The Cohort System

Recently, Josh wrote a post about TBL (team-based learning), in which he highlighted the number 1 design principle of successful team-based learning: a strategically-formed, permanent team.  The idea is that team-based learning is most effective when teams are formed strategically in size (5-7 members) and makeup (allocating the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among the teams).  This type of model involves placing students into teams at the beginning of the semester based on their backgrounds (e.g. one quant-heavy person per group, one humanities background, etc.).  The groups then work together for the entire semester on various assignments.  I wanted to expand upon this topic to discuss semi-permanent groups in particular and the cohort system more generally.


I did my MBA as a part of Baruch’s full-time honors MBA program, class of 2009.  While Baruch has a particularly large MBA program overall, the full-time honors program was developed for students seeking to complete an MBA on a full-time basis in about 22 months, and in a small cohort group.  The cohort is generally about 60-90 students with whom an MBA candidate takes all of her core curriculum classes over the four semesters.  In addition, in the first two semesters of the MBA, when most core curriculum classes are taken, each cohort is put into a semi-permanent group of 5 students each.  This group works together for projects across all core classes (typically 5 classes in the first semester).  Especially in the first semester, a common joke is that this group ends up being your family: you work together for 15-20 hours per week on assignments across the curriculum.

The philosophy behind team-based learning in a semi-permanent group is the same philosophy behind the cohort system.  For group-based learning to be most effective, the group must foster “co-creation of knowledge through collaborative learning and experiential knowing.”  Pivotal to this experience is the group’s acting as a sort of community for the participant.  A group or a cohort becomes a community through sustained long-term communication, commitment, and interaction.  As group members get to know one another and develop an appreciation for each member’s strengths and weaknesses through work on a variety of projects, that group becomes a community that each member can learn from and rely on.  This is only possible through long-term interaction on multiple diverse projects.  This is the educational philosophy behind the cohort system.  Especially popular in adult education settings, the cohort system has the ability to create an educational community where team-based learning can be extremely effective.

As a professor, I ask how I can best implement this model in my classroom.  The cohort model is often impossible to replicate when you teach an undergraduate class in a large university.  These are students who have usually never met one another, and will never see each other again, except in passing around campus.  Our students also tend to be extremely busy:  they take 4-5 classes per semester, work outside of school, and live a great distance from campus and from one another.  The only possibility of sustained work in a semi-permanent team would be to assign multiple small projects over the semester that comprise a substantial percentage of each student’s grade.  Then, if you can form a team at the beginning of the semester, the students will at best have a few opportunities to work together and gain mutual respect and trust.

In addition, as Josh pointed out, the type of assignment matters.  It may not be appropriate to team-based learning to simply take an individual assignment (e.g. a traditional essay assignment) and force students to do the assignment as a group.  In my own experience as an MBA team member, team work tended to produce the best learning outcome in case studies or creative project assignments.  Students collaborating on these types of projects will learn to work as a group and build on each member’s strengths to produce the best creative or strategic outcome.

As an instructor, I still struggle to see how writing skills can be improved in a group assignment.  In my MBA experience with group work, 95% of the time a “group” writing assignment meant that each teammate would separately research a specific area and one teammate would be responsible for the actual writing by synthesizing each member’s input.  In some cases, each team member would write a separate portion of a paper, a process that almost invariably yielded a poor outcome in terms of writing quality.  Would peer review help in this setting?  I open this up to other educators and students.

Knowledge Politics #2: What Universities Do

This is my second post in a series on the politics of knowledge. My goal with these posts is to consider a basic question of critical university studies: How do universities differ from other kinds of social organization such as government agencies, corporations, and cause-oriented nonprofits? What is the importance of higher education? What kind of constituency does it present? What does it mean to build a social institution around the transmission and discovery of knowledge? What is “knowledge” in this context and what are its politics? [Read more…]

Knowledge Politics #1: Critical University Studies

Following my last post, I had a bit of a heated exchanged with a commenter named Ryan. What came up for me from that was a desire to more fully articulate the relationship between knowledge and politics. I attempted to do something like this back in October, but as usual I bit off more than I could chew and wrote a long and probably esoteric-sounding post. I want to try again, so in the coming weeks I will attempt a series of posts that focus on the politics of knowledge from a few different angles. I hope this will be a place to work through some of my questions, and I eagerly welcome comments and feedback.

There has been much discussion recently of how to make teachers more “accountable” through measurable data, and of how and when to involve new technologies in the classroom or even to develop internet-based courses and degrees. These are important issues but, as with so many things, public debate surrounding them is for the most part superficial and shortsighted. Instead of having a real conversation about the politics of knowledge, we are distracted by reductive ideas of accountability and shallow notions of technological advance.

CUNY City College of New York

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Seeking an Audience

  A couple of weeks ago I showed a draft of my dissertation proposal to my advisor for the first time.  I knew that the argument was not solid yet, but also felt that I needed feedback at this point of my writing process.  So, I struggled to let go of my initial plan to hand in a polished and brilliant prospectus and met with him.  After long reading and writing sessions in the library, I was happy to learn that the argument I had been building actually made sense. I also learned that I needed to create and discuss this working draft to be able to see the full complexity of the argument that is yet to emerge.  There will be other drafts, I’m sure, and what seems to be an interesting research question now will keep evolving as I write. Yes, I’m naming one of the obvious WAC notions here — (re)writing is a way of making knowledge.  All this reminded me of my mentor’s advice: show students your piece of writing in progress with all the arrows, crossings, and notes; they need to see how messy writing is for all thinkers, even those who have more authority in the classroom. 

As I am proceeding to work on my prospectus, I see a need for multiple readers and interlocutors who, I selfishly admit, will help me dig out all the threads and connect them into a coherent whole.  Another truism surely, but I think all writers including our students deserve a responsive audience.  BLSI Fellows and Writing Center Consultants are happy to be that audience, but students who come to workshops and tutoring sessions are usually those who want to raise their grades or who are simply referred by their professors.  What can we do to encourage strong writers and speakers to seek an active audience while they’re formulaing their ideas?

Revision Workshop

 On November 30th, Cheryl Smith and I will be giving a revision workshop at the CUNY’s WAC meeting.  The description of the workshop is pasted below.  We were thinking about distributing a bibliography of current research on the subject.  We’re just beginning to put it together and would welcome any suggestions.  

Working with the Draft: Techniques for Helping Students Revise

WAC practitioners traditionally argue that the best way to use writing effectively in our teaching is to scaffold assignments, moving from low stakes (or informal) free-writing and pre-writing to more high stakes drafting and revising of essays.  But once students have completed their first drafts of an essay assignment, how can we use those drafts as a teaching tool?  A teacher’s careful comments can certainly guide students in their revision process, but relying on this single technique may not always help students develop as self-sufficient, powerful, and active writers.  How can we help them understand the most fundamental element of writing-revision-and grow as confident and careful readers of their own and their peers’ work?  The session will take participants through a variety of student-centered draft revision activities that can be used in courses across disciplines. 

It’s the Process, Silly!

A lightbulb went on in my head in the last couple of weeks. In May and June I have had the opportunity to work with students in the capstone course for the Healthcare MBA that Baruch sponsors with Mt. Sinai Hospitals. They were required in groups of three to develop and submit a business plan which they would then present to “juries” playing the role of venture capitalists, bank loan officers, or hospital board of directors. It was my job to videotape a dress rehearsal with them, offer my suggestions from the perspective of communication style, and then watch the videotape with them. I have done a very similar version of this with undergraduate senior-level Business Policy students for two years. It has always seemed like a useful process to me, and I have always been convinced that it benefited the students.

However, I think I made connections between my own academic work and the work with MBA students this spring and a few things clicked into place more clearly. I don’t know how long I’ve told students, “writing is a process.” (Imagine you are hearing that mantra from an annoying professor, battered at you in a sing-song-y voice.) But I think it sunk in a little further for me. After watching 11 groups of successful medical professionals present solid Powerpoint presentations, that nonetheless still needed revision, and watching them watch themselves on video, the light went on. Prior to this they had already submitted the paper versions of their business plans, and felt well prepared. But in addition to the videotape making clear the various nervous tics they had while speaking, or that they engaged the slide screen far more than they did the audience, it also helped them see the entire scope of their presentation, how well its various parts fit together, and where they needed to change the emphasis. They could clearly see if their argument needed bolstering with evidence in some areas, or increased clarity in others.

Watching them, I realized that the only way their presentations could make it to the ‘next level’ so to speak, was by going through this final review and revision process. Not only that, for these students especially, I was truly more of a coach and facilitator than anything else. It was a combination of my experience, their experience, the videocamera, and their own critical review of themselves, that really made the process worthwhile. I wouldn’t say they didn’t need me, but it was the process and the assemblage of them, me, the camera, and the review, that was essential.

Purpose-built Wikis

EdTechPost brought me a post NoteMesh – another student-centric note taking service.  Upon first read, I thought this sort of collaborative approach to note-taking — an essential skill in my estimation — to be detrimental to learning.  Maybe not.  Maybe collaboration between the stronger and weaker students could result in “the rising tide lifting all boats.”

After all, an essential element of education is, in my view, the development of knowledge, skill, and experience in working on teams.

Blogs for Books: An Experiment

Hi all — there’s an intriguing article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education about McKenzie Wark, a New School professor who has posted his (as yet unpublished) book manuscript online and is taking comments from the general public. He was inspired by both Wikipedia and the academic blog format.

You can check out the article here:
Book 2.0: Scholars turn monographs into digital conversations, by Jeffrey R. Young

And you can check out — and comment on! — Wark’s e-book here:

Are we about to see the line between book authorship (and editing) and blogging erased?, anyone?

Have any of you tried using Writely? It’s a site where you can share the writing and editing of documents, collaboratively. Teachers are beginning to use it as a space where students can write a document together, or do peer review. It would be useful for faculty who are co-authoring, too. Registration is free and takes two minutes. You can create documents there, or upload and download them in various formats (Word and others).

Attack of the Conference-Ready Undergrads

Something noteworthy at the gem that is the MIT OpenCourseWare site: an undergraduate course on Economics Research and Communication. The course description indicates that “primary activities are oral presentations, the preparation of a paper, and providing constructive feedback on classmates’ research projects.”

Constructive feedback involves group peer review at several stages of the writing process. In nine of the thirteen three-hour sessions, students have to: (1) present initial ideas for a paper; (2) present research plans; (3) participate in open forums for discussing project difficulties and questions; and (4) make a presentation based on the first draft. Class discussions always follow presentations.

All these are probably nothing new to many of you. My undergraduate years, however, offered no such communication rigors in my major, no requirements that process be subject to peer scrutiny. How the economics curriculum was implemented at my university implied that economics was a solitary pursuit — you only needed to impress your professor on paper. Any other skills were not the school’s concern.

So I came to the U.S. shy, self-conscious, still somewhat in “I hope I don’t get called on in class” mode. Teaching has helped mitigate some of my reticence; I think I’ve evolved into a self-assured instructor. But addressing peers and superiors can still induce significant levels of apprehension, though I’m finally at the point where academic conferences and presenting at department seminars are inescapable duties. (I’ve hence sometimes bemoaned the deficits in my undergraduate education.) Here’s hoping that university departments are on track to turn out graduates more communication-savvy than I ever was.