Effective cohort-based learning: three basics of great cohort design

Dec 21, 2021 by Nomadic Team

Get Our Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest expert commentary, analysis, and news in learning and leadership delivered straight to your inbox.

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, explore how global companies are driving transformation through cohort-based learning, and learn why peer interactions are so effective at fostering great learning outcomes.

Humans are social, and our learning should be, too.

Humans are social creatures, so much so that social interactions change the way our brain functions. Social context impacts our attention, affects our motivation, and makes us learn and act on new information in different ways.

Yet these effects are all dependent on our sense of belonging and psychological safety. In one example, a 1999 study by Amy Edmondson demonstrates that psychological safety within work teams––and the interpersonal risk-taking it facilitates––both lead to better learning outcomes.

The basics of cohort design

Researchers have identified a number of factors that enhance the “entitativity,” or “groupiness,” of cohorts, as well as cohort members’ associated sense of psychological safety and belonging. At Nomadic, we’ve discovered that three aspects of cohort design are particularly important for fostering this.

1. Choose the right cohort size.

Too many people in a cohort means that participants will be overwhelmed by a flood of comments, group identity will never coalesce, and individual voices will begin to feel unimportant. Too few cohort members, on the other hand, and discussions will become weaker, with little opportunity for interaction with a range of fellow learners. To design social and digital learning environments that mirror real working environments, cohort size should reflect the scale of typical extended working teams. Over the years, Nomadic has found that a cohort size of 50–100 learners is usually best.

2. Create diverse cohorts.

When we first started delivering cohort-based learning experiences to clients, we assumed that relatively homogenous cohorts—in terms of job level, nationality, function, and so on—would perform best. We were wrong. Diverse cohorts, it turns out, generate more engagement and better learning outcomes. Within the IBM marketing organization, for example, we saw that randomly generated teams of marketers regularly outperformed intact working teams. Similarly, in our leadership academy’s global edition, teams of learners from different organizations and countries regularly outperform teams whose members all come from one organization. These results align with management research demonstrating that though homogenous teams can feel more comfortable for members (especially at the time of team formation), in the long run, diverse teams demonstrate deeper learning and better performance.

3. Foster cohort cohesion through shared rituals.

People respond to cues that make them feel like they’re part of a larger group. These cues can take many forms; anthropologists have studied rituals structured by music and coordinated movement, while management scholars have shown that teams of business school students who regularly share meals generate higher profits in simulated negotiations. Similarly, researchers have also demonstrated that teams function better after they train together, committing fewer errors and working together more effectively. This dynamic holds true across a wide array of industries, with an enormous amount of interdisciplinary research showing that rituals increase group cohesion and collaboration overall.

Looking for more ways to prompt this “groupiness” in your cohorts? Subtle design choices can help.

Although small, these small design differences can really make a difference in each learner’s feeling of psychological safety, leading to behaviors that will increase the effectiveness of the cohort model and ultimately, drive great learning and business outcomes.

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.

DEI in the Hybrid Workplace

Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are key to making your hybrid workplace successful. Learn three key strategies for DEI in hybrid work.