the cohort learning experience – what’s it all about?

According to, a cohort is:

  1. a group or company
  2. a companion or associate

I have had a few recent experiences that have got me thinking about the cohort learning model.

We recently ran a recruitment round for the Independent Researcher Scheme. The scheme, “offers a bespoke development programme for Researchers who are committed to developing their research careers and aspiring to be an independent researcher.”

We found it really hard to recruit a cohort, which made me ponder. Was it the marketing? Was it this visibility of the scheme? Likely. Was it something else as well? Undoubtedly.

A previous iteration of the scheme with funding attached as part of the offer had also proved challenging to recruit to, even with the ‘carrot’ of a small grant. So, I am now wondering, is it because we are not successfully articulating the benefits of a cohort learning experience?

Based not only on my observations but the comments I have heard from others on cohort schemes, cohort learning offers an array of benefits, particularly:

  • Group expectations and behaviours are agreed, leading to a shared set of goals and ‘rules’ that underpin the development
  • A group investment in learning and success as a collective and individually
  • Opportunities to learn from peers who are in the same role, with similar challenges but whose day to day experience is markedly different
  • The chance to develop networks and potentially friendships that can support individuals in not only their career but their personal lives too
  • An opportunity to become a collective voice that can shape and influence the culture of a discipline, an organisation or equally an individual
  • An organised programme of development which enables an understanding of where the collective learning will take the individual

Yesterday, I attended the Vice Chancellor’s Fellows progress event. This is a cohort of 15 individuals appointed to be at the forefront of their specific disciplines that have been intentionally brought together as a cohort whilst on their three year journey. Whilst all Fellows shared their research progress over the last two and a half years and were able to show many new collaborations and publishing and income success, there was something more significant that came through.

Through both their individual two-minute reflections about the scheme and conversations I had afterwards with a number of them, they shared how useful it had been to be in a cohort with other people at a similar career stage. Significantly, what came through was this sense of how useful it had been to be able to share ideas, for example on navigating certain management related tasks such as recruitment or setting up a research group. These topics were not part of any ‘formal’ delivered learning the cohort received but by the nature of being together, as a trusted group, they had chance to share their concerns and ideas to everyone’s benefit.

I understand that people can feel hesitant about committing to a cohort particularly when considering TIME. I get the sense (and have received some direct feedback) that people feel that any time ‘away’ from the day job needs to be directly and immediately applicable e.g. training in the use of a new piece of equipment. I admit to feeling saddened by this perspective.

Training absolutely has its place and is critical for technical proficiency but development is about a much deeper and broader enhancement of skill.

The kind of development that comes with cohort learning, regardless of the core focus of the module or programme are development of skills such as coaching of others, leadership, self-regulation, broadened perspective, career and/or job planning (to name but a few).

For me, these type of experiences and learning points are as significant as that of the learning event itself but are often the most long-lasting and sometimes unexpected.


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