their newly-learned therapeutic techniques by using technologies like Zoom. By “meeting” in a way that allows students to see and hear one another, they can still have those experiences of bonding with one another, learning with one another, sharing with one another, and offering feedback to one another.

In years past, this would not have been possible because technologies didn’t include real-time video interactions. While it’s true that a group of students could have technically been in a cohort in pre-video distance learning situations, it would have been far more difficult to create those cohort bonds when the means of communication were limited to chat rooms or voice conference calls.

Now, though, learning communities can be developed in person or online. Peers can utilize each other’s unique skills, talents, and interests to help one another learn and grow when working together in real life or online.

Is Cohort Learning Right for You?

Though cohort learning offers many benefits for many students, it isn’t right for everyone. If you’re a learner that values the ability to work at your own pace, or a learner that prefers to learn individually, then a cohort learning program might not be for you.

Additionally, cohort learning is better-suited to some types of degree programs than others. In psychology and other human services fields, cohorts can be an extremely valuable way of delivering content and developing a rich learning experience. But this might not be the case for other degree programs.

Ultimately, before applying to a degree program (let alone enrolling in one), it’s important to have some time for introspection. Think about what your specific needs are, what your goals are, and how you learn best. If what you need aligns well with what a cohort has to offer, it could be an ideal learning situation for you!

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated June 2021

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