At a time when social interactions are lagging, designing cohort-based learning can result in improved outcomes for learners.
You know that saying about how you can lead a horse to water? Similarly, when it comes to L&D, you can sit someone down in front of a training module, but you can't make them learn. Many L&D programs notoriously have low engagement and completion rates. And yet Gartner reports that 70 percent of employees say they lack the skills needed for their current jobs.
Contrast that with high costs, and you may feel cheated. Nonetheless, companies continue to invest: The Association for Talent Development's 2022 State of the Industry report reveals that on average, organizations spent $1,280 per employee on direct learning expenditures in 2021. That's up from $1,267 per employee in 2020.
This situation is frustrating—and my frustration is what drives me to work on developing more effective ways to ensure employees learn and apply their new skills on the job. Yes, there is a better way than the status quo. Learning and training events can be effective and engaging. They can ensure employees learn and master the skills they need so that businesses have the right mix of knowledge and skills to stay competitive. The (not so) secret? A cohort-based approach to learning.
All together now
Learning is inherently social—people learn more working together than alone. When we put learners in a group, or cohort, and give them a structured plan, we amplify their learning ability. That is because learning together versus in a vacuum is more engaging as well as motivating. When a group of employees goes through a training program together, there can be a sense of camaraderie and belonging, keeping members on a path to progress.
Traditional workplace training is mostly passive. Trainers share information one-directionally, and then—fingers crossed—we hope learners will use that information to change or improve how they work. However, retraining or upskilling requires more than an information dump. It requires active work, practice, and follow-up to help employees learn new skills and apply them.
Instead of learners passively taking in information and doing the work on their own, a cohort-based approach involves participants learning as part of a group. Through feedback, collaboration, and accountability, group members support and strengthen what they're learning. Working together as a group provides interactive opportunities for critical thinking, exploration, and project-based learning so that individuals can understand concepts in ways applicable to real-world contexts. A cohort also provides a built-in ecosystem of support that is easy for learners to access when needed—for help in addition to inspiration as they see others in the cohort learn and grow.
In addition, cohort learning can lead to a deeper understanding of complex topics and how to apply new skills. According to Bloom's taxonomy, individuals must progress through several stages of learning. It begins with the least complex tasks at the bottom of the pyramid: remembering and understanding. Gaining proficiency and then mastery of a subject or skill requires moving up the pyramid to higher-level learning and practice, including application, analysis, and creation.
A lot of learning fails to progress beyond remembering and understanding. A cohort-based approach can be a catalyst for more successful L&D by creating the right setting to support learners to move higher up the learning pyramid.
A critical approach
While I would argue that a shift to cohort-based learning is way overdue, finding ways to make L&D more effective and engaging is particularly critical today. The workplace has undergone and is undergoing a massive transformation, thanks to ever-changing technologies and remote and hybrid work structures. In this moment, cohort-based learning can deliver on important benefits for companies.
It helps close critical skills gaps. Work skills are changing so rapidly that the World Economic Forum's 2020 Future of Jobs report estimates that "For those workers set to remain in their roles, the share of core skills that will change in the next five years is 40%, and 50% of all employees will need reskilling (up 4%)." For companies looking to innovate or that are going through a digital transformation, the essential question is whether their staff have the skills needed to make it happen.
A strong cohort-based L&D program can be particularly effective for upskilling. It provides opportunities for learners to interact with and learn from others who may have different skills, experiences, and career paths—which can be inspiring, thought provoking, and aspirational for employees in determining how to reinvent their role. Also, upskilling and reinvention are hard work. If learners don't have support, they are more likely to drop out. A cohort approach is effective at motivating participants to make it through a program and come out the other end with the new skills they need. The group's momentum, the preset program, and member's expectations all support a learner through layers of accountability and commitment.
It creates culture and connection. A large amount of corporate culture and community building happens in person, at the office. When workers are not all in the office all the time, they have fewer opportunities for spontaneous chats in hallways or over lunch. Hybrid and remote work structures mean employers need new ways to facilitate employee interaction, build workplace culture, and increase retention. Learning together and interacting with a group of peers can provide that proverbial water cooler or a meaningful gathering point to promote social interaction and connection, particularly across teams or departments.
Such social connections can directly affect business success. Gallup surveys have repeatedly found that employees who have strong friendships at work are more engaged, productive, and stay at their jobs longer. Cohorts can help build those connections. In fact, in my work developing cohort-based programs, I regularly see participants spontaneously forming their own study groups and building relationships with others.
You can apply cohort-based learning to all kinds of employee training. A good place to start is by identifying a group of employees who need to learn the same skill and creating a cohort with them. Another opportunity ripe for cohorts is employee onboarding. Not only will a cohort approach deepen participants' learning, but it also will provide a structured way for new hires to meet each other and develop important work connections and friendships early on.
How do you take the theory of cohort-based learning and put it into practice? Here are eight best practices to help you and your team create a successful cohort-based L&D program that helps learners truly develop the skills they need to progress in their careers.
Mix it up. Variety is the key to keeping learners engaged. When developing a curriculum and experiences, combine different formats, including asynchronous video, live labs or practice, project work, live sessions, expert presentations, breakout sessions, and coaching. If you really want participants to come out the other side with a usable skill, you'll need all those formats.
For example, in a typical week, a learner may independently work through asynchronous content as well as schedule time with a coach to work on any questions. In addition, the individual may attend an expert presentation and then break into a smaller group to discuss the topic or complete an activity. Concurrently, learners may participate in ongoing forums—chats or live sessions—to ask questions, share work, and give feedback to others in the group.
Try flipped learning. Instead of individuals spending class time passively listening to a lecture or presentation, flipped learning means participants learn the material on their own and come to class ready to be interactive and hands-on. Class activities could include practice, discussion, work presentations, group activities, problem-solving challenges, Q&As, and feedback sessions. The goal of flipped learning is to help learners build upon basic concepts and get them to deeper levels of learning and skills mastery faster. Research has found that flipped learning is particularly effective in helping people acquire professional and technical skills.
Give thoughtful consideration to learner skill progression and pacing when designing group experiences. Establishing stages and phases can be helpful. For instance, using breakout rooms for learners to self-select where they belong for an activity (such as haven't started, completed the prep work, or partially through) and facilitating the sessions accordingly can be an effective way to bring everyone along while still engaging those who may be more advanced.
Create a strong structure to boost accountability. To keep cohorts on track, set clear expectations and goals at the start. The program should adhere to a firm schedule with milestones and project due dates. Enable participants to block out study time in weekly calendars during the workday.
The program won't manage itself, so you'll need an L&D team member to commit to program management to keep everyone on schedule and ensure the turnaround for instructor or coach feedback is quick. Leverage technology to carry some of the administrative burden—for example, implement automated nudges, notifications, and reminders.
Integrate continuous feedback. Put simply, without feedback, there is no real learning. Receiving feedback from both coaches and peers encourages learners to reflect on and evaluate their work. It also helps participants increase self-awareness of what they know and don't know, and (if feedback is done right) it increases learners' confidence as they progress toward proficiency and mastery.
For feedback to be useful, provide it continuously, not just at the end of a project or after a quiz. Likewise, creating opportunities for learners to provide ongoing feedback to each other enhances learning and can build trust and openness about sharing work. Further, scheduling regular check-ins, assessments, and feedback with coaches along the learning journey is an effective way to help learners stay engaged, learn from mistakes, and improve.
Measure effectiveness. Program success should not only be about high attendance and completion rates. Also measure success by how proficient learners are at using their new skills on the job. Set learning goals at the start, and determine how you will measure proficiency.
In a cohort model that provides continuous feedback and interaction with coaches, regularly measure effectiveness along the learner journey, with check-ins to monitor whether participants are tracking to the outcome. Doing so can enable early intervention with learners or more timely changes to the program to improve outcomes.
Provide ways to foster connection beyond video calls. Increased remote and hybrid work is forcing companies to rethink how they do business. Doing everything the same way it was done in person but on video is not the answer. To keep people who may not be co-located connected and engaged, try different formats that promote interaction, such as live sessions, breakouts, and one-on-one coaching.
In addition, use technology such as messaging platforms, whiteboards, and collaboration tools. While L&D administrators or coaches may facilitate discussions on such platforms during the program, ideally cohort participants will continue conversations and friendships on their own after the training program ends.
Make time for learning. Time constraints are high on the list of reasons employees don't complete training programs. If your L&D program is competing with other off-hours life demands, staff won't complete it.
Therefore, make learning part of the job by enabling employees to block off time for it. That may require the L&D team to help facilitate agreements between employees and managers to reduce work demands during the training program and enable participants to manage their schedules to accommodate group meetings and activities. Additionally, implementing career development processes for everyone that focus on learning goals versus title or position goals helps change culture and emphasize the value your organization puts on L&D.
Start small and build. If you plan on building a cohort-based learning program, know that scaling up can be challenging. Thus, start small (that is to say, a narrow topic, specific skill, or particular team) and build incrementally, tracking and analyzing the results as you go. When you consider delivery platforms and partners, determine how the platform will manage multiple cohorts and whether your company has the internal resources (such as coaches, instructors, and facilitators) to cover the breadth of topics employees need.
Learning and human interaction
To help employees learn what they need to excel in their jobs and develop the skills your organization requires to be competitive, L&D is critical. However, employers must take a different approach to training to achieve success and a higher return on L&D investments. Making that change will require company leaders to shift their mindsets about what effective learning entails. Rather than participating in asynchronous, relatively passive training modules, employees must have the time, space, and human interaction—exploring, practicing, applying, and making mistakes to learn—needed to do the work.