What is a Graduate School Cohort?

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Updated August 4, 2020

Many students considering graduate school have begun to hear about cohort groups, but may find it challenging to find an overview of what such a group actually is. This is because graduate cohorts, their definition and organization, vary from school to school. Each university typically has their own take on how a cohort should be structured and its purpose. Generally speaking, graduate school cohorts are set groups of people who work together for the duration of their program; typically cohorts are formed within one university but some programs establish long distance cohorts which can be especially useful for online learning students. The purpose, broadly speaking, of cohort groups is to encourage a more dynamic, collaborative, and supportive learning environment to carry graduate students through their program.

Different Types of Cohorts

Many schools are establishing cohort programs to encourage interdisciplinary learning and innovative thinking. For example, Brown University has recently established an open graduate program cohort that is piloting an open graduate program. This type of cohort is made of students in a variety of disciplines, from Chemistry to Religious Studies. More traditional cohorts are developed within one program, with students coming in together and taking the same classes throughout their graduate program. The impetus behind this type of cohort is the belief that having continuity will result in greater support and productivity for students (and the university). Cohorts are also sometimes referred to as intentional learning communities, a name that drills down to the goal of their formation. The focus in cohorts is on innovative learning and enabling students to think independently, to not simply receive knowledge but to develop their own conclusions and ideas.

Shared Teaching and Learning Through Cohorts

Graduate cohorts also encourage the development of robust conflict management and relationship building skills, since these students must all learn to work together and build positive, productive relationships if they hope to have a useful experience. The outgrowth of a healthy cohort relationship should result in shared teaching, where the cohort members teach each other. Learning through teaching helps everyone in a cohort cement their knowledge more firmly, more-so than independent learning.

The nature of a cohort also ensures that each one will be unique because the research interests and personalities of the students will result in a distinctive environment. This can be either an advantage and a disadvantage - if the students in a cohort all bond with one another they will create a deeply supportive community for each other; however, a cohort where not all students bond or some actively dislike one another could create a very difficult and destructive learning environment.

Students motivated by a group setting and collaborative learning are likely to be drawn to the cohort model of graduate school education. This model shows great promise for encouraging students to become fully invested in their education and to take charge of their learning. The cohort model, at its best, helps students to develop their own voice, think critically, and move beyond passive learning to produce engaged professionals armed with innovative approaches to problem solving.

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