Learning in a Cohort

Tony Tilly

By Tony Tilly, President of Fleming College

A Patch about the Quilt of College Education


I like the metaphor of the patch.  I like the image of colourful pieces on teaching and learning that over time get stitched together.  In a patchwork quilt adjacent pieces don’t need to seamlessly match; they just need to “go together” somehow — engaging us in thinking about aspects of teaching and learning.  Ultimately the patches may be somewhat randomly combined but they nevertheless form a pleasing pattern and opportunities for reflection.

Just to make a things a little complicated, my patch is about the quilt.  In other words, it is not about an individual class, test or assignment.  But it is about the overall pattern of college education which has a design feature that we don’t often discuss.  My topic is how we organize students into college classes and what the experience of a college class – or cohort — means to them.

My first observation is, we don’t give students much choice!  We don’t say: here are all the courses you can take; choose one course from Group A and two from Group B, etc.  Oh yes, we do provide a limited amount of choice but generally speaking we are very prescriptive.  We say, in effect, here is your first semester curriculum.  Here is your timetable.  Go to it.

Of course, that is a bit of a surprise to high school graduates or – for example – undergrads who have completed a B.A.  They are much more used to choice – to building their own program of study.  Then they arrive at Fleming (and at many other colleges) and are put in “a class” that they may be with for almost their entire program.

Why do we do this?  Well, one motivation is that we have to be quite frugal and need to live within our means.  It is not possible to offer an array of choices that carry with them much smaller class sizes than we can afford.  That is a financial reality and it is a determinant of how we organize college education.

However, a more central reason for our approach is that we are very focused on what a career requires and what a grad must be able to do.  This line of thinking generates program outcomes.  In turn we are quite prescriptive about curriculum and do not leave very much to chance and choice.

Now all of this is sounding a bit rigid, uniform – even glum.  Yet it is anything but that.  There is a hidden value in how we do this.  I say that not from daily observation as I can’t do that the same way that faculty and staff can.  But each year I get reminders of the hidden value, particularly at awards ceremonies and convocation.

In some respects, the college class involves the whole being more than the sum of the parts.  At convocation, when I look out at the grads I am first aware of the individuals who are reflecting on what they have done, thinking about what’s next, thanking the family who supported them.  But I also see the class – that somewhat tribal group – which involves pride in each other and an intangible but unmistakable identity.

The class started as a collection of individuals.  Gradually connections built up and the identity of, for example, “the Class of 2017”, emerged.  Students identify so clearly with their graduating class and with the array of struggles and accomplishments that went into creating it.  That is visible, audible, palpable.

I believe that a graduating class at Fleming carries with them something that goes beyond the curriculum’s learning outcomes specified in terms of knowledge and skills.  They take the energizing experience they have had of working together, one that they want to feel again in their working lives. That is a secret ingredient of the “cohort” approach to creating a college program and a college class.  That class is created on paper by an enrolment plan, a curriculum and a schedule.  It is created in reality by the faculty, staff and students who contribute to its development and identity.

Now, I am not wanting to argue that cohort-based learning is the be-all and end-all.  I am glad that it is leavened by some choice and it is certainly good that, for example, general education classes provide a change of learning environment and focus, including an opportunity to shift gears and learn alongside students from other programs.  We would also do well to consider where and how greater choice could be incorporated into our type of education.  However, I don’t think we would be wise to assume that choice is automatically a greater good than some of the key ingredients of our type of education.

featured image: “In Flight” flickr photo by Don McCullough https://flickr.com/photos/69214385@N04/9345257093 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license


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The Open Faculty Patchbook Copyright © 2017 by Tony Tilly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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