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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

4 Reasons to Consider a Cohort-Based Learning Solution

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

We love cohort-based learning here at Your Instructional Designer. Cohorts leverage the human connection that so many of us have missed in an era where asynchronous online learning has been continually pushed as an efficient method of training. When you have enough participants and the right structures in place, the shared experience can create powerful peer to peer learning and lasting relationships.

It's one of the reasons From Data to Design is a cohort-based multi-layered learning experience. Over 10 weeks, learners are guided down a path that includes microlectures, project-based learning, branching scenarios, templates, assessments, and prompts to connect-- all of which is dripped out at timed intervals. Members are encouraged to join in discussion and to meet weekly with Accountability Buddies. There are regularly scheduled live Q&A sessions and occasion full-cohort discussion sessions.

While the course modules and resources were developed for independent, asynchronous consumption so that they can be used by students across the world, the entire learning experience is made impactful through the inclusion of the cohort-model.

A great deal of learning happens as a result of the conversations, collaborations, and knowledge sharing that takes place in our community over the course of just a few weeks.

What factors made me opt for a cohort-based program, when MOOCs and fully asynchronous digital courses are viewed as more time and cost efficient?

Let's discuss.

The 4 Reasons

Focused content makes conversation more likely

When learners go through their learning journey alone, it's not obvious to them who is having a shared experience, who is thinking about the same themes and concepts, who has similar questions. A cohort changes that.

This is important because instructional designers and other learning professionals often self-report being introverted (very unofficial, anecdotal data). The shared experience built into cohorts can reduce some of the anxiety attached to talking with new people.

In From Data to Design, as content is dripped, cohort members are nudged to respond to the new themes / concepts / questions. This makes it easier to engage peers in conversation. The topics are already present and relevant. It decreases the likelihood that a learner will delve into ideas only one party is interested in. Instead, they'll have the same information to work from and to build on together.

By exposing cohort members to similar experiences at similar times, the chance that there will be meaningful exchanges of ideas is increased.

If you need to encourage team building and collaboration, a cohort model might be for you.

Social learning leads to social skill development

Needs analysis, consulting, and project management are skills that require professionals to respond to social cues, sometimes quickly. L&D professionals need to be able to communicate based on the information they have, assess the gaps, and seek more information as needed. It's a social dance of back and forth, give and take, listen and respond-- one that is challenging to capture without being immersed in a social environment. Being able to hear about others' experiences, perspectives, and solutions allows learners to see and respond to complexity.

Cohort-based learning also creates an environment where peers can provide feedback in a more timely fashion than the formalized review process. In doing so, they learn how to give and how to respond to each other's feedback and responses to feedback. Learning how to give and receive feedback is a critical skill for anyone interested in advancing in their career.

If social skill development is a key objective for your organization, cohort-based learning could be a good solution.

Minimize overwhelm by creating connection

The subject matter of From Data to Design challenges learners to work through ambiguity and make decisions. The project-based learning aspects require learners to wade through a lot of information to perform tasks for assessment.

It would be very easy for a learner to feel overwhelmed / overloaded by information and quit. With a cohort, program members cheer each other along, sharing their own struggles, normalizing the fact that the course is designed to help you learn from mistakes. Knowing that everyone is being challenged keeps learners engaged, even when things get tough.

Being comfortable enough to discuss and share those challenges is also a product of the cohort model. Simply being in the same space once or invited to Slack about an experience doesn't mean folks will participate or allow themselves to be vulnerable. When people show up together week over week, demonstrating their commitment to learning and to the group, it builds trust and connections. This is what powers reduced overwhelm, improved motivation, and continued commitment to the cohort.

If your content is complex, overwhelming, or just a lot, peer support can help maintain motivation and learner confidence.

Connecting with peers helps to establish a professional network

From Data to Design program members are usually mid-career L&D professionals. Many times, they are siloed. Some are the "L&D department of one" or have a role where they are prevented from collaborating with industry peers in meaningful ways. They want to feel that they're a part of the industry. The cohort model allows them to connect, get to know each other as professionals, and feel more a part of the larger industry.

Program members often continue their relationships beyond the cohort and sometimes find opportunities to work together on professional projects.

If your people need to network, cohort-based learning can facilitate that professional connect-making.

A Bit of Tech Talk

These are just four of the most pressing reasons that we're excited about cohort-based learning. Of course, they aren't all the reasons. And we'd love to hear why you're excited about cohorts in the comments.

There's also one more thing I want to point out: From Data to Design is digital. While I attended a cohort-based PhD program that was on site, cohorts DO NOT HAVE TO BE IN-PERSON to be effective.

You can-- and should, especially if you have a remote workforce-- embrace digital transformation and implement cohort-based learning.

There are a number of technologies already popping up to support cohort-based learning.

I use Thinkific + Facebook for From Data to Design and Kajabi + Facebook for the eLearning Freelancer Bootcamp.

You can also leverage tools like:

It's only limited by your imagination.


Ready to build a digital cohort that keeps people consistently participating?

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1 Comment

Sergio Cabrales
Sergio Cabrales
Nov 13, 2022

As an online learner who has completed two Master’s programs entirely online, I often felt alone in my journey. While most of my courses had weekly discussion boards, connecting with students via assignments wasn’t practical. The reasons you give for cohort-based learning are right on point. It amazes me that organizations and educational organizations don’t take advantage of cohort-based learning. As you noted, the cohort model lends itself to a meaningful exchange of ideas and encourages team building and collaboration. Knowing that a group of people has the same experience as you can enhance learner participation and create meaningful connections. In my opinion, the Cohort model can combine the flexibility of online learning tools and the social learning advantage of…

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