How to build a learning cohort

Aug 18, 2022

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Cohort-based learning is gaining traction among organizations looking to scale learning across global teams; help team members hone leadership skills, creativity, critical thinking, and other hard-to-teach domains; and those looking for an online learning method that will engage their teams and show real business impact.

But how do you ensure your cohort courses are effective? There are a few elements of cohort design to keep in mind to make sure that your cohort-based learning is as impactful as possible, and a great experience for everyone involved.

What is cohort-based learning?

First, a definition. Cohort-based learning is a model of collaborative learning where a set group of learners moves through a sequence of interactive content together, discussing and sharing their ideas the way. It can have real benefits, both for learners and for the bottom line, but it’s important that the experience and the cohorts themselves are well-designed.

What are the advantages of cohort learning?

Cohort-based learning is one of the most effective ways to help teams tackle the challenges of work today. As Brian Uzzi, a Northwestern University management professor, says, work now happens in teams: whether at the individual contributor level or the highest ranks of management, work is now deeply collaborative.

This means that individual skill-building is no longer enough. What will help businesses thrive in an era of deep uncertainty is behavioral change and mindset shift at scale. If work happens in teams, learning should too. And this is exactly what cohort-based courses are built for.

Tips for building a great learning cohort

There are many considerations for building an effective learning cohort. Here, we’ll focus on four basics of great cohort design. (Read to the end to discover why fostering a bit of friendly debate amongst cohort members is particularly important!)

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Now, let's dive into our top four tips for building a great learning cohort.

Cohort design tip one: Choose the optimal cohort size.

For cohorts to work well, they must first be the right size. Too large of a cohort means that participants will be overwhelmed by a flood of comments. (If you’ve ever been on social media, you know what this feels like!)

Too small of a cohort, meanwhile, and you'll have weaker discussions and a lack of diversity amongst cohort members. The best social and digital learning environments mirror real working environments, so cohort size, ideally, should reflect the scale of typical extended working teams. Nomadic has found that a cohort size of 50–100 learners usually leads to the best engagement and outcomes.

Cohort design tip two: Make your cohort learning experience long enough.

When considering the length of a cohort experience, keep in mind that learners should have enough time in a given course to interact with their peers at every stage of the learning experience: while encountering new concepts, reflecting on those concepts, and––perhaps most importantly––while applying them to their own work and life. Sufficient time in the program, featuring regular interaction with their peers throughout that time, will also help learners feel more comfortable being open and vulnerable with their fellow cohort members, a key part of spurring the mindset shift that will make learning most successful.

Finally, ensuring the cohort experience is a sufficient length will also lead to more impactful learning. In several studies of diversity, equity, and inclusion training, researchers cited the short length of the training as a reason for their lack of impact. A one-off seminar doesn’t offer sufficient time for a group to achieve the quality of discussion that a nuanced topic like DEI demands. Nor does it offer the sustained engagement that will lead to real group transformation.

What’s the right length for a cohort-based course? This depends somewhat on the topic and day-to-day realities of your organization. We have found, however, that 5–6 weeks is ideal for our cohort-based Programs.

Cohort design tip three: use rituals to enhance cohort “groupiness.”

The sensation of being part of a group has been shown to foster psychological safety, deepen learning, and increase learner engagement. But how do you foster cohort “groupiness”?

Small details of learning design and little rituals can go a long way. A few options include letting learners pick creative team names, encouraging cohort members to fill out profiles with photos, emphasizing the importance of sharing real stories in discussions, and providing signals of achievement that learners can share out on their social networks (completion certificates with their names, for example).

Cohort design tip four: make it clear that disagreement is okay––even encouraged!

The point of a cohort isn’t for everything to think the same way. Quite the opposite: healthy debate is a big part of what makes cohort-based learning so effective. Clients often tell us that one of the biggest learning challenges they face is how to teach employees, particularly team leaders, to disagree effectively and argue constructively in the workplace. Cohort courses, when designed well, offer a safe environment for practicing this skill.

And this all has serious business impact. Social disagreement spurs creativity; humans are literally smarter when interacting with other people, and the spark of disagreement can help us challenge our assumptions and become more empathetic and attuned to other ways of seeing the world. Evidence has shown the exchange of dissonant perspectives can make organizations stronger. Stanford professor Robert Sutton has cited the “creative abrasion” between Pixar director Brad Bird and producer Robert Walker as central to the organization’s success.

The final word on learning cohort design

As Bryan Connor, VP of product design at Nomadic, says, "Learner engagement is like lightning in a bottle when you can capture it, driving incredible discussions, progress, learning, and innovation."

Base your cohort design decisions around driving great engagement and making learning meaningful, and you can't go wrong.

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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.

Get in touch to request a demo and discover more about what Nomadic’s cohort-based Academy can do for your organization.

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