Peer interactions, not star instructors: how to make your cohort-based learning count

Dec 15, 2021 by Adam Bai

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This is part of a series on effective cohort-based learning design. Discover more about why cohort-based learning is the latest L&D trend and explore how global companies are driving transformation through cohort-based learning.

How social engagement drives learning impact

Cohort-based learning is the buzziest concept in L&D today. But what makes social engagement so effective at driving great learning outcomes?

After Carl Wieman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001, he turned his attention to physics education. He noticed a trend: as soon as his students began their graduate studies, they became more active and critical thinkers. This was a marked and rapid shift from their thinking as undergraduates––one so large it couldn’t be explained by time or experience alone. Wieman began reflecting on the shortcomings of the standard approach to teaching undergrad sciences, which was based on textbooks, lectures, and individual study. His hunch was that the largest factor in the grad students’ transformation was the intense social engagement they experienced in the lab, discussing and debating physics problems with their peers.

Would this trend look different if the undergrads learned more like his grads and postdocs?

The answer, it turned out, was yes. When Wieman and his colleagues tried grad-style teaching methods with the undergrads, including “multiple brief small-group discussions” and frequent debate, the results were astoundly positive. A 2019 study featured similar findings, demonstrating that peer interactions were more important than relationships with faculty advisors in determining students’ retention of material and quality of skills. Many other studies have shown similar results.

It’s about peer interactions, not star instructors

This research indicates that for a long time, we’ve been focusing on the wrong things when it comes to learning impact.

The findings challenge some fundamental assumptions about adult learning. Digital learning companies often tout their star professors and celebrity teachers to convey the quality of their instruction.Yet this research shows such a focus may be misplaced: when it comes to learning effectiveness, peer interactions can be far more important than any instructor’s skill.

There’s a caveat, though. To be effective, these peer interactions must also be carefully designed. This means including enough time for learners to complete a cycle of encountering new concepts, reflecting on those concepts, and finally, applying them to their own work and life. This element of time and continuity is also key for a cohort to form a cohesive group in which members feel comfortable exploring new ideas.

For instance, in several studies of diversity, equity, and inclusion training, researchers cited the seminars’ short length as a reason for their failure. A one-off training course doesn’t provide enough time for a group to achieve the dynamics that will foster the quality of discussion that a nuanced topic like DEI demands. Nor does it offer the sustained engagement (with both the material and the group) that ultimately leads to long-term transformation.

Ready for more on cohort-based learning?

For more takeaways on cohort design, read our report, Cohort-Based Learning at Scale: Eight Principles for Success. We discuss why cohort-based learning is gaining so much popularity, how to ensure cohort-based learning design is effective, and the research behind it all.

Interested to discover more about Nomadic’s cohort-based academies? Learn about our approach, or get in touch to request a demo.

Why cohort-based learning now?

Cohorts are an immensely effective learning tool for hard-to-teach domains like leadership and creativity. Learn why cohort-based experiences are the new “secret sauce” of effective learning.

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