Saturday, May 31, 2014

Observations from an Unofficial Cohort

by Kamilah Cummings

This quarter I had the unexpected experience of teaching as a part of a cohort. Granted, it was not an official cohort. However, at the molecular level, it met the definition of one. Despite the unofficial nature of this cohort, I observed some undeniable benefits of this experience for my students and me.

Although an increasing number of institutions that serve nontraditional students are beginning to adopt the cohort model, cohorts are nothing new. In fact, they have been around for decades. However, as the saying goes, “everything old is new again.” For me, this was a new experience.

Carolyn Callaghan, an Associate Dean of Professional, Continuing and Distance Education Studies, describes a cohort as “a group of students who enter a program of study together, share common learning experiences during a specified time period and complete the program at the end of that specified time period.” Having never taught in an official cohort program, I had not given the model enough thought to form an opinion about it. However, viewing my recent experience through the lens of Callaghan’s definition, it is easy to see benefits in this learning model.

One of the three classes I taught this quarter had six students – six diverse women who had all taken another course together in the previous term. The students all started the program around the same time, and though they had different focus areas, they all had a similar timeframe for completing the program. While I have had classes where a few students knew each other, I had never had an experience where every student had taken classes together in succession and was at a similar place in a program.

One of the things that struck me immediately was the familiarity the students had with each other. This created a high level of engaging and surprisingly candid discussions. The students were open about their anxieties about writing, the course, and succeeding in the program as well. In what I dubbed the 10-minute vent, I started each class with a journal exercise and then allowed them to share whatever they wanted with the class. Although I had never incorporated anything like this into a class, it seemed to offer this group a place to share their feelings in a supportive and encouraging environment. I was amazed at the positive impact that this had on the collective energy of the class from week to week. As we transitioned from discussing personal issues to writing, there was never a dull moment. I never found myself grasping for ways to resuscitate the class. I will admit that there were times where I had to steer the focus back to writing, but it was never a difficult task to get them back on track.

Another place where I saw the benefit of the familiarity that these students had with each other was in peer feedback, an integral component of the writing course. Unfortunately, despite the importance of this aspect of writing, students often need prodding to provide constructive writing feedback to peers. However, that was not the case with this group.

In the book Becoming Adult Learners: Principles and Practices for Effective Development, Eleanor Drago-Severson reflects on a study of a group of 16 adult learners who participated in a cohort  as part of the Polaroid Corporation’s Adult Diploma Program. She states that “For these learners, belonging to a cohort, a tightly knit group with a common purpose, proved important to supporting skill development and transformational learning” (72). I witnessed this firsthand with my group. From reminding a citation weary classmate of research skills she had previously demonstrated in another course to offering to help another student who missed class create an ePortfolio, these students were determined to make sure everyone “got it.”

When one student expressed anxiety over an oral presentation she had to make in another class, the other students invited her to practice before them. I obliged. One thing that I learned as part of my unofficial cohort teaching experience was that as the instructor I played a part in maximizing the cohort experience and further cultivating the sense of community that had already been established.

While some argue that adult learners have support networks outside of school, and are less likely to need the type of support offered in a cohort (Drago-Severson 72), I saw a group of students who supported each other in myriad ways. Whenever a classmate expressed feelings of being overwhelmed and wanting to quit the program, others encouraged her to persevere. During the break in one session, they even helped her find classes to register for next term. Unlike my other two classes, none of the students in this class dropped or withdrew. Additionally, they all completed the required assignments.

According to Callaghan, “Cohort members tend to collaborate, interact, exchange resources, share information and support one another in and out of the classroom.” Drago-Severson’s interviews with the students who participated in the Polaroid cohort support this. She found that with the exception of one student, all the students saw their classmates as supports in addition to the teacher (82). This mirrored my experience. My students had no reservations about asking me or each other questions during class. When there were times a student had trouble understanding a concept, others assisted in explaining it to her.

Of the three courses that I taught this quarter, I received the least questions outside of class from this group of students. In sharp contrast, students in my online class, which has little sense of community despite having assignments that encourage it, regularly email and call me with questions. It appears that the online students view me as their only source of support.

Admittedly, I am no expert on cohorts. There are obvious interpersonal, programmatic, financial, and related issues that require consideration before cohort programs can be created. However, I agree with Callaghan who asserts, “. . . cohorts can be supportive systems for student persistence and educational success.” At the end of the day, this is the goal for adult education stakeholders – student persistence and success. My unofficial cohort experience this term leads me to believe that if cohorts provide another route to this destination, they are worth trying.

Works Cited
Callaghan, Carolyn. Cohorts: A New Generation of Diverse Non-Traditional Learners . 4 March 2014. 31 May 2014 <>.

Drago-Severson, Eleanor. Becoming Adult Learners: Principles and Practices for Effective Development. Teachers College Press, 2004.

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