Cohort-based learning is emerging as a promising solution to the challenges posed by the rise of remote and hybrid work environments in recent years. With employees in more distributed locations in various time zones, learning leaders find it increasingly challenging to deliver effective learning experiences. Now, learning administrators are faced with additional questions. Given these new constraints, how can you make training engaging and effective to the extent it results in retained knowledge and lasting behavior change among employees? What are the best delivery methods in a remote or hybrid environment? How can you design learning programs so they are both relevant to learners and supportive of organizational priorities? Cohort-based learning is one approach that addresses these and many other issues workplace learning leaders face.
What is cohort-based learning?
The definition of cohort-based learning refers to the involvement of grouping colleagues into small learning communities or cohorts. Typically, these groups progress through a series of live, structured learning modules together over a set period of time. This dynamic learning modality offers many benefits not achieved through on-demand or lecture-based training methods. Here are a few to consider.
5 Benefits of Cohort-Based Learning
1. Enhanced engagement and knowledge retention through peer-to-peer learning and application.
Instructional design of live, cohort-based learning typically includes a blend of small- and large-group discussions, group projects, paired coaching conversations, and peer-reviewed activities. The interactive nature of these activities keeps participants engaged throughout the learning journey. They also require learners to connect new information with themselves and others, resulting in enhanced activity in areas of the brain involved in memory, thus strengthening knowledge recall and retention. In other words, the more learning a participant shares in a social context, the deeper the learning is encoded in that person’s memory.
2. Increased knowledge-sharing and innovation.
By bringing together individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, the cohort learning experience creates fertile ground for the exchange of ideas and insights. As peers collaborate via breakout discussions, case study applications, and coaching activities, they transmit information across team boundaries, challenge assumptions, and encourage critical thinking. These interactions, in turn, can generate innovative solutions and approaches to problems. Additionally, the social dynamics of peer learning create a supportive environment where learners feel more comfortable experimenting and taking risks, further fueling innovation. Ultimately, peer learning not only enhances the transfer of knowledge but also nurtures a culture of continuous learning and creativity.
3. Behavior change fostered by peer support and accountability.
Cohort-based learning allows for consistent interaction with peers and instructors, in turn facilitating ongoing feedback. Learners can refine their skills based on constructive suggestions provided by peers and instructors, further accelerating their growth. As a result, this feedback loop feeds peer-to-peer accountability, naturally creating positive peer pressure. Learners are motivated to follow through on action steps and assignments, to stay in good favor, and keep pace with their peers. This strengthened learner commitment increases the likelihood of learners practicing new behaviors beyond the classroom, applying learning in the day-to-day flow of work.
4. Positive relationship-building.
The modern work environment is complex, with employees working in distributed locations—whether in-office, remote, or hybrid – making relationship-building among employees difficult. In addition, in times of uncertainty, individuals seek community and experiences that foster connection with others. Live cohort-based learning can address these gaps by creating positive relational energy among learners. It provides a shared experience among a group of peers, thereby fostering a sense of community and camaraderie among participants. As a cohort progresses through a learning journey together, the participants form strong bonds with each other. The group becomes a network of like-minded colleagues whose relationships often extend beyond the program.
5. Strengthened organizational culture.
The employee connectivity fostered by cohort-based learning, in turn impacts the broader organization within a company in several ways. First, as evidenced in numerous Gallup surveys (State of the Global Workforce Report, 2017-2023), employees who have positive, strong relationships at work are more engaged and likely to stay longer at their employer. Additionally, outside the learning program, the cohort-turned-network has the potential to open doors to cross-functional collaborations, partnerships, mentorships, career growth, or even internal mobility opportunities. The cross-departmental relationships formed can break down organizational silos, resulting in shared culture and improved collaboration among otherwise disparate teams. Finally, the positive relational energy generated within a cohort boosts connection, a sense of belonging, and engagement among the learners —all of which lead to increased productivity within the organization.
What are the Potential Challenges of Cohort-Based Learning?
Despite its numerous benefits, live, cohort-based learning comes with its limitations. One notable challenge to consider is the need for effective group dynamics and collaboration. In a cohort-based setting, learners must work closely together, and conflicts in learning pace and style can emerge, hindering the learning process. Maintaining engagement and motivation throughout the program is another potential challenge, as participants may lose interest over an extended time period. In addition, ensuring equitable participation and inclusion for all members of the cohort requires thoughtful planning and facilitation. Logistics and scheduling can be challenging, particularly for cohorts with diverse time zones or competing work commitments. Addressing these issues takes intentional design, expert facilitation, and support structures to maximize the benefits of cohort-based learning.
Unlocking Organizational Potential
The modern workplace stands to benefit greatly from cohort-based learning by capitalizing on the community and collaboration inherent in the approach. From increased employee engagement to strengthened cross-functional relationships, the live cohort-based learning model activates employee potential, thus unlocking organizational transformation and achieving business success.