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ATD Blog

Using Neuroscience Principles to Create Powerful Cohort Learning

Monday, May 1, 2023

We’ve all been involved in traditional learning where expertise is imparted as though we’re an empty vessel being filled with knowledge. We’ve also all had plenty of experiences where we learned with, or from, our peers. These two experiences feel decidedly different. But why?

Neuroscience, or the study of the structure and function of the brain, gives us some answers. When we interact with others, parts of our brain are activated that help us engage and interact differently with concepts and ideas. When learning complex skills like leadership and emotional intelligence, activating these parts of the brain is especially important.

Cohort learning—learning that centers around interacting with peers—can be incredibly powerful when designed with the brain in mind (no pun intended). But just because you’re learning with others doesn’t guarantee a good learning experience. Think back to a time you learned something in a group. What worked and what didn’t?

If done correctly, cohort learning can encourage deeper learning and help people grasp complex concepts —the key words there are if done correctly. Keep the three main concepts below in mind when designing a cohort learning program to ensure your program accomplishes your goals.

1. Engage the reward areas of the brain

We all know that socializing and interaction can be rewarding. But there is something special about how our brains treat human interaction that can’t be replicated and can only be triggered when a person believes they’re interacting with a real human being. When we experience reward while learning, we’re more motivated to continue.

When learning social or soft skills like leadership, interacting with other people becomes even more important. Learning how to successfully interact with other humans is nearly impossible if you’re not interacting with humans.

By ensuring a learning program allows for social interaction and focusing on that interaction during the learning, you can reap the benefits of our brain’s reward center for dramatically better results.


2. Encourage mentalizing

Mentalizing is our ability to understand the mental states—including the needs, beliefs, feelings, and goals—of ourselves and others. And to teach social intelligence and leadership skills, mentalizing is essential.

How does cohort learning enable mentalizing? When we interact with others in a safe environment while working on something we all care about, we naturally want to connect. When we want to connect meaningfully with others, we need to take on the perspectives of others, which requires us to mentalize. Any mentalizing that happens can also be much more powerful and effective when people try to understand perspectives that are very different from their own. Mentalizing about someone who grew up in the same town as you, works the same job as you, or has the same interests as you can be easy. But when you’re encouraged to step into the shoes of someone you don’t have much in common with, it can truly broaden your horizons and lead to much deeper learning.

3. Build in-groups, not out-groups

There are already many built-in barriers in our brain that can influence our behavior and disrupt our ability to engage—one of those is a tendency to see those who are different from us as an outsider or from an “out-group.”


Think about sports rivalries. When your favorite team plays its biggest rival in the championship match, you can often feel the tension between the two groups of fans. You’re not likely to buddy up with your rival team’s fans. However, someone who’s wearing your favorite team’s jersey? You might find an instant connection and bond over last night’s game. You’re more willing to open up to them and be vulnerable with your experiences than you’d be with your rivals.

Cohort learning, when set up correctly, creates closeness and connection, and from there, fuels learning. And there are a few things you can do to help develop trust and connections quickly.

Sometimes a novel experience, such as a group of people believing they see a UFO simultaneously, can bring people together. But before you go out and buy a drone, you can also create the same feelings through a challenging experience (think a boot camp or your third-grade field trip to a ropes course), or by engaging in mutual vulnerability and sharing with others.

By designing your cohort learning program to incorporate and allow for these three things, you are well on your way to creating a powerful learning opportunity. But one last key is essential for each of them—psychological safety. In a cohort learning environment, people cannot engage the reward centers of their brain, effectively mentalize, or feel like they are in-group if they don’t first feel psychologically safe.

How do you create that type of environment? Well, it takes a bit of effort. And we’d love to walk you through the process during our ATD 2023 Conference & EXPO session. Will we see you there?

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

About the Author

Michael Kester is the CEO and founder of Lead Belay, providing peer-supported, coach-led leadership development for new and middle managers. Previously, Michael was co-president of The Regis Company, which creates top-tier custom leadership development programs for large enterprises. Michael is a former McKinsey & Company consultant and financial analyst for Lehman Brothers’ Merchant Banking group. Michael holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a B.A. in philosophy, summa cum laude, from CU Boulder.

About the Author

Dr. Grace Chang, Associate Director of Learning R&D for EY Americas, is a cognitive neuroscientist who provides research guidance during development of learning solutions and leads the R&D team's assessment practice. Prior to EY, she was Chief Scientific Officer at The Regis Company and taught management professionals around the world as a Lead Professor for the NeuroLeadership Institute. She has presented at numerous conferences and has published both academic and practitioner-focused articles.

1 Comment
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Hey Michael and Grace! Thanks for this interesting and helpful article. I love the practical guidance aligned with the neuroscience. You two are my goto when it comes to cohort learning. Keep up the great work!
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