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3 Essential Strategies for Effective Cohort-Based Learning

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Tue May 23 2023

3 Essential Strategies for Effective Cohort-Based Learning
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When creating or implementing learning and development programs, the most significant consideration is the learner. The ultimate impact of any educational experience—whether it’s a 15-minute video or a graduate school class—is contingent upon the learner’s receptiveness and participation.

Enter cohort-based learning—called “transformational” by Forbes, the “gold standard” by the Brandon Hall Group, and the “future of learning” by Abilitie.

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The primary objective of any L&D initiative should be to curate a constructive learning experience for every participant. But many asynchronous bite-sized courses fail at the basic task of developing leadership soft skills. In contrast, cohort-based leadership development experiences have proven to deliver optimal outcomes.

However, embracing a team-oriented strategy for leadership development alone is not enough. It is vital that you consider three key strategies when creating a cohort-based learning program:

1. Foster an exchange of diverse perspectives, and focus on content that challenges conventional thinking.

A cohort-based structure provides an ideal setting for a collaborative learning approach, as it allows individuals to share their unique viewpoints, engage in healthy debate, and ultimately gain a well-rounded understanding of the subject matter.

A study conducted by Columbia Business School found that individuals were more inclined to adopt eco-friendly practices if their neighbors exhibited a shared commitment to environmental conservation. The government’s directive to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” is far less compelling than knowing and understanding someone who cares about their environmental impact.

The same approach can be used in team-based L&D programs. When a group of learners share common experiences over time, progressing through the same course materials, practicing applying similar business concepts, and collaborating to solve real-life problems, a sense of community and care for others naturally develops. The exchange of viewpoints, identification of strengths and weaknesses, and overall knowledge sharing is crucial for effective learning and can reengage employees working remotely.

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Abilitie Director of Learning Programs Andy Rosenberg has been on both sides of the L&D table—he’s a previous buyer and current developer of cohort-based learning programs. He said, “There’s value in people working together, but there’s more value in using the collective brain power and perspective to work on a real problem at the company. While that’s more work for the organization to set up, it’s worth the investment.”

Rosenberg says a huge benefit to the knowledge sharing created by cohort-based, experiential learning programs is participants’ ability to directly apply their learnings to real-world problems when they return to the workplace.

2. Prioritize relationships.

“When thinking about what type of learning program to purchase for your organization, you have to consider the rate of usage to value,” Rosenberg said. “When the deliverable includes relationships, value rises as everyone gets something out of the peer interaction.”

The long-term benefits of relationship-building in the workplace have been understood for decades, and a team-based approach to training facilitates opportunities for individuals to connect, learn from each other, and understand one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and overall job duties.

Dr. Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, told Forbes earlier this year that strong relationships at work positively impact the engagement, effectiveness, and happiness of employees.

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Relationship-building is a critical and significant deliverable of training programs for the individuals and the organization. This makes team-based experiential learning opportunities—such as collaborative competitions and business simulations—more effective than individual or self-paced programs.

3. Look outside the classroom and incorporate real-world problem-solving.

In courses that incorporate real-world problems, learners have the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills to practical situations, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of the material. This approach can enhance the learners’ ability to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, leading to more effective leadership outcomes.

Matthew Confer is vice president of strategy at Abilitie and has worked with hundreds of clients across industries. When considering learning options, he encourages L&D decision makers to prioritize modalities that emphasize practice and reflection.

“By nature, the decisions leaders make on a day-to-day basis are not black and white,” he said. “How do you act when there’s no right answer? Successful experiential learning programs force participants to make decisions, observe the impact of those decisions, and quickly pivot if needed. That’s hard to do in a self-study course. Confidence comes from practice, and simulations are the environment for that.”

Dr. Nigel Paine, learning expert, speaker, writer, and broadcaster, is also a strong proponent of community-based learning. He views group skills building as part of a bigger picture that includes company values, employee belonging, and overall organizational success.

“Learning in organizations must focus beyond the individual and connect them to others,” he said. “We learn from others and we learn in community. Separating people leads to fractured organizations.”

Effective leadership development programs prioritize relationship-building and real-world problem-solving. By adopting a cohort-based structure, learners can:

  • Engage in healthy debate.

  • Gain a well-rounded understanding of the subject matter.

  • Apply their knowledge to practical situations.

  • Exchange viewpoints.

  • Identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Share knowledge among participants.

  • Reengage if working remotely.

Speaking on the power of cohort-based learning, Dr. Paine said, “Create an environment where it’s safe to ask questions and make connections—that catches fire and spreads throughout an organization … It’s not about boxes or questions on a screen. It’s about people.”

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