My son Evan is graduating in May (yeah!) with a degree in civil engineering. In the last two years of his degree program he made frequent reference to being part of a study group. I never understood or appreciated the power of his study group until recently when a number of them competed in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Student Steel Bridge Competition. Evan’s team represented Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. They worked from September 2012 to April 2013 to design, plan and build a structurally sound, reduced-scale steel bridge. The ODU team had outstanding results: they placed 4th, beating schools that are bigger, better funded, and more prestigious in the engineering community.
Watching Evan’s team compete, I was stunned by the level of cooperation and camaraderie they exhibited. When I commented about this, Evan reminded me that they have been collaborating on their academic assignments for the past two years.
I learned a lot about peer learning and teams hearing my son describe his cohort group. Read on to learn what I believe are key elements that foster cohort learning success and how they apply to the world of business.
May your spring bring renewal and growth!
COHORT LEARNING: LESSONS LEARNED FROM MY SON
By Dr. Alice Waagen
At the start of his third year at ODU, Evan’s professors strongly urged their civil engineering students to form study groups. The civil engineering discipline is extensive and complex and the instructors cautioned that it would be very difficult for students to succeed on their own. They advised that a peer group could be used to support individual learning; a student who had an aptitude for one area of the discipline could support a team member who was struggling in that content area. Students were instructed to form teams of 4 to 5 members and to meet regularly to complete assignments and work problems.
Evan and his peers began to meet at night in the university library, commandeering a table that they would share regularly for the next two years. The table was a large conference style table that seated 24 and was soon dubbed the Power Table, a play on both the strength of the team and the multitude of power outlets built into its center. Anyone who sat at this table who was not a CE student would be summarily evicted. Ignoring the advice of their professors, the entire CE student group formed one large team of 37 students. Attendance at their study table would ebb and flow based on schedules, so they established a Facebook page to continue conversations and ask questions virtually. To foster affiliation, they had t-shirts made that proclaimed Power Table Coalition on the front and stated “because it is not so much fun to do it by yourself” on the back.
Before long, individual strengths became well understood. When a student was floundering on a concept, they knew who on the team could help them. Help was never in the form of supplying an answer but rather to suggest another approach or a different resource to consult on the subject. By keeping the team size so large, the cohort group assured that the entire CE body of knowledge would be covered by at least one individual who would have strength and aptitude in that area.
The cohort learning experience not only assisted these students in academic success, it taught them the fundamentals of teamwork and collaboration. These are especially important lessons for CE’s because professional success for them will always include working on project teams. Civil engineering projects are so large in scope and structure that multiple teams are required for successful completion. Seeing the steel bridge being assembled from start to finish in 32 minutes by 6 students in precise choreography demonstrated to me that the team lessons were well entrenched in these guys.
Even though cohort learning has been used in higher education for many years, in the business world we tend to think of acquiring new skills or knowledge as an individualistic endeavor. Often overlooked is using peers as agents of learning. Peer learning or cohort teams enable the learning assignment to be shared by a small group of learners. They collectively acquire the knowledge and experience, share new information and hold each other accountable for assignments and commitments.
How does this experience in cohort learning translate to the business world? Here are the lessons I have learned from my son’s experience, as well as with many teams I’ve observed, that could be of value to learning teams in the workplace:
- Don’t dictate rules when forming cohort learning teams. Establish the purpose, for example learning about a new leadership theory or practice, then step away and let the team figure out how they want to work together. I’ve seen teams that prefer to only meet virtually and ones that need face-to-face time. Let the team members structure themselves as they feel is best for them.
- Use the power of peers to get results. Peer accountability is much more powerful than formal authority. Commitments made to peers carry the weight of trust and respect and are powerful motivators for delivery. This is a key element of success for cohort teams.
- Leverage individual strengths so that they become strengths for everyone. Sharing knowledge and skills spreads it among the team, increasing its effectiveness for the organization.
- Recognize that social context is important to build identity and affiliation. Claiming a meeting location, driving off “outsiders,” team names and t-shirts may sound trivial but they are the physical manifestations of the team and go a long way to promote bonding and collaboration.
- Know that cohort learning teams teach team process along with learning content. You get double the results when utilizing teams to learn together. Not only do the individual team members acquire new knowledge and skills, they also learn team processes and practices along the way.
The business community is well-versed in using teams to accomplish work assignments. Overlooked is using the power of cohort learning to accelerate knowledge and skill acquisition. Evan’s cohort taught me that team learning goes beyond the learning itself to form a sustainable community that can support individual growth and development far beyond the time and effort invested.