Demystifying Cohort-Based Learning: Your Ultimate Starter Guide

Author: Intrepid by VitalSource
November 29, 2023
cohort learning

Are traditional modes of learning falling short of meeting your organization’s mission critical business challenges? Is one-size-fits-all e-learning not generating the levels of engagement or effectiveness your organization needs when it comes to topics like leadership, technology training, or onboarding?

Enter cohort-based learning, a dynamic and collaborative approach that is gaining momentum across industries. In this article, we’ll uncover the benefits, debunk the myths, and explore how to drive better business outcomes using this innovative model of learning.

What is cohort-based learning?

Cohort-based learning is a social learning experience for a group of dedicated learners to build skills together over a period of time. It typically has a defined beginning and end, and includes both facilitated and self-directed elements for learners.

Cohort learning fosters a supportive community in which learners connect, collaborate, and grow together. By creating a structured learning experience with a strong emphasis on peer interaction and real-world projects, participants not only gain knowledge but also develop valuable skills that are applied directly to their work.

What is cohort based learning

The benefits of cohort learning (and how it can lead to better business outcomes)

Cohort training is a shared learning experience that allows a group of learners to build skills together over a specified period of time. It focuses on applying new concepts directly to a learner’s most critical work. For example, through a series of assignments a learner might apply concepts to develop an account plan for a top client.

There are a wide range of benefits to cohort-based learning, but the most important are:

It creates connection.

The ability to connect with others, as well as the opportunity to learn from and with a group, is one of the most important benefits of cohort-based learning. Connection and interaction are influential in motivating and engaging learners, reinforcing new concepts, and fostering success at all levels. Connection also allows learners (and organizations) to both contribute to and benefit from crowdsourced wisdom.

It builds competence.

Cohort-based learning builds commitment and business impact. It is one of the most efficacious ways to accomplish professional learning, as it provides the opportunity for learning to be spaced out over time and applied to real business situations. It also allows deep skill building and practice, activities that are often not available or possible with more static learning that is separate from a learner’s work environment.

It’s flexible, scalable, and lower cost.

Cohort learning works for a variety of employees, from those just starting their career to the highest levels of leadership. It allows learners to participate at their convenience while also benefiting from learning alongside their peers on a common schedule. For the myriad organizations with remote, hybrid, or global workforce scenarios, it’s easy and affordable to scale. Cohort-based learning allows organizations to quickly create and deploy high-impact programs to large audiences of learners while reducing (or eliminating) the costs of instructor delivery, travel, and facilities.

Not only is learner collaboration beneficial to learners themselves, but it has the power to transform significant business outcomes. Research shows that high-performing organizations are using 5.5X more collaborative learning than low-performing ones, and are seeing 4.9X more positive business outcomes as a result. So now let’s debunk some common myths surrounding cohort learning that might be holding your organization back from higher performance.


Common myths about cohort learning in the workplace

As the popularity of cohort learning continues to skyrocket, so do the myths, misunderstandings, and half-truths that surround it. Let’s separate fact from fiction when it comes to a few of the most common misconceptions about cohort-based learning.

Myth #1: In-person is the gold standard for cohort learning.

Let’s be clear, gathering people to learn together in the same place can be extremely powerful. Live, in-person learning experiences can be great for many things like problem-solving, brainstorming, coaching, relationship-building, and more. But aside from the obvious cost and scalability challenges, it isn’t always the best learning experience.

For example, “turn to your neighbor to share your thoughts” isn’t the same thing as practicing and building a new skill in a real work environment. And learning at a live event over a day or two doesn’t allow for practice and skill-building over time, which research shows is how effective learning happens.

Cohort-based learning solves many of the challenges of in-person learning. It provides many of the same social and collaborative benefits as in-person experiences, but it’s also great for practicing skills on the job, upskilling spaced out over time, enabling flexible participation for learners, scaling to large, global audiences, and using time and money efficiently. With cohort learning, it’s not an either/or scenario with modalities; rather it’s a blended learning experience that’s possible and desirable for effective learning.

Helpful tips:

  • Be Intentional: Bring people together live when it matters most for specific purposes and be intentional about maximizing connection and collaboration. Provide plenty of opportunities for engagement with peers and experts, as well as opportunities for learners to practice and apply new skills to reinforce learning over time. Consider what is the highest, best use of expert and learner time, and what can be experienced semi-synchronously (over time) versus synchronously (live).
  • Blend Modalities: The magic of effective learning is not just in content modalities, but in the time-bound collaboration, practice, and shared experience of the cohort itself. Blend in-person and virtual sessions, synchronous and asynchronous activities, and small group interactions and large cohort engagements to create a dynamic and impactful learning environment. Use asynchronous activities to set the stage and introduce foundational concepts, align expectations, and crowdsource ideas. 
  • Scale and Engage: Optimize for scalability and deeper learner engagement; for example, by organizing small groups to work on projects within a large cohort program.

Myth #2: Senior leaders want a superior learning experience that is in person and high-end.

This is not entirely true. Senior leaders do value coming together in person to share insights, network, and learn from experts. However, structured learning for leaders can be perceived as “too basic” or in competition with other, more desirable demands such as relationship-building. One approach that can work for this audience is to design a spaced experience over time that can encourage curiosity and a desire to engage in an extended experience.

Designing a blended cohort-based learning experience can be a great solution for a senior audience. It’s possible and easy to do this by making use of all types of learning modalities. For example, before in-person sessions, you can set the stage with assessments, self-paced learning, preparatory reflection, and pre-event collaboration. These components can build a strong foundation for a powerful, focused in-person learning experience that can be maximized with a focus on building connections in small groups, applied learning, and coaching.

Helpful tips:

  • Design for Leaders Over Time: Create an experience that gives senior leaders just enough to be curious and engage, and clearly demonstrate the WIIFM (what’s in it for me).
  • Optimize In-person Time: Focus on building connections and networking—senior leaders value relationships.
  • Leverage Virtual Learning Strategically: Build continuity with online communities, virtual keynote sessions with experts, digital simulations, and pertinent articles, podcasts, and research papers.
  • Less is More: A great learner experience doesn’t necessarily mean more content. Ruthlessly prioritize objectives and target sessions to the audience.

benefits of cohort learning

Myth #3: Online cohort learning requires too much effort from learners, so they won’t do it.

Finding the time for learning – regardless of modality – is a perennial challenge for learning leaders. In fact, a working group of Chief Learning Officers (CLOs) at top global companies recently identified it as one of their top challenges.

It’s important to beware of platforms offering easy solutions to complex, upskilling challenges. A learning system that offers micro-learning “in the flow of work” may fit the bill as a refresher on task-based learning, but it really isn’t designed for deep skill-building. Deep skill-building requires ample opportunity for practice, reflection and feedback – not just consumption of micro-learning.

Employees will make time for learning that is highly relevant to their work, helps them build critical skills, enables them to learn and collaborate with peers and experts, and motivates and rewards them. Finish rates of cohort-based digital learning experiences are often greater than 90%, for instance, whereas asynchronous finish rates can be less than 5%. This significant difference underscores the value of real-time interaction enabled by cohort learning, where learners get feedback and insight from real-life facilitators and moderators in an online learning experience to engage and motivate them.

Remember that learning together with peers and experts is a deeply human experience. While generative AI (Artificial Intelligence) tools will make the learning experience more efficient, personalized, and impactful, bots alone won’t inspire learners.

Helpful tips:

  • Be Relevant, Set Expectations: Learners will prioritize what is valuable to them. Communicate expectations when it comes to time, participation, teamwork, etc. Be clear on what they will be able to do and produce as a result (more WIIFM!).
  • Design for Engagement: Provide opportunities for learners to interact with peers and experts, and practice and apply skills to their work.
  • Keep Access Easy: Make the learning journey accessible from end-to-end in one “hub” to keep access and navigation easy. If the effort is too hard to navigate, the effort will not be made.
  • Show Up, Communicate: Automate communications and nudges, but don’t skimp on opportunities for learners to receive feedback and recognition from experts with real insights and wisdom.

Myth #4: Cohorts are “one size fits all” and don’t offer personalized learning.

The reality is a cohort model of learning can be personalized in many ways. Learning paths, group size, content, and discussions can all be differentiated and organized for different roles and functions. You can personalize learning by applying it to an individual’s actual work, bringing different learner types together, or using assessments or quizzes to recommend paths for individuals.

Customize the learner experience with opportunities for feedback from peers, experts, and AI tools that are targeted to their specific path and assignment. Distinct but overlapping learning experiences make sure that the experience is beneficial for everyone involved. And if the content must remain the same for everyone, there are ways to offer small group sessions in which learners can share expertise or apply learning based on their role.

While you will never be able to design content that will connect 100% of the people, you can open the door to let people share their own thoughts, ideas, and experiences. When you do that, you’re allowing people the chance to 1) make their own personal connection to the content, and 2) create user generated content that may resonate better than the course content because it’s more personal and relatable.

cohort learning example

An example of content that allows learners to share their own thoughts and experiences.

Helpful tips:

  • Create Segments and Personas: Understand WHO is in your audience and determine what elements are the same and different. For the different elements, consider how you might address each one.
  • Be an Internal Marketer: Show examples where learners can see themselves—scenarios, small groups where they can share expertise, targeted content or communications, or branched learning paths.
  • Build in Feedback Mechanisms: Create opportunities to allow for peers, experts, or AI tools to offer input and feedback to personalize the learning experience.
  • Go Beyond the Cohort: If the content or subject matter must apply to all (i.e., compliance or onboarding), consider communities of practice or resource libraries based on specific audience, function, and/or location.

Myth #5: I don’t have a platform optimized for cohort learning.

I have to deal with what I’ve got. This might be true, but there’s a reason why learning tech is growing so quickly as an industry. We know that one platform doesn’t do everything perfectly. Blended learning experiences require a mix of tools such as virtual delivery platforms, simulations, video, social, gamification, video assessment options, event management, etc. But it’s also important to make sure the user experience is not highly inefficient for administrators, facilitators, and coaches because learners won’t come back and engage with a poor experience.

In Intrepid’s cohort-based learning platform, for instance, you can create blended, context-rich learning experiences that amplify content with cohort activities, real-world application, and live sessions with an admin interface that’s powerful and easy to use. In a recent Training Industry survey of learning leaders, almost half of respondents (48%) were using a dedicated collaborative learning platform, and high-performing organizations were 4X more likely to upgrade technologies and tools to support learning than low-performing organizations.

Helpful tips:

  • Assess What You Have: To get started, assess the tools you already have and identify any requirements for a cohort learning program in terms of engagement, communication, measurement, content, and social elements.
  • Build a Business Case: Create a business plan, comparing the investment of time to manually administer all the moving parts rather than optimizing with a platform designed to deliver cohort learning.
  • Do a Trial: If you can’t go all in on a technology, trial an “off the shelf” solution with a smaller group to experience what cohort-style learning can offer your organization. For example, try a cohort learning experience to develop a group of leaders in your organization.
  • Determine Roles: Based on the requirements, determine the roles you need to successfully implement the program, such as moderator, administrator, and designer. Consider contracting or upskilling your team if you don’t have these skills in-house.

Choosing the right cohort-based learning platform takes some up-front research and effort, but the results will have a powerful impact on both employees and organizations.

what is cohort based learning impact at high-performing organizations

Case studies: cohort-based learning examples

We know that cohort-based learning allows organizations to create connection, build competence, and scale flexibly, but what does that look like in practice? These case studies demonstrate how two different organizations put cohort-based learning to work to achieve their strategic objectives.

ServiceNow upskills technical architects with cohort-based learning

When ServiceNow needed to rapidly upskill technical architects to meet the growing demand for their services, it partnered with Intrepid to launch its new globally distributed Certified Technical Architect (CTA) program. The existing program suffered from three key challenges: a high level of manual administrative work impeded scalability; difficult tracking and reporting systems lowered functionality; and navigation across multiple systems and tools led to a poor user experience.

With Intrepid, ServiceNow created a rigorous, cohort-based program that developed the technical and communication skills required for architects to meet client needs. The thoughtful, multi-modal program designed with Intrepid’s collaborative learning platform allowed for rapid scaling, improved participant skills, and increased revenue. The resulting 12-week CTA program included live virtual sessions, self-paced learning, individual and group assignments, quizzes, and a capstone project. Within each cohort, learners were also assigned to smaller teams of five to seven learners for applied group projects.

The resulting program met all of ServiceNow’s key objectives with a single localized platform, the creation of valuable connections between learners around the globe, and real-world assignments with opportunities to practice and apply new skills. The changes allowed ServiceNow to easily increase cohort size and frequency in a seamless collaborative learning environment, while also improving learner engagement and satisfaction rates.

Read the full ServiceNow case study. >>

Microsoft transforms global salesforce with cohort learning in the workplace

When Microsoft committed to becoming a mobile-first, cloud-first company, it needed to overhaul its training to radically upskill its global sales team in order to sell new cloud solutions successfully. The question was how to do that effectively for 15,000 sales professionals around the globe.

With their traditional training methodology, it would have taken Microsoft more than four years to reach everyone in their 15,000-member global workforce. Instead, Microsoft teamed with Intrepid and global business schools INSEAD, London Business School, and Wharton to deliver a multi-course, cohort-based learning approach. The short-term, multi-modal courses were time-bound and semi-synchronous, which helped learners keep pace and accommodated busy travel, work schedules, and varying global time zones.

Microsoft’s cohort series surpassed expectations and delivered high-impact results, especially since the learning assignments included the creation of real, peer-reviewed customer account plans that sellers put into action immediately. Not only did the program receive net satisfaction ratings of about 99% from participants and passing rates greater than 80% for all cohort-based courses, but the estimated business impact of this program in the first year alone was approximately $1.4B.

Read the full Microsoft case study. >>

Summary: Cohort-based learning

Now that we’ve debunked the myths about cohort-based learning, outlined its many advantages, and demonstrated the ways it can drive better business outcomes, you’re ready to get started on creating an effective cohort learning strategy to transform your organization. With its focus on flexibility, engagement, and real-world applications, cohort-based learning can revitalize training at all levels.

Contact us today to speak with a learning advisor to see how to make cohort learning work for you.

Frequently asked questions about cohort learning

What is cohort learning?

Cohort learning is a shared learning experience that allows a group of learners to build skills together over a specified period of time.

What are the benefits of cohort learning?

The benefits of cohort learning include:

  • Choice, connection, and competence
  • Practice and skill building
  • Learner and peer interaction
  • Flexibility
  • Crowdsourced wisdom
  • Efficacy and business impact
  • Global reach and scalability
  • Efficiency and lower costs

What is an example of cohort learning?

An example of cohort learning is a company implementing a cohort-based training program for its sales team, where employees progress through a series of semi-synchronous, time-bound courses together. This approach promotes peer interaction, real-time feedback, applied learning opportunities, and a sense of community to enhance the learner experience.

What is the difference between self-paced learning and cohort-based learning?

Self-paced learning allows individuals to progress through material at their own speed, offering flexibility but limited peer interaction. Cohort-based learning involves a structured schedule, group collaboration, and real-time feedback, fostering a sense of community and accountability among learners.

What are the pillars of cohort learning?

The four pillars of cohort learning include:

  1. Spaced learning with peers
  2. Real-world application
  3. Collaboration
  4. Multi-modal content

See the Power of Cohort Learning on Organizational Performance.

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